Allergies are the worst. Anyone with an allergy can tell you that it is not fun to walk around with itchy red eyes, a scratchy throat and a runny nose, all of which can come on at a moment’s notice. Realistically, how many times can you choke out between rapid-fire sneezes, “I swear I’m not sick, it’s just my allergies,” before your friends start to ostracize you?
But as a sufferer of allergies that include my body’s hatred of nature and cats, I am lucky enough to not have any allergies that fall into the realm of the major 8 allergens. These eight, which are milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat, account for 90 percent of all food allergens. Typical reactions to these foods include skin irritations – such as hives or eczema – or even more severe reactions like swelling of the tongue or trouble breathing.
It’s a good thing I am not allergic to the top eight food allergens, because I am obsessed with Halloween candy. And candy happens to be full of these allergens, especially peanuts and tree-nuts.
As we venture into the Halloween season, I find myself traveling down the candy aisle in stores, gazing longingly at the adorable mini-Snickers and Hershey’s bars that have overtaken the shelves everywhere.
But here’s a little “fun” fact about fun-size candy: Sometimes ingredients or manufacturing processes change depending on the size of the item being produced. Meaning that those full-size bars of candy that might be safe for a person with food allergies to eat are not necessarily safe for that same person to consume in the smaller fun size.
Just like all allergic responses, allergies to food are caused by the body’s immune system mistakenly reacting to proteins in foods. For example, when a person who has a peanut allergy eats peanuts or traces of peanuts, their body’s immune system marks the peanut’s proteins as invaders. Because of this marking, the immune system reacts to fight off the peanut protein, just how it would fight off a virus like the common cold or a bacterial infection. In a person with food allergies, her immune system becomes a nuisance – a biological representation of that friend everyone knows, the one who, while ultimately meaning well, always ends up missing the point.
Manufacturing processes can be life-threatening to a person with food allergies because in the assembly line lays the threat of ingredient cross-contamination. In the case of food production, a regular sized product might be produced on one assembly line, while its miniature counterpart is produced on a separate line or even in another facility. This means that regardless of their identical ingredients, one size might be produced in a facility that also processes ingredients like peanuts. Which is why food packages have both a “contains” and a “may contain” statement: Although these products do not officially contain any of the top eight allergens as ingredients, they were manufactured around them and might have been exposed.
So let’s say your favorite candy bar makes a special fun-size version around Halloween. You eat its regular size all the time, and you know it’s peanut free, which is great because you’ve got a severe peanut allergy. But the fun-size version is produced in a totally different plant than the version you know you can eat, one that also makes peanut butter candies. Imagine that microscopic peanut dust floats through the air from the peanut butter candy assembly line and lands on the line that produces your favorite candy. Although your fun-size product might not include peanuts as ingredients, molecules of peanut protein now potentially contaminate it. And if you, a person with peanut allergies, were to ingest this “peanut free” food, your sensitive immune system would sense the peanut protein and invoke an allergic reaction, even though the peanuts were invisible to your naked eye.
And if the line cannot be cleaned properly enough to ensure that potential allergens are eliminated, there is nothing that can be done to ensure the prevention of cross-contamination (hence, the life saving “may contains” statement).
I learned this “fun”-size lesson during my time as the shopper for an educational summer program (which, in my opinion, rivals Disney World for being the best place on earth) for children in grades four through seven. It was my responsibility to buy all the supplies necessary for the summer to run smoothly, which naturally involved candy.
The summer program, Explo at St. Mark’s is a peanut and tree nut free campus, and I had to ensure that all bought food was free of those allergens. But as a person with allergies knows, allergen labeling is not always consistent or accurate. Through this, I became great friends with the consumer representatives at food company hotlines.
They loved me. And my questions. My annoying questions.
The only way to know for sure if something is safe for a person with allergies to eat is to read each item’s individual packaging. And if that person is still not sure or they just feel generally distrustful (like myself), they should call the company and speak to a representative. As much as packaging should be easy to read – meaning all products should have both a “contains” and a “may contain” statement – sometimes that’s just not a reality.
So although some candies aren’t going to be safe to gorge on this Halloween (be it fun-size, or not), there are some pretty great items that are peanut and tree nut free. Instead of crying over Snickers and Pay Days, try designated peanut and tree nut free products from companies like Haribo, Tootsie, and the childhood favorite, DumDum lollipops.
And lucky for us candy lovers, DumDums has phased out that disgusting Buttered Popcorn flavor (what was that?).