One of the daily challenges that almost every parent who has a child with food allergies deals with is food safety at school. It is a multi-layered issue that includes educating non-food allergy parents, teaching your child to self-advocate, and understanding the school policies and procedures for food allergies. As the problem grows, more and more schools are becoming nut free.
Another challenge can be simply finding snacks that are allergy safe and the kids will want to eat! Whether your own child has nut allergies, or you need nut-free snacks for your non-allergic child to take to school. That is why we decided to do our biggest giveaway ever – 132 bars to one school (a master case, if you were wondering). Our goal was to help promote discussion of allergy safe snacks, provide a conversation starter for allergy parents as they encouraged other parents to nominate their school, and reward a school with some great snacks!
Our Nut Free Allergy Friendly Giveaway Winner
So many people nominated their schools and helped to promote the giveaway. Thank you! We are excited to officially announce the winner – Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD! And, thank you to the teachers at the school for sending these adorable photos — we are so glad the kids loved their nut-free ZEGO snacks.
Children at Temple Beth Ami School their ZEGO Fruit+Chia bars
We were even more excited that the winning school is a peanut and tree nut free school! Partnerships with schools like this can do a lot to help keep kids safe. So we wondered, what was the story behind going nut free?
Paula Sayag, director at the school, says “I have worked here for 9 years, and the school was nut-free when I came. Teachers who have worked here longer don’t even remember when they made that move. It’s been a long time! It was made when allergies seemed to be more common, and there was increased sensitivity to including children with food restrictions.” It is a part of their bigger focus on inclusion of all children. They pride themselves on being inclusive, welcoming children and families from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of unique challenges, including allergies and other food restrictions. Jill, one of the staff at the school said, “We want everyone to feel safe and comfortable in our school, so they can make friends, learn, and gain confidence. Every child leaves our school with a “can-do” attitude and enters kindergarten primed for success.”
As stated in their official food policy: “Our policy regarding foods allowed in school is designed for the sole purpose of keeping children safe. Temple Beth Ami has students with food allergies, some of which may be life-threatening. For some children, mere physical contact with an allergen and/or the environmental presence of the allergen can evoke an anaphylactic response. We share a collective responsibility to ensure the safety of every child.”
So why don’t all schools follow a policy like this? Could more schools be nut free? One of the biggest challenges is the education of the other parents, as well as faculty and staff who may not be familiar with food allergies. As we in the allergy community start these conversations, let your school know about other schools that are being successful. Doing this can really help!
Paula said: “The biggest hurdle for schools just starting is helping parents find alternatives to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. And helping parents appreciate their role in being compassionate to other’s with allergies.” They work through this by providing the school food policy to all parents to help them understand the reasons why this is important, as well as discussing it in parent committee meetings, including it in their newsletters, and sending a mid-year reminder.
While the ZEGO school giveaway was open to any school, we are excited that we had a chance to give it to a school that is doing such a great job of valuing their food allergy kids and families!
Did you miss getting your school nominated? We’ll be doing school giveaways throughout the year. Just enter your email address and we’ll let you know about future giveaways and sales. And, be sure to let us know in the comments section of this blog about how your school handles food allergies!
We have big news to announce – ZEGO is now a B Corporation! I love talking about our company because ZEGO is so much more than delicious, Free From snacks. But it’s hard to convey all we hold dear in a Tweet or Instagram post. If you had the time, I would want to tell you we are a family-based business that grew out of a desire to provide delicious and nutritious snacks that are safe for nearly everyone to eat–no matter your dietary restriction, that we are passionate about providing food safety data through dynamic labeling, and how we use our labels to communicate food safety information to you. I would tell you we believe you have a right to know what is in your food and encourage you to demand it from all the companies you buy from – especially when it comes to toxins like glyphosate or cross contact with allergens.
I would want you to know that we are about more than transparency, nutrition and taste. I would want you to know that we work hard to support U.S. farmers by buying locally and regionally grown food for our products. We use our packaging to inform consumers how they can advocate for a cleaner food supply, and that we donate 2% of our revenue to improve nutrition for low-income kids. As you see, it takes us awhile to tell people about all we do, which is why we are so happy to be officially certified as a B Corporation!
What is a B Corporation anyway?
B Corp for business is similar to Fair Trade or USDA Organic for food, but much broader. It covers how you treat your employees, your corporate governance, and your commitment to protecting the environment and giving back to your community. Because not every question on the assessment is relevant to every type of company, to get certified you must score 80 points out of 200. ZEGO scored a full 113!
