Ah, the holidays – a fun-filled time of good food. That is if you’re free from a food allergy or celiac disease. Last April, I was diagnosed with celiac disease and joined the millions of others who view the holiday feasting season with more dread than anticipation.
Food allergies and celiac disease have different causes and reactions. In allergies, the immune system reacts to an outside substance that it normally would ignore. Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder, causes the immune system to attack healthy intestinal lining when exposed to gluten, a protein in wheat, barley and rye. I may not know for days that I’ve been exposed to gluten, but my cousin, who is allergic to tree nuts and peanuts, could end up with hives, swelling or even an anaphylaxis reaction if he nibbles on a nutty cookie.
In short, those of us with food issues can be hard to have as holiday guests. But, never fear, the Home Food Safety program, a collaboration between the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and ConAgra Foods, has tips to keep you from causing your cousins, aunts, uncles or other assorted relatives to have an unhappy holiday. Their tips are:
Safety Starts at the Store
- Learn which ingredients are problematic and read ingredient labels on foods.
- When shopping, keep problematic foods in plastic bags or place them in a second cart, and keep them separate at checkout and in the car.
- Avoid foods from bulk bins, salad bars and the deli counter, as these are common sites for cross-contact.
Set Up a Storage System
If you can’t keep the entire house free from the problematic food:
- Label allergen-free and gluten-free foods to avoid confusion and place gluten- and allergen-containing foods on shelves below allergen/gluten-free foods.
Conscious Cooking is Key
- Use separate sets of utensils, cookware and cooking tools, and small appliances (toasters and blenders).
- Prepare and cook allergen-free and gluten-free dishes first and in/on cleaned equipment and surfaces.
- If possible, dedicate a kitchen space to allergen-free and gluten-free preparation.
Wash and Sterilize
- Wash and sterilize everything coming into contact with the allergen-free and gluten-free foods being prepared.
- Wash hands with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds.
- Change gloves and aprons.
- To clean surfaces and larger appliances, use a dry towel to wipe down crumbs first, then wash or sterilize.
Avoid Cross-Contact While Serving
- Serve allergen-free and gluten-free guests first and carry their dishes separate from others.
- Cross-contact with an allergen or gluten through condiments is common due to double dipping with a utensil. Choose squeeze bottles when possible to eliminate double dipping, and clearly label the option that is free from the allergen or gluten.
- Avoid “make-your-own” dishes with high risk for cross-contact, including sundaes, salads and topping bars.
In addition, I’d like to add some special cautions for celebrating with those with celiac disease. Eight foods account for 90 percent of serious allergic reactions: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires that labels must clearly identify the food source names of all ingredients that are — or contain any protein derived from —the eight most common food allergens. But gluten is not one of the eight. Gluten is also found in barley and rye, so don’t depend on a product just being free of wheat if you have a celiac guest at the table. Gluten can hide in unexpected places: soy sauce, non-dairy whipped toppings, canned soups, gravy mixes, seasonings and even self-basting turkey – the list goes on and on. So before you whip up your famous green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup, remember that this is a favorite hiding spot for devilish gluten and check your soup can for a “gluten-free” on the label. (Oh, and hold the crispy onions, please.)
Most importantly, despite the backlash against the gluten-free trend and ignorance about food allergies, believe your relatives and friends when they say they can’t eat something. We’re not being picky; we’re being safe.