By SAMANTHA GRENROCK
GAINESVILLE – If you’re a parent of a child with food allergies, preparing for the start of school means more than shopping for school supplies or coordinating carpools.
These parents must always keep an eye out for allergens in their child’s environment, at home and out in the world. For instance, wheat, a common allergen, can hide in places one wouldn’t expect, such as sausage, where it’s often used as a binder, said Pooja Tolani, a graduate student in the University of Florida Master of Science – Dietetic Internship program.
When children with allergies go to school, parents must work with school staff to prevent, recognize and respond to their child’s allergies, said Tolani, who recently published a fact sheet on wheat allergies with her faculty advisor, Gail Kauwell.
Kauwell, a professor of food science and human nutrition in the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, has a handy acronym for parents sending a child with allergies to a new school: ACE.
“ACE stands for awareness, communication and education,” Kauwell said. “Teachers, nurses, coaches and cafeteria staff need to be made aware of a child’s allergies. Parents communicate what a child can’t eat to these caregivers and provide instructions on what to do if their child has an allergic episode, as recommended by a doctor.”
In addition to educating school staff about their child’s allergies, experts recommend that parents talk with their children about what foods to avoid and what to do if they think they are having a reaction.
That also means enforcing a strict no food-sharing policy at the lunch table, Tolani said.
In conversations about food allergies, you may hear the terms “allergy” and “intolerance” used interchangeably. However, it’s important for parents and schools to known that they are not the same thing and affect people differently, Tolani said.
“A food allergy, like any other allergy, is triggered by the immune system, whereas a food intolerance doesn’t involve the immune system,” Tolani explained. “For example, lactose intolerance is when a person is deficient in the enzyme that helps break down lactose, which is found in dairy. A milk allergy, on the other hand, involves an immune response.”
And unlike an intolerance, a food allergy can be life-threatening, Tolani said. “Eating a food you are intolerant to can leave you feeling miserable, but if you have a food allergy, that food can cause swelling, difficulty breathing and fainting,” she said.
The most common food allergens, also known as the Big Eight, include peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, milk, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish, Tolani said. These allergies are most often diagnosed in childhood.
Some children grow out of allergies, though scientists don’t understand exactly why, Kauwell said.
“We still don’t know the biological mechanism behind why people outgrow allergies, but we do know that there are factors associated with it,” Kauwell said. “The research suggests that the older you are when you develop an allergy and the more severe the reaction, the less likely you are to outgrow it. People allergic to more than one food are less likely to outgrow their allergies.”
For more information on food allergies, visit the UF/IFAS Extension food allergies topic page.