Being B Corp certified allows us to use one symbol, the B badge, to show that we care about a lot more than profit. It means that we strive to make our business a force for good in our community and in our world.
Why Did We Get B Corporation Certified?
We didn’t get certified as a marketing tool. We got certified as a B Corporation because it’s not enough for ZEGO to be an independent “good guy” company. To be a force for good, we need to join forces with other B Corp food companies to define new, higher standards both in food labeling and food / social responsibility. By working together, we can encourage other food companies to follow the same path. The benefits will be felt for generations.
It is part of our bigger commitment to always improving and setting the standard for transparency for food companies!
What Does Our Being a B Corporation Mean to You?
We have been doing the things that B Corp certified us for since we started ZEGO back in 2013, but it does make a difference to be certified. The certification actually holds legal weight as it is woven into your corporate legal structure. Most importantly, because re-certification is required every two years, you can be confident that as we grow, we will hold true to our values.
How You Can Help
So, here is our call to action for you — It truly matters if you support companies that are making a difference by how they do business. It’s simple, we can’t be a force for good if we don’t have enough sales! So when you are choosing which product to buy, look for the B Corp logo, help us spread the word about ZEGO and other B Corp companies, and ask other companies that you love to consider getting certified! Most of all, thank you for your support.
At least twice a week I’m asked why so many kids are being diagnosed with food allergies these days. I’m quick to say that they are right, and it is occurrence that has climbed, not just diagnosis. Since 1997, peanut allergies are up 600% and overall food allergies are up 50%. Celiac Disease occurrence (not just diagnosis) is up 500% since 1950. And, there is a multiplier effect. Because food allergies can cause fatal reactions, many schools and other venues are banning peanuts and treats from their campuses. So even though only a few children may have allergies in the school, hundreds of families are changing their purchasing patterns to keep those allergic children safe. This is having a big impact on America, whether people and companies realize it or not. In order to know how to improve this situation, we all should be better informed on the likely contributors to the problem. There are a number of strong theories, some of which are backed by very promising preliminary research. Here is my summary.
Antibiotic Overuse: This is a fairly new area of exciting research and it folds into the microbe theory that I’ll explain next. The issue is that many children are exposed at a young age to repeated periods of antibiotic treatment. Antibiotics don’t just kill the bad bacteria, they also kill a lot of good bacteria. A 2014 study showed that mice with compromised gut bacteria exposed to peanuts developed an allergy to them. But when scientists reintroduced a mix of clostridia bacteria into their guts, the allergies went away (introduction of other bacteria did not yield the same result). We are now on the second and third generation of increasing antibiotic use. Since a baby’s gut bacteria at birth is a reflection of her mother’s, this bacterial imbalance, even in absence of antibiotic use later in the infant’s life, can be passed on at birth.
Reduced Exposure to Microbes: With our non-agrarian society and urban lifestyles, children are less exposed to the microbes in our soil. Our bodies need to be exposed to these microbes so that we can have a healthy balance of bacteria in our bodies. It’s like our body is having a conversation with nature to keep us in balance. Our gut bacteria help our bodies to interpret and digest food correctly. When that balance is off and a food like peanut is introduced into the system, the gut bacteria have difficulty figuring out if the food is healthy or dangerous. It’s like when your radio “scan” function is stuck between radio stations and can’t decide which one to land on. Sometimes the body makes the right decision and treats the peanut as food, sometimes it does not and the person develops an allergy.
GMO manipulation of proteins: Soy is the best example here. When soy was genetically modified, one of the proteins in it was increased many fold over the natural level that it normally occurs in soy. It turns out that particular protein is the one that is the most highly allergenic and the timing of the rise in food allergies aligns pretty well with the introduction of this new GMO soy. Soy is a legume, as is peanut, and people who are allergic to one legume are sometimes allergic to all legumes, this this soy issue could have influenced the rise in peanut allergies as well. (Note, wheat is not a GMO crop, see pesticide/fungicide issue below on wheat.) In addition, some GMO foods are causing allergies themselves. People who may not be allergic to two foods whose genes are combined may be allergic to the resulting new food.
Over Cleanliness: The idea here is that our use of antimicrobial soaps and cleaning fluids that kill bacteria reduce our exposure to bacteria. This reduces the strength of our immune systems because we are not having to work as hard to kill off bad bacteria. Our compromised immune systems are more susceptible to developing allergies to foods.
