Food Allergy Awareness Week (May 13-19) and Celiac Awareness Month are both happening in May. This is a great opportunity to have conversations with friends, family, school, and others so they can better understand the whole of these medical issues, and see them as as something bigger than just your or your child’s personal diet or disease. Understanding builds compassion. So, how do you make the most of the opportunity? What I find works best when I am working with a buyer for a store who is skeptical of the prevalence and seriousness of these diseases is data. Here are some numbers I find particularly helpful.
Many of us have heard that food allergies affect at least two children in every classroom in the U.S. That’s a fairly old number by now (2009) but it’s still useful until we get an update from CDC. A more recent study shows hospitalizations for food allergy reactions have increased 400% in the last decade, suggesting that old 2 in every classroom number is likely much higher today. Still, there are many people who have relatively little interaction with people with allergies who doubt their validity because they have never heard these numbers. I don’t really blame them, it’s a lack of education and exposure to the issue–after all, food allergies have risen from relative obscurity to being fairly common in their lifetime. And, yet, they still may not know anyone personally with allergies. And, because allergies can be deadly, those with them are deadly serious about the issue. Passionate Cross Fitters and vegans have nothing on an allergy mom!
Looking back to the 1980s, the landscape for food allergies looked very different. As published in Allergology International Journal:
“In the early 1980s…food allergy was less prevalent, there was little public awareness of the problem, most clinicians were highly skeptical of the diagnosis, and there was little active research going on, primarily because many investigators did not consider the field to be “a real science.”’
This may help explain why some people, particularly people over the age of 50, are skeptical of these allergies. But by sharing these numbers and acknowledging that allergies have risen like an epidemic may help them hear you.
The good news is that over the last couple decades, work by organizations like FARE, FAACT, Food Allergy Awareness Week, and Turn It Teal have started to make the discussion about food allergies and understanding how to prevent potentially deadly anaphylactic reactions more mainstream topics. More schools are going nut-free, improvements are being made in food labeling, and more foods & recipes are available for those with food allergies.
Food Allergy and Celiac Awareness
Since Celiac Awareness Month and Food Allergy Awareness Week are in the same month, it is a great opportunity to talk about their similarities and differences–confusing the two can have results ranging from mildly annoying to deadly. Simply put, they are both autoimmune diseases that require changes in diet. Neither one has a “cure” and both involve avoidance of the trigger foods. For some unfortunate Celiacs, avoiding the trigger food (gluten) doesn’t stop the symptoms.
It’s important to point out that the reactions are very different–they don’t compete for severity, both are serious and need to be treated that way. Both can be deadly, but Celiac is slowly through malnutrition or correlated diseases like cancer, while food allergy reactions can come on very quickly and be deadly within a very short period of time.
Because of this, some people don’t see Celiac as needing to follow a strict diet, including Celiac’s themselves. You may see Celiacs cheating from time to time or not worrying about cross contact (not me, I’m super strict). While it’s true your Celiac nephew won’t run to the hospital with a small exposure to gluten, over the long term it is very important he stick to his diet or he could die younger than expected from medical conditions linked to the disease. Another confusing thing to help people understand is that Celiac has over 300 documented symptoms. One person may have dermatitis, another gut, and another psychological consequences to eating gluten. As an example, I was diagnosed as Celiac at 15 but when I got to college, I decided that because I wasn’t having reactions when I drank beer, that meant I had outgrown it (you don’t outgrow Celiac but I was hoping to buck the odds). After three years, I started having severe bone pain and my bones were very brittle and weak. After a scan and new endoscopy, I finally embraced my disease and got serious about the diet. It’s no wonder my friends were confused when I suddenly became adamantly gluten free even though I didn’t look any different.
Another thing that many people do not understand is exactly what gluten is, because it is a protein found in several foods like wheat and barley, not the entire grain. FDA guidelines require that food cannot have more than 20ppm of gluten cross contact to be labeled gluten-free (that is 20 parts per kilogram of food). But companies are not required to test at regular intervals so gluten can sneak in along the supply chain and show up in these products (as happened with Cheerios years ago–if you have a reaction to a product labelled “gluten free,” be sure to email the manufacturer to let them know. If they are not regularly testing, you may be the only way they find out.)
How to Raise Food Allergy and Celiac Safety
The old standard for a product being safe for people with allergies and celiac was that if the facility it was made in did not deliberately bring in the banned foods, the product was assumed safe. That was as good as we could do for a long time and is still what 90% of companies use. But ZEGO wants to bring food safety into the 21st century because, in an era where you can check your emails on your watch and see a picture of the farmer who grew the food you are eating, you should be able to get batch level data on the safety of packaged food. So that is what we do at ZEGO. We test each batch for cross contact at the end of our process and connect the results to every package through its QR code. We advocate all companies should be doing this, not just “allergy free” companies.
But ZEGO can’t change food safety alone, we need the entire industry to adopt this standard. That’s where we need your help! If you let other food companies know that these kinds of results and labeling are important to you and your family, they will adopt this higher standard too. If every food allergic person took 15 minutes to email their three favorite companies to ask them to test and report, we could change the entire food industry and make batch level transparency the new standard!
How to Get Kids Involved
Food Allergy and Celiac Awareness Month’s are also a good time to get your kids involved. Whether they have allergies themselves or want to be better champions for kids’ who do, talk to your kids about food allergy safety.
Ideas for kids with allergies:
- Wear a teal shirt and tell your friends about food allergies
- Set up a time to talk to your class about your food allergies, and maybe bring in some allergy safe snacks
- Share your favorite book about food allergies with a friend
- Write a thank you note to teachers, family, or other people who help keep you safe
Ideas for kids without allergies:
- Ask your friends if they have any food allergies
- Talk to your teacher about your school allergy related rules
- Talk to your parents about how to help stick up for kids who have food allergies
- Watch a video or read a book about food allergies to better understand them
How to Save on ZEGO Products
Here at ZEGO, we are working hard all year long to make food that is allergy and gluten safe so that every child and adult can have a safe and yummy snack. We know how expensive it is to have a special diet and we try to find ways to offer you savings. Here are two great ways. First, we offer value-based subscriptions. Every subscription box is supersized with three extra bars, that is 25%-33% more product! And, subscriptions are super-flexible. You can get delivery every 1-3 months, change your flavor mix whenever you like and cancel at any time. If subscriptions aren’t your thing, for this month only (May), you can get free shipping for every order of two or more boxes of ZEGO bars! (usually free shipping is for orders over $100). Get the deal here & Enjoy!
Let us know how we can make your celiac or allergy life easier. We are rolling our our superfood seed and fruit blend that we call Mix-Ins this month. What type of product would you like to see us make next? Let’s grow this company together to make your life easier and healthier!
Colleen Kavanagh is the founder and CEO of ZEGO. After a career in public policy, she started ZEGO to provide superfood based snacks for people dealing with multiple food allergies. ZEGO is a certified B Corporation, and is working to bring transparency to the supply chain to improve food safety for all.