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Do your part to prevent dangerous allergic reactions


When a 7-year-old girl from Chesterfield County died earlier this year from an allergic reaction to eating a peanut at school, it became national news and raised concerns about how to protect people from potentially lethal food allergies.

While deadly reactions are rare, food allergies are on the rise, and some folks are unlucky enough to be allergic to several foods at once.

Even if you don’t have a food allergy, it’s likely that you know someone who does, either through school, work or a place of worship.

About 8 percent of children and 4 percent of adults have food allergies, according to recent research. And about 30 percent of folks with food allergies are sensitive to more than one food.

For example, a friend of mine has celiac disease—not a true allergy but a serious intolerance to gluten, found in wheat, rye and some oats. She has a 3-month-old son who is allergic to cow’s milk and soy. So my friend, who is breast-feeding her baby boy, has to avoid all foods with even the slightest trace of wheat, rye, barley, milk and soy.

Food allergies can trigger hives, eczema, wheezing and projectile vomiting. In the worst cases, the allergies can cause the tongue and throat to swell, blocking the airways; they can lead to shock and even death, as was seen in Chesterfield.

There are emergency treatments for people with severe food allergies—chiefly, the Epi–Pen, which delivers a dose of epinephrine that quickly works to reverse the symptoms of a life-threatening reaction.

But there’s no cure for allergies or for celiac disease—sufferers must avoid the offending foods. Some kids grow out of allergies, but many have the allergies for life.

Read on for tips for making your home and other places safe for those with allergies.


If you’ll be serving a meal to someone with allergies, there are some easy precautions to take. The most obvious is to ask what the person is allergic to and what foods he or she enjoys.

If that’s not possible because, for example, you’re bringing food to a potluck event, there are still some easy steps you can take to avoid serving the most dangerous foods.

One step is to make a small label—a 3- by 5-inch card with the list of ingredients included in your dish.

Another important step: Follow the 9/90 rule.

Although any food can potentially cause an allergy, just nine foods cause 90 percent of all allergic reactions, according to a recent study.

The top nine are: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (such as walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios, pecans), wheat, soy, strawberries, fish and shellfish (such as shrimp, crabs, etc.)

So, consider leaving those ingredients off your menu, and focus on all the other foods available instead.


Foods that are less likely to trigger reactions include:

  • Poultry and meats such as chicken, turkey, lamb and beef.
  • Non-soy legumes such as lentils, peas and beans.
  • All veggies.
  • All fruits except strawberries.
  • Wheat-free starchy foods such as potatoes, rice, quinoa, corn and polenta.

For munchies, consider serving popcorn or tortilla chips with salsa. And consider these alternatives to foods that can trigger reactions:

  • Hummus is an egg-free alternative to mayo and a nondairy alternative to ranch dip.
  • Spaghetti squash is a wheat-free alternative to pasta.
  • Sunbutter, made from sunflower seeds, is a tasty alternative to peanut butter.
  • Olive and canola oil are safe alternatives to butter and margarine. Coconut is OK—it’s actually a fruit, not a nut.


When cooking for folks with allergies, consider avoiding dishes with lots of ingredients such as casseroles or fancy sauces—they are likely to contain allergens. Instead, make simpler dishes with a handful of ingredients, such as grilled chicken and veggies.

Great vegetarian dishes include baked beans or lentil pilaf with carrots, celery and onions over rice; tossed salad with olive oil and red wine vinegar; or steamed or roasted veggies.

For desserts, instead of cakes laden with allergens like milk, eggs and wheat, consider a colorful fruit salad or fresh watermelon wedges. Baked apples with cinnamon and sugar also are lovely and easy to make.


Eating food that’s been contaminated by an allergen is as dangerous as accidentally eating a food that causes allergies.

So at a potluck event, consider letting the folks with allergies take their food first. Otherwise, certain foods become inedible due to contamination. For example, my friend with celiac disease cannot eat fruit salad if even a few breadcrumbs have fallen into it from an adjacent plate of buns.

Also, consider buying jelly, mayo and other condiments in containers with squeeze tops rather than wide-mouthed jars. That way, guests won’t accidentally contaminate the jelly by using a knife that they just used for peanut butter. Squeezable jelly containers can solve the problem.


Be sure to clean dishes and surfaces well, especially if you are serving a child with peanut allergies. Even a few crumbs of peanut can cause a reaction.

Studies show that washing hands and dishes with soap and water safely removes peanut protein. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are not enough. And on surfaces such as countertops and tabletops, commercial cleaning products work better than dishwashing soap, according to research.

If you eat an allergenic food such as a peanut, don’t kiss someone with that food allergy for at least four hours, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.

Most allergic reactions can be prevented by taking some easy precautions. But people with food allergies—or the parents of kids with allergies —should be sure to see an allergist and have a plan for treating reactions if they occur.

Jennifer Motl is a registered dietitian. Formerly of Fredericksburg, she now lives in Wisconsin. She welcomes reader questions via her website,, or by email at