Pesticide/Fungicide Toxicity: There are two issues to talk about here. The first conversation is just starting in research but it shows promise. There was a recently documented allergy to a pesticide that originally appeared to be a food allergy. More research will surely come to see if this is the case for other children as well, that their allergies are to pesticides on the food as opposed to the food itself. There is also concern that our constant exposure to pesticides through food has compromised our immune systems and confused the ability of allergic individuals to properly interpret whether food is good or an invader. This dovetails with yet a third concern that crops like peanuts are grown near or in alternating years with tobacco. Chemicals used on a non-food crop like tobacco are not allowed on food crops because they are considered dangerous to eat. However, the chemicals from the tobacco crop leach into the peanut crop through the soil and air.
Further, many people who experience difficulty digesting wheat in the U.S. find that they have no problems digesting wheat in Europe. The theory being discussed here is that U.S. wheat is soaked in Roundup prior to harvest while wheat in Europe is not, and people are reacting to the Roundup, not the wheat itself.
Environmental Toxicity: Chemicals used in our furniture, airplanes, cars and cleaning agents as well as pesticides, prescription drugs and plasticizers are among the toxins often found in our bloodstreams and our babies. Chemicals banned as far back as the 1970s still show up in our system today. Breast milk has measurable amounts of jet fuel in it. These factors compromise our immune systems and many believe that children are born standing on the edge of a toxicity cliff. Small things that should not cause their systems to malfunction do so because their bodies are already dealing with so many internal toxins. There is evidence that fetuses are particularly vulnerable to neurotoxins during certain periods of development and scientists are exploring this as a potential cause of the increase in autism rates.
Delayed introduction of foods: Pediatricians now say that they are part of the problem. For over a decade, they have been recommending delaying adding foods that tend to cause allergic reactions until at least a year of age. They now know that delaying the introduction of these foods has actually increased the number of allergies to them, not decreased. There are promising trials going on right now where children are given measured and increasing doses of the allergen daily. This is working but the problem is that these children have to keep taking the exact right amount of the allergen every day, say a tablespoon of peanut butter, throughout their life. If they don’t they risk dire allergic reaction the next time they eat the food.
I’m sure there are a few more theories out there but one thing we know for sure, food allergies are on the rise and not just in kids. Anecdotally, I hear all the time from adults who have recently been diagnosed with food allergies too. It’s time we seriously look holistically at all these factors for the answer. We aren’t going to cure this by treating it as an individual problem. We are going to need to clean up our food system and dramatically decrease our use of antibiotics. And, that’s a lot harder than telling someone else to take a pill or eat a peanut every day.
Colleen Kavanagh is the CEO of ZEGO allergy friendly nutrition bars www.zegofoods.com and is the Executive Director of A Better Course, a nonprofit dedicated to improving nutrition for low-income children. www.abettercourse.org
I am ground zero for questions about fake food allergies and gluten intolerances. I have Celiac Disease. My kids are undiagnosed but on gluten-free, low sugar diets, and they go to nut-free schools. I recently started a company, which makes healthy energy bars that are free of the top eight allergens and gluten, called ZEGO, and frequently do product demos at stores. What I’m typically asked is, “When people who aren’t Celiac claim they need to be gluten free, doesn’t that hurt real Celiacs?” Another is, “Aren’t a lot of these fake allergies? I mean, really, not all these people can have food allergies.”
Spoiler alert: the answers are NO and NO, but I understand where they are coming from. Food allergies and intolerances are relatively new to the general public, and they are SO common now that they may be hard to believe. But believe me that these restrictive diets are so hard to follow, no one would do it voluntarily for long unless they experienced huge health benefits.
Food allergies grew 50% from 1997 to 2011 according the Center for Disease Control, that’s an epidemic proportion, and Celiac Disease diagnoses have grown exponentially during that time as well. But for people born before 1997, there probably weren’t many kids they grew up with who had severe food allergies or gluten intolerances (in 1981, my Tennessee doctors told me only one other person in the entire state had Celiac Disease). Based on their experience, this sudden, dramatic increase in “Bobby can’t have peanuts” and “no bun, please” may seem like a dietary trend of choice, or an overreaction to a condition.
Another source of confusion is that sensitivities vary–some people can have a deadly allergic reaction to 1/500th of a peanut while others can eat up to 4 or 5 whole peanuts and be fine. Gluten sensitivities can vary similarly. But with gluten, the reactions are usually ones people want to keep more private, like digestive trouble or depression. So when one mom seems laid back about her child’s food restrictions and another seems freaked out, it probably has more to do with the child’s sensitivity rather than the mother’s personality. But to many people, it looks like one is over reacting or exaggerating, while the other is giving their child healthy space to make their own decisions and still enjoy being a kid.
