Life when a kiss can kill

For those of us with food allergies, especially severe ones, poison lurks in the most innocuous of things. That granola bar your friend just ate? It probably has nuts in it. Your favorite ice cream? One day it’s safe, the next they’ve changed manufacturing and now it’s cross-contaminated. The oatmeal you eat every morning? You can’t have any other breakfast products by that company. Your new boyfriend or girlfriend? If they aren’t thinking about what they eat as carefully as you are, that next kiss might send you to the emergency room.

I have found that there are four things that happen frequently that make food allergies just that much more difficult to live with. 1. Discovering one of your favorite foods is cross-contaminated while grocery shopping. 2. You go to an unfamiliar restaurant and have to check ingredients on seemingly everything. 3. No one brought a list of ingredients for their dishes at a potluck, so you can’t eat anything. 4. Someone has really delicious-looking food and offers you a bite – but you can’t.

Let me walk you through each of these situations.

1. Your cupboards are bare and freezer is empty. You go to your usual grocery store, the only one in town that carries the brand of gnocchi – your go-to meal – that doesn’t contain or “may contain” and isn’t manufactured in a facility that also processes your allergen. You double-check the package before tossing it in the cart (usually a good idea). You scan the back… and groan, because the labelling changed since last time you bought it and now it isn’t safe. On one hand, they might just be covering their butts in case of a lawsuit, but on the other, maybe they did change their manufacturing processes and now it is at risk of cross-contamination. You don’t know, so you put the food back and wonder where you’ll find safe gnocchi now.

This has happened to me with everything from cookies and jelly beans to frozen foods and snack foods. Most recently, one of the frozen meals I get from Trader Joe’s had the labelling change, and now I can’t eat the polenta. I noticed the change after buying it, so now we have several bags of it sitting in the freezer.

2. Your colleagues invite you to an unfamiliar restaurant. You appreciate the thought, but just the idea of going out somewhere new is a little scary. Still, it would be awkward to say no, so you accept. The day of, you triple-check that you have Benadryl and an Epi-Pen in your purse before you leave the house. You show up, you’re all seated, and the waiter comes around to take your orders. Everyone else places their orders easily while you sit squirming uncomfortably. They’ve chosen an Asian restaurant, and you’re deathly allergic to peanuts. Seeing your mortal enemy on the menu and feeling queasy from anxiety, you ask the waiter, whose English isn’t very good, if the noodles have any peanuts in them. They go fetch the manager, who explains that there are basically peanuts in everything and he can’t guarantee anything. By this point your self-preservation instincts have kicked in and, fearing both social retribution and the food itself, you reluctantly decline to order and hope your colleagues don’t make a big deal out of it.

I’ve only ever been to one Asian restaurant, a teriyaki place in Ashland, OR that does not use any peanuts or tree nuts because the owner is also allergic. That place became my go-to place for meeting in Ashland, because I knew it was safe (and the food is delicious!). When you have food allergies, you start keeping a mental catalog of which places are and aren’t good to eat at, and you develop an affinity for chain restaurants because they are consistent and ubiquitous. Trying new places is scary (or downright terrifying), especially if the person you’re with does not understand about food allergies and makes you feel bad for needing to go somewhere else.

3. It’s a holiday party, and everyone brought a dish! Great… except you don’t know who brought what, and no one thought to make a list of the ingredients in their dishes. Sighing regretfully, you take out your snack and choose a quiet corner to feel left out in private.

This happens to me so, so much. It’s frustrating not being able to eat anything but what you brought, especially when you see some of your favorite foods among the dishes available.

4. You’re hanging out with a friend, and they pull out a chocolate bar and offer you half. You eye it longingly, and ask to see the wrapper. There, right below the ingredients: “Manufactured in a facility that also processes tree nuts.” You shake your head and hand the wrapper back to your friend. “Sorry, I can’t,” you say. “It’s cross-contaminated.” If you have friends like mine, the next reaction is usually, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, I completely forgot!” Then they proceed to rewrap the chocolate bar and put it away, at which point you feel grateful that you don’t have to watch them eat it, but guilty to be denying them chocolate.

Food allergies can fall anywhere on a very large scale. Mild allergies might make your mouth tingle or your stomach uncomfortable, but you can still eat the food with no serious side effects. More severe allergies might cause hives, swelling of the mouth, and can cause anaphylactic shock, in which the person’s airways swell and become blocked. In extreme cases, these reactions can be caused by touching or smelling the allergen as well. Allergic reactions can also be caused by kissing, occasionally long after someone has eaten the food. Let’s say your girlfriend had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, around noon. It’s now after seven in the evening, and she’s brushed her teeth, drunk lots of water, and eaten several other foods since the sandwich. You lean in for a smooch, tongues get involved… and then yours starts swelling from a reaction to the peanut butter she had.

