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Learning to Read Food Labels Again: Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Allergen Freedom

By Janeen Zumerling

When my son was first diagnosed with food allergies, I felt lost. I had no idea how to keep him safe or what to feed him. He was diagnosed allergic to wheat, rye, barley, oat, egg, peanut, tree nut, and dairy (outgrown in 2008). How do you feed a child, a 10 month old, without wheat, Cheerios, animal crackers, biter biscuits, or toddler puffs? These were the things my first son ate as snack finger foods (along with the usual fruits and veggies).

I found a “gluten-free tour” at a local natural foods store. It was geared toward people with Celiac Disease, but there were a few of us there that had food allergies or loved someone with food allergies. From the tour we were able to deduce that if something was labeled Gluten Free it did not contain wheat, rye, barley or oat in the ingredient list (of course this does not take into account how and where the item was processed or handled during manufacturing, but that’s another story). Maybe our deduction was somewhat flawed or perhaps we were taking a Pollyanna view of the whole thing, but nine times out of ten when dealing with a reputable manufacture this Gluten Free meant what it said.

I don’t like giving my food allergic child too many “processed” foods, but some items like crackers, potato chips, corn chips and chocolate bars are out of my area of expertise. I’ve tried to make some of these myself and failed miserably. There are some really good safe crackers on the market today and if I CAN buy something safe and not have to make it, so much the better.

Flash forward six years.

In the last couple of years, certified gluten-free oats have come to the market. This is fantastic news for those with Celiac Disease or a gluten intolerance. But my son is allergic to oats. He has IgE mediated allergies to wheat, rye, barley, and oat. He’s not allergic to gluten (and I just confirmed with our allergist that this is true as there seems to be some confusion about IgE allergies and gluten allergies). If he eats the gluten-free oats, my son will still have an allergic reaction. So we just need to steer clear of these GF oats, right? Wrong.

Gluten Free oats are now making their way into products that we considered safe in the past. For example: We have purchased Crunchmaster GF crackers in the past and my son loves them. It’s his favorite cracker. Now, however, they came out with a new version. It looks similar to the original. But it’s bigger and square shaped. These looked like they would make better cheese and cracker snacks for my son. The package still said “gluten free” and I was in a hurry and didn’t read the ingredient list in the store. But before I served them to him, I read the list: This new type of cracker is a “multi-grain” cracker and contains oat fiber. The other ones are known as “multi-seed” crackers and do not contain oat. I’m sure it’s from the new gluten free oats but that does not work for my son. Even if something states that it’s gluten free, I still have to read the label to make sure it’s safe for my son’s other allergies. And now, even for a product that has been safe for his grain allergies in the past, I now not only have to be on the lookout for oat, I need to find out more about their manufacturing processes to see if non-oat items are handled with oat items. I have a feeling we’ll be our shopping cart is going to be missing some foods from now on.

I knew this day would come from the moment the gluten-free oats hit the market. It’s just going to take more vigilance on my part to continue to read labels on notoriously safe products. So for those of us grappling with grain allergies, gluten free may not mean what it used to.

But at least I didn’t have to throw out those revised Crunchmaster crackers. Off they went to the husband’s office so that they would not get confused with the safe ones.

(This is the fourth piece we have run by Janeen Zumerling. Janeen is a wife, mother and food allergy activist. You can find her blogging at “The Good, The Bad, and the Food Allergies” www.zumfamily.blogspot.com and at “Mom’s Food Allergy Diner” www.foodallergycooking.blogspot.com.)

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