As a Celiac mom of 3 kids who have food sensitivities and intolerances, I don’t have the deadly allergies to worry about, but I really feel for people dealing with suggestions that they are faking their allergies and intolerances, or the severity of them. I have dozens of examples of people telling me that I was being too restrictive on my kids’ diets or that I was making up symptoms for myself, or my children. Sometimes this came from doctors, sometimes from well-meaning people who love me. The memories go back far, and, honestly, they bring tears to my eyes even still.
The first time was when I was a scrawny 12 year-old. I swung my skinny legs from the exam table and cried quietly as an orthopedist told me I was making up my bone pain to get attention. He had no diagnosis for me, so he decided I must have been making it up. That year, I broke 5 bones in a series of very minor falls. My history of broken and painful bones ended at age 15, when I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease and went on a gluten-free diet. I didn’t know my symptoms had a dietary link. I had no intuition about what was happening to me at all, but I did know it was real.
But it felt surreal on a sunny fall day 5 years ago when a well-meaning doctor told me in front of my 10 year-old son that it wasn’t fair for me to have him on a gluten-free and sugar-free diet, even though he would get acute stomach pains and headaches if he ate as little as a spoonful of ice cream, and suffered from chronic digestive upset when gluten was in his diet.
The problem was, he didn’t test positive for Celiac or Diabetes—no diagnosis, no public validation for my dietary choices for my son. This opened the door for skeptics—doctors, other parents, and friends. We were lucky in a way, his reaction to sugar and gluten were so severe it was a clear to me that we should ignore the doctor and go with my parental instincts and observations. My youngest daughter’s symptoms, however, have been a bit more illusive.
My youngest daughter was experiencing hyperactivity and distractibility, problems sleeping, elevated anxiety, and chronic stomachaches. Many folks suggested ADHD drugs, including some parents and some teachers at her school, but my intuition was that at least some of our answer was in diet. And, maybe a dietary approach would be enough to enable her to manage without the meds. The results have been impressive, though not the slam-dunk that we saw with my son.
When we took gluten out of her meals, the stomachaches went away. Then we took sugar and chocolate out of her diet, and she had less anxiety, slept better and was less hyperactive. And, though I’d like to see even more improvement for her, she is so much better than before that we aren’t even thinking about introducing ADHD meds. I didn’t need a doctor’s diagnosis to validate that she shouldn’t eat these foods. I needed some time for dietary trial and error and to trust my observations and intuition.
Almost everyone is more aware of food allergies and intolerances these days, but still there is a lot of skepticism that many people are selectively diagnosing their own issues and imposing that on other people (this is particularly the case with gluten).
For me, what it comes down to is this. If someone or their child functions or feels better by not eating certain foods, let them follow that diet without casting suspicion on their choice. They are clearly trying to get better or avoid getting sick, and may not have the time, energy, or desire to share their story with you as to why.
If it’s you or your child with food issues, be unapologetic for following diet that maximizes your health and well-being, but recognize that your diet is your responsibility. People and businesses can be very helpful but you can’t expect that always to be the case.
Figure out ways to make it easier for others to welcome you to the table, so to speak. I usually eat before going to a party instead of expecting the host to have special food for me. If it’s a sit-down dinner, I will offer to bring a gluten-free dish. I try to remember to call the restaurant before booking a reservation to ask if they can accommodate our family’s restrictions. I have treats in the freezer for my kids to bring to birthday parties, and when they were younger, if their issue was severe enough, I stayed at the party to keep an eye their eating.
It’s a challenge to be healthy. It’s a challenge to raise healthy kids. Let’s support each other in meeting these challenges and not engage in debates over whether other people are faking their dietary needs.
Colleen Kavanagh is the CEO of ZEGO www.zegofoods.com, a nutrition focused company making allergy friendly snacks. She also is the executive director of A Better Course www.abettercourse.org, whose mission is to improve nutrition for low income kids at school and home.
I’ve seen so many people on social media and journalists post and comment that Celiac Disease is not on the rise, just the diagnosis of it (and that much of it is fake). I want to do my part so that everyone is informed on the research so we can move on to more helpful topics, like, what to do about the rising rates of Celiac Disease.
There are several seminal studies, two from the same community in Missouri (I’ve posted some citations below but you can find the original research on line). Spoiler alerts: rates are up about 500% since the 1950s, a disproportionate amount of that increase is seen in older age groups.
