The holiday season is rapidly approaching, and with it the inescapable march toward excessive food consumption is poised to begin. But those affected by food allergies need not retreat. While Thanksgiving may pose some challenges for the 12 million Americans with food sensitivities, it is still possible to enjoy the holiday. For starters, experts say, let go of your worries about hurting chef grandma's feelings.
"My most important advice is to be very forthright about having a food allergy," says Dr. Robert Wood, director of pediatric allergy and immunology at Johns Hopkins Children's Center. "The more open you are about it, the more chance there is that your host can accommodate your food allergies in the preparation of the food. If you are trying to be quiet about it and not reveal that you have this restrictive diet, then the risks of a problem go much higher."
Since the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act took effect in 2006, foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration must have labels that clearly establish the source of all ingredients that are -- or are derived from -- the eight most common food allergens: milk eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans. These substances account for 90 percent of food reactions.
"We always look at the holidays in general as the highest risk time for accidents to happen," says Wood, who has dealt with a lifelong peanut allergy and is author of "Food Allergies For Dummies". "It's likely that some food preparation will be outside your control and it also turns out that many of the snacks and desserts and things like that would pose a particular risk, especially for those with peanut or nut allergies."
The approach to managing food restrictions vary significantly depending on the allergy, but with public awareness about these allergies increasing, having a safe and healthy holiday has become far more realistic. For example, many national grocery stores -- including Whole Foods Market, Wegmans and Kroger -- are now offering guidance about gluten-free products both online and in the stores.
"Check out our website, our recipe section for special diets, there are special holiday options as well," says national grocery coordinator for Whole Foods Market Errol Schweizer. "We carry all of the products that are listed in our recipes so you can just print out the recipe and then go shopping at our store to find everything."
Whole Foods Market, which has a staff of "team members" versed in allergen-free foods, is also providing a cooking alternative to those with limited time this year: preordered meal options clearly labeled with allergen information.
"Many of our stores are offering Thanksgiving meals that you can preorder in advance," said Schweizer. "People can peruse the menu and order just the turkey or turkey with all the trimming and do the whole meal. Those recipes available will vary by region or store, but they'll all say may contain wheat, or soy customers can see if there's something they can order."
While purchasing premade foods provides a less-hassle option, for those looking to cut costs, Erin McKenna, founder of BabyCakes, an award-winning New York bakery specializing in gluten, wheat, dairy, egg and soy free products, offers several tips of the trade for creating allergee-free alternatives.