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For most kids, one of the joys of childhood is racing home on Halloween night, candy in hand, and sorting through the evening’s haul.
But for the estimated 8 percent of children who suffer from a food allergy, fear and caution can put a damper on the festivities.
Nicole Wiltrout of Columbus remembers all too well the night last fall when her then-2-year-old son, Ben, asked to try one of the pistachios she was snacking on. Within minutes, Wiltrout said that Ben broke out in hives all over his body and began coughing and wheezing.
She and her husband, Jeff, had Ben tested for allergies, but the results weren’t in by the time Halloween rolled around, so the family proceeded with extreme caution that year, avoiding any candy that contains any type of nut.
While they later learned that Ben’s allergies are limited to tree nuts (cashews, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, etc.), the severity of his allergy rules out any candy that is made in a factory that manufactures candies containing tree nuts. That means many common candy bars are out.
“We pretty much avoid any kind of chocolate,” Wiltrout said.
Sunny Henry, 3, also of Columbus, has to avoid chocolate for an entirely different reason. Her mother, Crystal, said that Sunny and her little sister, Violet, 7 months, both are allergic to dairy. She said that she and her husband try to steer Sunny toward things she can eat, such as Twizzlers, hard candies, pretzels and Oreos (yes, as strange as it sounds, Oreos are dairy-free). Then they replace anything she can’t have with a safe treat.
“And if there is a lot of chocolate in there, well, happy Halloween to us!” Henry said. “And once you know the ‘cheats,’ it’s not so bad.”
Dr. Bradey Kleman, a pediatrician with Columbus Pediatrics Associates, got first-hand experience with childhood food allergies when his nieces, Kamryn, 6, and Alyssa, 4, were diagnosed with egg allergies. This rules out common goodies such as Rice Krispies Treats and other candies containing marshmallow, as well as seemingly safe foods, including pretzels, which sometimes are brushed with egg whites for luster.
Last year, Kleman kept a small stash of candies known to be safe for those with common allergies and posted a sign telling parents of trick-or-treaters with allergies to alert him if they needed to make a substitution.
Kleman said the key to happy trick-or-treaters is to begin educating children well before they’ve donned their costumes. Make sure they know what they are allergic to and to ask a parent before eating anything they don’t know is safe. Keep a secret stash at home so you can trade out any candy they can’t have.
“You don’t want them to feel like they are being punished,” Kleman said.
Wiltrout said that empowering her son with information on his allergy, even at such a young age, has been successful.
“The good thing is that he remembers the reaction and talks about how awful he felt,” Wiltrout said, which makes it easier to stay away from problem foods. And while she said that Ben usually asks her if a particular item is OK for him to eat, she knows children can be powerless to resist sweets.
“At the age of 3, it’s pretty hard to deprive yourself of a treat,” Wiltrout said. “He definitely still needs supervision.”
Henry has a little more trouble with her dairy-intolerant daughters. Sunny’s allergy was diagnosed early, and as her allergic reactions to dairy lessen in severity (many children outgrow dairy allergies by the age of 5), she seems more likely to want to take a risk with a cupcake or cookie.
“We tell her it will hurt her tummy, and she usually accepts that,” Henry said. “But sometimes she tries to convince us it’s worth it.”
So what is safe for children with allergies? The answer varies widely, of course, and Kleman said he can’t think of any candy that is safe for all children with the most common allergies. He said the key is to read the label and, when in doubt, call the manufacturer’s customer-service line.
Parents also should be aware that candy recipes can change over time and what once was fair game no longer may be. And keep in mind that different sizes of the same candy can have different allergy information. For instance, the standard-size classic Hershey’s chocolate bar is made on a dedicated factory line 24 hours day, so it isn’t exposed to cross-contamination from other peanut-laden candy bars. Not so for the king-sized version.
Wiltrout said that the fun-sized version of popular candies — common choices for trick-or-treaters — might not have any allergy information on the individual wrappers, so you might need to go to the company’s website to be sure.
And while triumphantly carrying home that bulging bag of candy on Halloween night is fun, Henry said that, at least for her daughter, the real fun is in the hunt.
“Getting the candy was the real fun,” Henry said. “Even if she can’t have it.”
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