In the spirit of Halloween, treats can be tricky for kids with food allergies, which is one in 13 children under the age of 18 in the United States.
“In the context of Halloween, chances are pretty high that you will have at least one or two kids with food allergies on your block,” said Nancy Gregory, a spokeswoman for the group Food Allergy Research and Education.
The eight common food allergens responsible for 90% of reactions are milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, wheat, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.
Dr. Stanley Fineman, an allergist with Atlanta Allergy & Asthma, explained that milk, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts are the most common allergens for kids, with peanuts and tree nuts causing the most severe allergic reactions. “The intensity of these reactions can vary from mild to potentially life-threatening based on how sensitive the patient is to the allergen and the dose they received,” he said.
But by considering alternatives, and taking simple precautions, everyone can contribute to helping kids with food allergies be prepared and enjoy a safer Halloween.
For Hillary Carter of Greenwich, Connecticut, who has two boys with severe food allergies, Halloween can still be a fun holiday for her family. “We just have to be prepared.”
Support for the Teal Pumpkin Project
The Teal Pumpkin Project is an annual awareness campaign that encourages people to provide non-food treats in order to support kids with food allergies and make them feel included. Inspired by a Tennessee mom and launched by FARE in 2014, the movement has picked up momentum, attracting more and more participants each year.
To take part in this initiative, place a teal pumpkin in front of your door or hang a printout of FARE’s teal pumpkin poster to indicate that non-food treats are available. These can be anything that a child can bring home and enjoy, said Gregory, such as glow sticks, bubbles, stickers, markers and mini notebooks.
“We recommend non-food treats because those are safe for everybody,” she added. People who wish to also offer candy should make sure to separate it from non-food treats to avoid cross-contact.
A crowdsourced Teal Pumpkin Project map (which includes all 50 states and 14 other countries) allows participants to add their home address and connect with other participants in their area.
Carter, a huge supporter of the project, said, “I hope that by the time my kids are too old to trick or treat, I can see it all over the country, just to make sure that all kids with any kind of dietary restrictions are included. It’s really heartwarming when your community wants to take care of you.”
Hand out allergen-free candy
“Kids that have food allergies can miss out on a lot of the fun associated with trick or treat because a lot of the candies are off-limits to them,” Gregory said.
However, there has been an increase in the number of allergy-friendly treats from companies that are recognizing the demand for them, she added. These include Skittles, Starburst, Life Savers, Sour Patch Kids and Swedish Fish.
Online communities that focus on kids and food allergies can be resourceful when it comes to finding lists of allergen-free candies. SnackSafely (PDF) provides a list of Halloween snacks that are free of peanuts, tree nuts and eggs, while Kids With Food Allergies provides a list of the candies free of the eight major allergens.
Watch out for food labels and mini-size candy
The US Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires that companies highlight the major allergens present in their products. This is usually done by having “Contains” written on the packaging, followed by the allergens, or listing the ingredient with the respective allergens in parenthesis.
Optional “May Contain” labeling indicates that the food might contain traces of the allergen as a result of cross-contact situations during its production. “Traces of allergens could be potentially very dangerous,” Fineman said. “We council patients to avoid packages that state ‘may contain’ the food to which they are allergic.”
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, mini-size candy can be tricky. Different sizes of the same candy can have different ingredients. Also, individually wrapped items may not match the label on the outer package. This could be attributed to the fact that mini-size candies are sometimes produced in different factories. Many times, mini-size candies do not have a label. In that case, it is better not to take any risks, or check with the manufacturer, said Gregory.
More tips for caregivers of kids with food allergies
Get an accurate allergy diagnosis. “If the child has no history of allergies, I would not anticipate anything,” Fineman said. “But parents need to make sure that their child has an accurate diagnosis from an allergist.”
Alerting treat-givers. Children can have little tags that indicate what they are allergic to, said Fineman. If an adult is accompanying the child, they can inform the person giving out the treats about the child’s dietary restrictions.
The rule for kids is to check first. Caregivers should check food labels before allowing their kids to consume any of the treats. It is better to avoid candy with no food label. You can swap their treats with candy that you know is safe for them. Another option would be to swap their candy with non-food treats or toys.
In case of emergency. If your kid has anaphylactic reactions, severe reactions that need immediate treatment, keep an epinephrine auto-injector with you. Carter, whose kids had anaphylactic reactions, said epinephrine is a must on a night like Halloween. “It gets very scary very quickly.” The Asthma and Allergy Foundation also advises keeping a charged cell phone and an emergency contact list at hand.
Do your research. Anyone can be allergic to any type of food. So even with allergen-free candy, it is advisable that you do your own research to know what is best for your child.