Despite public misunderstanding of and negative stereotypes around allergies, there surely has never been a better time to be allergic. The reason for this—the unexplained increase in allergies—is unfortunate. A 2013 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed a 50 percent increase in food allergies among American children between 1997 and 2011, and an estimated 15 million people in the U.S. now have food allergies, according to the advocacy organization Food Allergy Research & Education. But these discouraging numbers also mean we’ve reached a kind of allergic critical mass.
On Nov. 13, President Obama signed into law the School Access to Emergency Epinephrine Act, encouraging schools to keep epinephrine autoinjectors—commonly referred to as EpiPens, though there are other brands—for students who don’t have their own, including those students having a reaction to a previously undiagnosed allergen. (As it happens, the Obamas themselves know something about food allergies because Malia Obama is allergic to peanuts.) Also this fall, the CDC released guidelines for managing food allergies in schools. These guidelines represent a milestone in setting standards for thoroughness and consistency across the country; they recommend best practices for everyone from cafeteria employees to bus drivers.
In addition to recent legislative advances, people with allergies have benefited for almost a decade from the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, which requires that the eight most common allergens—peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, milk, soy, fish, shellfish, and wheat, which combined account for 90 percent of all food allergies—be clearly identified on packaging.
Prior to 2004, as Susan Weissman describes in her book Feeding Eden, if you wanted to know what was really in that box of crackers, you’d have to spend hours writing to or waiting on the phone with manufacturers. “If invited,” Weissman writes in her account of the early years after her son’s allergies were diagnosed, “I would have happily donned a hairnet to inspect a General Mills factory.”
Weissman also writes of blending sunflowers to make a “paste”; today, SunButter, which is similar in texture, appearance, and nutrition to peanut butter, is manufactured commercially and sold everywhere from Whole Foods to Target. In my own family, we go through so much of it that we order six-packs online.
Indeed, in 2013, there’s practically a cottage industry devoted to the allergic community: Cherrybrook Kitchen makes cake and cookie mixes free of peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, and milk, and Enjoy Life avoids all of the top eight allergens. Chocolate candy is often made on equipment that also processes nuts, meaning even if a particular bar doesn’t contain milk or, say, almonds, it still isn’t safe to serve my daughter because of potential cross-contact. So we buy Enjoy Life’s Ricemilk Crunch bars, similar to Nestlé Crunch bars, in bulk. And yes, there are greater tragedies than not eating chocolate bars; at the same time, when you’re a 2-year-old, it’s nice to get to see what all the fuss is about.
Among other current allergy innovations I’m thankful for is AllergyEats, the allergy-focused equivalent of Yelp—a dining database that relies on the public to assign “Allergy Friendliness Ratings” to restaurants. Paul Antico, a Massachusetts father of allergic children, started the company in 2008 after an evening during which he drove his increasingly ravenous sons from one restaurant to another in search of a place he felt confident they could safely have dinner.
These days, even the American Girl doll company makes an “allergy-free lunch” bag that comes complete with a tiny epinephrine autoinjector. While I applaud American Girl’s thoughtfulness, perhaps this is an appropriate place to mention that, as with life in general, allergies are easier if you have money; obviously, for most parents, the most pressing concern isn’t whether their daughter's medical equipment matches her doll's. The Journal of the American Medical Association recently estimated that having a child with allergies costs $4,180 more per year than a child without them, with $750 going toward food and the rest to medical costs and parental time off work. Although allergies are sometimes misunderstood to be a malady of the upper-middle class, they’re not. Many assistance programs exist for epinephrine autoinjectors, and the challenges of families on food stamps, or those who rely on food banks, are only magnified when the foods they’re able to eat are restricted due to allergies. At my local grocery store in St. Louis, the discrepancy in cost between allergy-friendly products and “regular” products is glaring: This past weekend, a 10-ounce jar of Jif peanut butter was on sale for $2.99—the usual price is $3.29—while a 10-ounce jar of SunButter was $6.99.
In spite of progress, there’s obviously still plenty of work to be done; the reality is that living with allergies requires extreme caution whenever eating occurs, and eating occurs everywhere, all the time. My own family is in the early stages of dealing with allergies, and I know that the challenges shift over time: food allergy–related bullying is a problem with older children, and adolescents experience the highest rate of anaphylaxis, both because of physiological changes in their bodies and because of teenagers’ propensity for taking risks. Still, when I think of how much better things are for my daughter now than they would have been even 10 years ago, I feel not only grateful but also optimistic about the future—and usually, I’m not much of an optimist. So to everyone out there who makes life safer, tastier, and more inclusive for people with allergies, thank you. From my family to yours, Happy Thanksgiving.