Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Food Allergies Are All The Rage

I was discussing this with some of my baker friends recently, and we've all seen this even though we live in different parts of the country. Having a food allergy seems to be a trendy thing these days.

It's not unusual for people to tell me that they have a peanut allergy, or a dairy allergy, or a wheat allergy, or whatever. They usually wait to say something until they're taking a bite from a sample cake, though, which sends me into a panic.

Just as I'm trying to knock the fork out of their hands, they'll inevitably say "Oh, it's okay. I can eat a little, it's no big deal."

Well, then, my guess would be that you don't have an allergy if that's the case.

I've also heard from one friend that she had a client who told her that their child had a peanut allergy. When my friend said they couldn't do the cake, the parent suddenly said "oh, she's not really allergic, she just doesn't like peanuts." What?

So why tell someone that you have an allergy, or that your child has an allergy, if there's no allergy? Is it an attention-getting thing? Do you have a sensitivity and it's just easier to tell people it's an allergy? I don't get it...

I can see that if you have a child who's shown a sensitivity to something that you might be more cautious. But if that's the case, go get them tested to see what's going on. Don't expect other people to make huge accomodations (and it is a huge accomodation) for an imaginary allergy.

Which is, I think, the main point. Pretending to have an allergy makes no sense and is also a huge concern for the people who are preparing your food. As a baker, I'm very nervous about cross-contamination. I can't believe that there are bakers who advertise gluten-free products, for example, when they're also making wheat-based products in the same kitchen. You're opening yourself up to a serious possibility of cross-contamination, and you could really hurt someone who really does have celiac disease.

If you're dealing with a severe allergy or medical condition, trace amounts of allergens can put someone in the hospital, and even kill them. If you don't tell me about your peanut allergy until you're biting into the cake that was made on the same mixer as the peanut butter meringue buttercream, you could be exposing yourself to cross-contamination of trace amounts of peanuts. I don't want to be responsible for that.

In my experience, someone who has a true allergy to something is going to ask before eating anything. Personally, if I had a severe allergy to something I wouldn't eat anything that anyone else made.

The problem with faking an allergy, for whatever reason, is that people will stop taking allergies seriously if everyone claims to have one. If enough kids who are told by their parents that they have a peanut allergy eat peanuts with no ill effects, the one kid who DOES have an allergy will eventually start thinking that she can eat peanuts and be okay. It's the "boy who cried wolf" syndrome, and it's not a good thing.

Additionally, bakers who don't have experience with food allergies and basic kitchen sanitation (and there are a lot with no experience) will start to think that they actually are baking gluten-free when their supposedly "wheat allergic" clients don't complain about reactions. When the one person who does have celiac disease ends up in the hospital because of cross-contamination they'll have the allergy-fakers to thank for it.

So please don't pretend that you have an allergy if you don't. It accomplishes nothing, and it can hurt someone else in the long run.

Kara Buntin owns A Cake To Remember LLC, custom wedding cakes in Richmond VA


Tiffany said...

Thanks for this post! I really appreciate your perspective - and agree that it's very frustrating when people use "allergy" in place of "preference". I'm surprised how often this happens. I saw it a lot while I was teaching summer classes - parents would indicate their child had an "allergy" on their registration form, then make no other arrangements, such as EpiPens. As a parent who has seen their OWN child rushed to the emergency room from an actual food allergy - it blows me away when I realize someone is using allergies for attention or special treatment. Our family motto is that we bring food, not drama - and although I deeply admire your cakes (and love your blog) - I do choose to make my own baked goods because I know it's the only way we can be safe. My guess is anyone who takes a bite of cake before announcing their allergy is: 1. misdiagnosed, 2. lucky 3. lying

Kara Buntin said...

Hi, Tiffany!

I knew that this post might offend someone who genuinely has to deal with a food allergy if they didn't read it all the way through, but I'm tired of the pretenders, and I take the allergy thing seriously. Which is why it irks me when people just fake it for whatever twisted reason they have. I definitely do not fault you for not buying cakes or anything else from other people, I'd do exactly the same thing if I was in your position! The feedback on this post on my facebook page is telling me that this is a lot more widespread than I even knew, too. Everyone seems to have run into someone claiming to be allergic to something, but who changed their mind when they were told that the baker wouldn't do the cake. It's like the MSG sensitivity thing in the late 80's or early 90's, I can't remember exactly when that was, but for a while everyone claimed that they had MSG sensitivity. I haven't heard that recently, so I guess MSG isn't trendy anymore.

Tiffany said...