Peanut allergies tend to be most severe, followed by tree nut allergies. In case you were wondering, coconut is not a tree nut.

It can be hard to comprehend how serious these allergies are. “What do you mean, touching my PB&J could kill my classmate?” “How can this almond bar cause me to trigger a reaction in my partner later?” “Why can’t my friend go to this cool new restaurant that just opened up?” To give you an idea, I have a visual for you:

This is what happens with a diluted drop of peanuts or tree nuts lightly placed on my skin (no scratch, not ingested). If you can't tell... those are hives. The biggest was larger than a quarter (peanuts); the smallest was about the size of a large pinhead (almonds?).

Hives from an allergy touch test (no scratch).

This is what happens when a diluted drop of peanuts or tree nuts is lightly placed on my skin (no scratch, not ingested). These are hives on my back from the allergy test when I was 14. The biggest hive was larger than two quarters (peanuts); the smallest was about the size of a large pinhead (almonds?).

Labelling laws are weird, not everyone believes that you have allergies, and sometimes restaurant folks make mistakes. That aside, it is terrifying to live with the knowledge that a case of mistaken identity for your food could lead to your painful demise. The stakes are high, and caution is the rule of the game when food allergies come into your life.

About ecosciencegirl

Professionally, I am a graduate student at The Evergreen State College in their Master's of Environmental Studies program, with a Bachelor's of Science from Southern Oregon University in Environmental Studies and Biology. I am a science instructor for GHF Online (Gifted Homeschoolers Forum) and I volunteer at the WET Center, a science museum in Olympia, WA. Personally, I am a young adult who is fascinated with the environment, loves to read and write, and adores all animals (especially cats). In general, I do a lot of climate change activism, and I'm passionate about social and environmental justice. Someday I would like to be a teacher, field researcher, and/or policy maker. If possible, I would also like to save the world from humanity.
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5 Responses to Life when a kiss can kill

  1. Wenda Sheard says:

    About potlucks….what’s scary to me is not just the lack of ingredient lists and risks of cross contamination in umpteen dozen kitchens, but also, even if I bring my own allergen-free dish to share, somebody is going to use a serving spoon in my dish after that serving spoon has been in a dish full of allergens. People just don’t understand.

    I’ve gotten to the point where if I want to eat from the potluck table, I politely cut into the front of the line, before anyone sloppy has gone through. If I don’t want to eat from the potluck table, I bring my own plate of food.

    When I’ve been in charge of potlucks, I’ve set up a separate allergen-free table where I put all the dishes that I and others with severe allergies and extensive knowledge of how to avoid cross-contamination have cooked ourselves.

    Thanks for writing the article. Well done, and very important.


  2. poprice says:

    Reblogged this on Red, White & Grew™ with Pamela Price and commented:
    This post offers a glimpse into the life of a young adult with food allergies. It’s a worthwhile and important read.


  3. Oh, how I know. I read menus online. I decline invitations to restaurants I’m unsure of. I will eat a green salad without dressing while the rest of the table eats “real” food. I grew up where potlucks were a way of life, and since my parents thought my food allergies were me “trying to get attention,” learned avoidance very early.

    (I had the nut/kiss scenario–and it was hours and hours after my husband had eaten walnuts.)

    My daughter has a peanut allergy and I’m allergic to almost everything else. I eat a lot of sushi (I’m allergic to sesame, but it’s an easy one to avoid at sushi places, since it’s added at the end). I become a regular at restaurants, who go out of their way to be careful. I read a lot of labels, and am so grateful for the labeling laws that have saved my life on more than one occasion. My bad luck to be the most allergic to filberts in a state that grows most of them.

    I wish I could say it gets better, but it didn’t biologically (I have new allergies now, including wheat–not celiac, but a real wheat allergy), though it does for others. There is much less pushback than there was twenty years ago, and there are finally producers catering to allergies. I found a soy nut butter that actually tastes like peanut butter, called Wowbutter, (which had been my main protein source until my daughter’s birth) and apparently smells enough like it that I leave the room when I eat it, to avoid it bothering her. (I can order it by the case on Amazon.) I have a friend who treats our allergies like a personal challenge AND she’s a foodie, so I know I can eat at her house with impunity. It is amazing.

    In any case: it’s so maddening. And for every person complains that her little Johnnie can’t have his PB&J or he won’t eat, I’d rather see little Johnnie suck it up and go without so maybe he’ll understand how it is for the allergic. (What I’d like to do to little Johnnie’s mom shouldn’t be put into print.) 🙂


  4. Jim says:

    I really liked your entry and I am sorry you have to deal with this. Your experience is part of the reason I am glad advancements are being made. It is not perfect or easy, but oral immunotherapy has changed my daughter’s life for the positive – I encourage you to look into it.


  5. paulaprober says:

    Thank you for this, Madeline. Such an important issue.


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