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Breadless Fourth of July

 A couple of months back, a friend of mine, Raman Prasad, wrote this piece after he had a chat with me about how families deal with food allergies and celebrate holidays like 4th of July… 

Four-year-old Arjun will be breadless this Fourth of July: no hamburger buns, no hot dog buns, no bread of any kind. Arjun suffers from severe food allergies. He is not alone: Four percent of U.S. children have a food allergy, according to the Center for Disease Control. As scientists scratch their heads at the reason for these potentially deadly allergies, patients and their families have changed their diets in an attempt to keep them under control.

Arjun’s problems started at age 4 months. His mother, Anu Rao, says, “I tried feeding him milk-based formula. As he drank it, his whole body broke out in hives.” The doctor ordered allergy tests that returned positive for wheat, eggs, soy, dairy, nuts, fish and shellfish. Rao, says, “I was in shock. I thought, ‘How could it be that the same child has all these issues happening to him?’ ”

Due to severe food allergies, millions of Americans have had to change what they eat. In fact, the prevalence of childhood food allergies increased 18 percent between 1997 and 2007, according to a Center for Disease Control study released in October.

At 18 months of age, Arjun ate only rice and relied on a hypoallergenic formula for protein and fat. Desperate to expand his diet, Rao says, “I found a doctor familiar with the 20 types of Indian lentils. He said the chance that Arjun is allergic to all of them is very low. With lentils, we found an alternate protein source.” Soon afterward, Rao became more proactive. “I realized I can do my own research,” she says. “Now I call The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network and say, ‘I found this grain. What are the chances someone might be allergic?’ They have data on everything. I then cross check with the doctor. That’s how I’ve been able to increase the number of things that Arjun eats.”

So far, scientists have failed to find conclusive reasons for the increase in food intolerance. Rao says, “I’ve never come across either a doctor or article that says ‘These things cause it.’ They really don’t know. They’re as shocked about it as anyone else.”

Food allergies have effects beyond simple diet. According to Robert Pacenza, executive director of the Food Allergy Initiative (FAI), a national nonprofit that sponsors research, education and advocacy, “Food allergies have a profound emotional impact on sufferers and their families,” he says. “In many cases, even a minuscule amount of the wrong food can trigger a life-threatening reaction. As a result, eating outside the home–at restaurants, in school, at a relative’s house or during a play date–can be a source of great stress and anxiety.”

Rao recounts a visit to Disneyland, saying, “There was an ice cream shaped like Mickey Mouse. It contained eggs and dairy to which Arjun is allergic. Arjun was so upset. His cousins ate the ice cream, but he couldn’t have it. He said, ‘I don’t mind if I fall sick. I want to have it!'”

So that Arjun does not feel excluded, Rao, has extended allergen-free cooking to family meals as well as parties. “You can’t handle this problem if you’re constantly scared,” she says. “A part of me wants the people who come to my house to be aware that despite all the allergens, there’s so much food he can have, and it’s tasty. The taste is a little different, but not so different that they don’t like it, whether it’s a cookie or a cake or pizza or a quesadilla, I just use alternatives, and he feels happy that they like his food.”

The family’s Fourth of July meal may be breadless, but it won’t be taste-less. It will include potato salad (with a non-egg, non-dairy mayonnaise), grilled chicken with herbs, and cakes made with rice flour. “Food is part of every celebration,” Rao says. “But you don’t have to be eating what everyone else is eating to have fun.”

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