Kudos to you for calling it like you see it - ! I dread following in the footsteps of anyone who cried wolf and watered down the level of alert, when we really need facts and compassion - especially in situations like food service and schools. Thanks again for your post.

Dria said...

It's true that people use the term allergy too frequently but I do want to point out that not all allergies cause life threatening Anaphylaxis and EpiPens do not help everyone. I have gone through exhaustive and expensive blood work to identify allergies. The ones identified include soy, flax, pork, chocolate and more. Ingesting any of these will cause my body to kick on the immune system. Indulging in bacon once in a while, will leave me run down for a day or so just like fighting off a cold. Eating it everyday puts my immune system in overdrive and, over time, put me in complete adrenal failure. So, in the end, I am cautious and it is perfectly accurate when I say I have an allergy; however, no one will see me eat a slice of bread with soy flour and stop breathing.
Overall, I do agree with your article. I tend to tell folks, "We try to avoid *fill in the blank* so can you please find out if that is in the ingredients."

Kristin said...

My kids are allergic to dairy, eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts, but can eat dairy and egg in certain situations. All allergies are not the same and some folks have more severe allergies and reactions than others. Baking also denatures the proteins in both dairy and eggs, so while the kids can't drink cow's milk, they can eat a piece of cake without issue. I do keep the kids away from nuts and peanuts, but I do still eat them and have them in the house.

Kara Buntin said...

Dria, sometimes it's the difference between an intolerance and a real allergies. Real allergies do involve the immune system, and a lot of people who say they're allergic have never been tested for anything, they just decide that they can't drink milk or whatever. I run into this all the time...since you have a real allergy and you've gone through all the testing you know what youre dealing with and can be clear with whoever is making your food. But the people who just want to be cute and claim that they have an allergy are the ones who can't answer questions when I ask them about it. Theyve never been tested for anything, and they dont know what theyre talking about when i ask them for specifics. And I really do run into this a lot, it's aggravating. I want to know what I'm dealing with...if someone is going to have a minor reaction and they're willing to take a chance that's up to them.

Kara Buntin said...

Kristin, I'd be able to bake for your kids, then, but I've had clients who were severely allergic to dairy and couldn't have it even if it was cooked. What drives me crazy is conversations that go like this (And this is a real one that I had) Client: "I'd like to order a cake...I'm allergic to wheat." Me: "I don't do gluten-free, you might want to call xxxx bakery, they're a dedicted gluten-free kitchen." Client: "But I want a shaped cake and they don't do those." Me: well, I can't bake without wheat, so the gluten-free is your best bet." Client:" I can have some wheat." Me: "What kind of reactions do you have when you eat it? Is it severe?" Client:"Well, I'm not really allergic, I'm just following the celiac diet and I'm not supposed to eat wheat while I'm on it." Me:"......"

Kristin said...

I understand your post Kara... people faking or pretending to have an allergy is ridiculous. I just wanted to say that folks can truly be allergic to something and still have "a little" depending on the way their body reacts.

hdhumrichouse said...

They're not faking it they're just terming it wrong. Intolerance is the word they need to use. They can't eat those foods without something bad happening and if they have a lot of it they start to show allergic-type reactions (in general). If my son eats a lot of wheat or eggs or peanuts his skin will start reacting as well as his digestive system. He's not allergic in the medical sense but intolerant.

Kara Buntin said...

It's not even an intolerance for most of the people who I talk to, though. Just like the one on the diet, they don't have symptoms at all, they just don't want to eat something for some reason so they say they have an allergy to it.

I've had clients with real allergies and intolerances, and they know what they can eat and what they can't. It's the people who, when you dig for details, say things like "Well, I got a headache after I ate ice cream once so I'm allergic to dairy" that I'm talking about.

Audric Montuno said...

What really baffles me is when shops, bakeries, and/or caf├ęs display "Gluten Free" products right beside (or worse, underneath) wheat-based, none-gluten-free products. Sure, your macarons may be gluten free, but they're surrounded by biscotti, cupcakes, and cookies that aren't.

pbuder said...

I have to say this confusion between allergy and intolerance might be a result of the medical profession. Over the years I have developed a sensitivity/intolerance to antibiotics. I can take them but they just make me spend far too much time in the bathroom, to the point where I can't leave the house. Whenever at a doctors I list my true allergies (Tylenol will send me into anaphalctic shock & death without an epipen, ingesting uncooked alcohol sends me into alcohol poisoning as liver doesn't filter) but there is no other place to list the antibiotics except in the allergy section. I have gotten in the habit of list the reactions so doctors are clear but that oversight in the medical profession might be the cause of how everything is being called an allergy.