Celiac Disease Rates Over the Years
- 1 in 501 in 1974
- 1 in 219 in 1989
- 1 in 100 current day (some sources say 133)
Two Missouri studies echo this, showing the disease rate
- up 450% in the 50 years after blood samples were taken from military recruits in the 1950’s
- up 50% from 2000 to 2004 (and seems to have plateaued through 2010 when the study ended-note, these two studies are not additive but are supportive)
The chance you will have Celiac Disease rises with age, and you are more likely to have it if you have a relative with the disease or if you have another autoimmune disorder. Many common problems, like infertility, can be caused by Celiac Disease. There are over 300 symptoms to the disease, and only about one-third of Celiacs have gut issues. Well over 90% of Celiacs are undiagnosed and diagnosis takes on average four years.
I recently had dinner with an engineer who used to work at a plant that made cereal. He was a fascinating and engaging dinner companion but didn’t come across as a health nut. So he caught my attention when he decidedly stated he would never eat cereal and neither should we. Of course, being obsessed with food and processing, I had to ask for more info.
His plant made cereal for many different brands. He said they, and the other manufacturers, used the same method for producing all cereal, regardless of the shape, size or even texture. The grain was ground into a very fine white powder. Most of the grains’ nutrients are lost in this process. The powder is made into a batter and cooked at high heat for several hours. Then it can be turned into every cereal shape and color you can imagine—from flakes to crispies to stars to Os.
To make flakes, you bake the batter and roll it between cylinders; shredded-type wheat cereals are made by using a grooved cylinder to make the shreds. So, it may look like it’s a whole grain wheat product but it starts as the same white powder. To make crispies, you whip the batter and bake it so it forms the well-known shape that is intended to look like puffed, crisp rice. Other shapes require a thicker batter that goes through an extruder and is cut into shapes.
All nutrients have to be added back in because they are lost in the processing and cooking. They add them by spraying on synthetic vitamins or adding them into the batter. They also spray on and mix in flavorings, colors, preservatives, fiber and sweeteners.
The result is a high glycemic edible product with synthetic vitamins, colors, and flavors and sugars. Synthetic vitamins, as you can imagine, are not the most efficient, effective or safe way to get your nutrients. And, if you eat the cereal by the handful or with some skim milk or nonfat yogurt, you can’t absorb the fat soluble ones at all.
But what of alternatives like oats—granola, muesli, oat based energy bars, quick cook oatmeal? That’s worthy of a whole conversation on its own, so I’ll cover that in my next blog.
In the meantime, here’s the crib notes on some great non-cereal breakfast options. Let me know your favorites and I’ll add them add to the list.
- the many forms of eggs mixed with veggies and/or fruit (you want to make sure you are getting some vitamin C with your eggs so you can absorb the iron in them—lemon in your water will do the trick too);
- sprouted grain or sourdough bread with nut or seed butter, sausage or avocado and tomato;
- a berry or banana smoothie with Greek yogurt and nuts, or if you really need that crunch,
- Greek yogurt with granola—there are a few brands that have soaked oats but they can be hard to find (more on this in my next blog). You can get into the habit of making your own, it’s really easy and cheap. You just need a little time for the soaking and dehydrating;
- for an allergen friendly smoothie, try adding freshly ground or micro sliced chia, sunflower or pumpkin seeds and coconut water or regular water with your banana or berries;
- banana or pumpkin pancakes–1 smashed banana or 1/2 cup of pureed pumpkin or winter squash, 1 egg, 1 t vanilla, a bit of salt, cinnamon, and a bit of ground flax or GF flour to hold it together;
- Leftovers from a previous dinner (I have a hard time with this because I like gentle flavors in the morning and spicy at night but I have a friend who swears by it); or
- A carefully selected nutrition bar. Take care in which one you pick or you could be getting the bar equivalent of cereal–fake food with synthetic vitamins, flavors, colors and sugars. Look for seeds or nuts as the first ingredient, make sure the sugars are low (aim for 10g or fewer per 200 calories), and avoid bars that use puffed cereal as fillers or us puffed protein bits.
Can’t go cold turkey? No problem, wean yourself off or use cereal as a once a week convenience. But believe me, you’ll notice very quickly the difference in your energy and focus when you eat healthier foods at breakfast.
Have a great start to all your days!
Colleen Kavanagh is a lifelong nutrition advocate. She is the Executive Director of A Better Course, a nonprofit aimed at improving child nutrition, and the co-founder and CEO of ZEGO, the only food company designing nutrient dense snacks that won’t hurt your stomach, trigger your allergies, or spike your blood sugars.