Is It Safe to Eat?
A pediatrician answers food allergy and safety questions
At Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, we’re proud to have Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago pediatricians on our staff 24/7. Pediatricians at Lurie Children's, like Dr. Ruchi Gupta, receive the best training in the country, and the hospital is ranked number one in nearly every pediatric specialty. Dr. Gupta is also an assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
Recently we spoke with Dr. Gupta, herself the mother of a child with a peanut allergy, about one of a parent’s biggest fears: a food allergy or food safety emergency.
Your recent research on food allergies showed high levels of anxiety among parents. Is the anxiety well founded?
Some food allergies, such as peanuts, can involve life-threatening anaphylactic shock, and it’s hard to say if a food is 100% free of a certain allergen. Even a little bit of peanut can be a problem. So, the anxiety is understandable. In fact, we’ve found that quality of life for these parents is reduced even more than it is for parents of children with diseases like diabetes.
You’ve also discovered a tendency to overestimate food allergy prevalence, along with less concern. Can you explain?
The general public seems to think that almost everyone has some kind of food allergy. But they might confuse a sensitivity or intolerance with an allergy. Getting an itchy feeling around your mouth from lemon juice is sensitivity—not an allergy.
Lactose intolerance is also not a food allergy but the body lacks an enzyme needed to break down lactose and that enzyme can be replaced will a simple pill. But many don’t appreciate the degree to which a true allergy can be harmful or fatal. This is relevant when you consider that a child can pass through many hands throughout the day.
The recent scare over tainted peanut products—what does this mean for parents worried about peanuts?
It’s similar to the safety issues we had with spinach. There will always be times when a food is not cleaned or processed well. But in this case, the issue was food safety, not allergies. If your child doesn’t have a peanut allergy, you shouldn’t be afraid of peanuts. It’s a very healthy, affordable food.
But the news did serve to remind people—with allergies and without—that peanuts are processed widely. All foods should list the top allergens and what processing equipment is used. Parents can also consider alternatives like soy or almond butter.
Are food and other allergies increasing? If so, why?
Our studies and other data show that they’re increasing. There’s the “hygiene hypothesis” that refers to the fact that children are cleaner and not exposed to as many viral and bacterial pathogens. People are more aware, keep their homes cleaner and use more anti-bacterial products.
While we don’t condone a dirty home or less hand washing, overly clean conditions might be hurting the body’s autoimmune functions and its ability to identify and react normally to what it encounters. Or, it could be that environmental factors like pollution or other toxins—such as the highly processed food we’re eating—are to blame. Then there are genetic factors to consider. We’re looking at all of these possibilities, and other researchers are as well.
How can parents cope with the stress of a seriously allergic child?
I suggest joining a support group such as MOCHA – Mothers of Children Having Allergies at mochallergies.org. This community of parents is very supportive and knowledgeable. They can help with many aspects of having a child with food allergies, from where to get foods without allergic ingredients to helping institute policies in schools around food allergy. This Group, led by Denise Bunning, has already developed and implemented food allergy policies for Lake Forest schools. They’ve already done a lot of the legwork, and members can tap into their resources.
What do you recommend for parents who are worried about food safety?
Always wash the produce that you buy. If possible, try to buy organic. But parents shouldn’t be tremendously scared. We’re fortunate to have great food safety standards in this country. Generally you can trust that what’s in stores and restaurants is cooked, cleaned and sold appropriately. And there are consequences when these laws aren’t followed—no manufacturer wants to find him or herself in the news, facing prosecution or punitive damages.