19 December 2016

Beware of food allergies this festive season

Many traditional Christmas foods contain allergens, and experts caution that the festive season is a 'challenging time' for people with food allergies or intolerances.

Millions of South Africans are looking forward to a well-deserved break over the festive season. It’s great to be able to escape from our usual routine and enjoy activities like travelling, time on the beach, playing games – and of course feasting on all that delicious holiday fare.

Unsuspected reactions

A change is good for body and soul, and it’s difficult to hold back when faced with sumptuous offerings like Christmas turkeys, glazed hams and delicious deserts, not forgetting the wine, beer and champagne while ushering in the New Year.

Most of us have no problem coping with a temporary change in diet and the odd bit of over-indulgence. A hangover, although unpleasant, also passes quickly enough. This is however not true for all of us, and as indicated in an Allergy SA article, increasing numbers of South Africans of all races are suffering from allergies and food sensitivities.

Read: Allergies

Some people might even have an unsuspected reaction to foods or food combinations they aren’t normally exposed to.   

The most common allergens

People often say they are allergic to foods when, in fact, they only have a sensitivity to a particular food. The difference is that in the case of a true allergy there is an immune system reaction that can range from mild to life-threatening (anaphylactic shock), and rapid treatment (e.g. epinephrine auto-injector) may be required.

Food sensitivity is usually less severe and refers to digestive problems encountered after eating certain foods. Sensitivity symptoms also tend to develop more slowly than allergy symptoms.

According to MNT the most common allergenic foods (often referred to as the “big eight”) are:

  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Milk
  • Tree nuts
  • Peanuts (groundnuts)
  • Shellfish and other seafood
  • Soya
  • Wheat

Some tweaking of recipes

On his website, Jamie Oliver cautions that Christmas is a “challenging time” for people with food allergies or intolerances. It is unfortunate that so many traditional Christmas foods contain allergens, for example things like Christmas cake, mince pies and sausage meat.  

Even innocent-looking treats like Christmas cookies may contain peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, coconut, wheat, soy, eggs or milk. Sauces and dips may also contain some of the above, and ditto for pre-basted turkeys. However, with thorough planning and some tweaking of recipes, no one needs to feel left out.

Fortunately, in the last few years, there has been a dramatic increase in the availability of foods without common allergens. There are many dairy-free “milks” available like almond and rice milk and even dairy-free cheese. Most supermarkets also now stock gluten-free breads, cookies, soups, pastas and breakfast cereals.

Read: Should more people go gluten-free?

When preparing meals and treats at home it is often possible to tweak recipes to remove any allergy causing ingredients. Biscuits can for example be made gluten-free by using rice or corn flour instead of wheat flour. Experiment with different ingredients to see what works best! 

Enjoy an allergy-free Christmas

The Food Allergy Research & Education blog offers the following tips for an allergy-free holiday season:

1. Contact your host as soon as the invitation arrives. Explain what allergies or sensitivities you and/or your children have and discuss ways to create a “safe environment”.  

2. You can bring your own safe food to ensure that there will be something that you can eat. This also means that there’s less of a burden on your host to prepare special food. 

Read: Parents of kids with allergies mostly allergy-free themselves

3. Add a card listing the ingredients of the dish or dishes you take along to the festivities. If you’re hosting the party, you can add ingredient lists to all the foods you serve. Your guests will appreciate this, especially if any of them have food allergies or sensitivities.

4. Take turns to supervise children with allergies. This will ensure that there is always someone on the lookout to keep little hands away from dangerous temptations.

5. Go over the “rules” with you children before the party to remind them not to eat anything before checking with you first.

6. When unsure, ask about ingredients and check labels if you can.

7. Carry the appropriate medication with you in case of an allergic reaction. 

Read more:

13 Christmas lunch disasters

GM cow produces allergy-free milk

Allergy alert


Ask the Expert

Allergy expert

Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies.

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