May 2, 2024

Take the challenge to experience what it’s like to live with food allergies

The ‘Top 9 Food Challenge’ spotlights the challenge that 33 million Americans with food allergies have when choosing what to eat.

(image by Diana Duren) (image by Diana Duren)

For some 33 million Americans, not knowing the ingredients in food could be a matter of life and death. In the U.S., 1 in 10 adults and 1 in 13 children live with food allergies. Every 10 seconds food allergy sends a patient to the emergency room.

Efforts to highlight food allergies began in 1998 with a dedicated Food Allergy Awareness Week, which will be May 12-18.

During the awareness week, experts at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt want to help the allergy-free people better understand the impacts of living with a food allergy, a medical condition in which exposure to certain foods triggers a harmful immune response.

“We are encouraging everyone to take the Top 9 Food Challenge,” said Leslie Speer, MSN, RN, CNL, CPN charge nurse for Pediatric Allergy/Immunology at Monroe Carell. “We want people to walk a bit in the shoes of someone with food allergies so that they can better understand the magnitude of the impact.

“You don’t realize how often milk is in things or how many foods have wheat or egg in them unless you are having to look out for them and avoid them. We want people to empathize and see the world through food allergy lenses,” Speer said.

Speer said participating in the challenge, even if for one meal, for one day, helps raise awareness about the difficulties confronting food allergy patients.

Speer encourages challenge participants to share their experience and tag Monroe Carell using #Top9Free on: Instagram: @VUMCchildren, X (formerly Twitter): @VUMCchildren and Facebook: /childrenshospital.

The Top 9 are the most common food allergens recognized by the Food and Drug Administration.

Legislation requires labeling these ingredients on packaging:

  • Tree nuts (almonds, cashews, pistachios, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, etc…)
  • Peanuts
  • Soy
  • Wheat
  • Egg
  • Milk
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Sesame

Signs of a reaction to a food can range from mild to severe and include hives, itchy rash, lip/tongue swelling, coughing, shortness of breath, and wheezing within a few hours of eating a food.

Rachel Glick Robison, MD

The Allergy Clinic at Vanderbilt Health One Hundred Oaks, a Food Allergy Resource and Education (FARE) center of distinction, works to improve the quality of life and health of individuals with food allergies through transformative research, education and advocacy. It houses the Oral Immunotherapy Clinic, run by Rachel Robison, MD, associate professor of Pediatrics within the Division of Pediatric Allergy, Immunology and Pulmonology at Monroe Carell.

“A part of the education that we provide to families, schools and communities is that life-threatening food allergy is a disease and not a diet,” said Robison. “We are seeing the level of hope increasing among our patient families. While there may not be a cure for a particular allergy, we can help with treatments that can provide a better quality of life — living with less anxiety surrounding travel, eating at restaurants, and offering a decreased chance of a severe reaction.

“Accidental ingestion is a real concern for parents,” said Robison. “We now have some therapies approved for treatment including oral immunotherapy (OIT). It’s not a cure but can give a level of protection against accidently ingesting the allergen in your daily life.”

With OIT, a patient eats small but increasing amounts of their specific allergen daily over time until reaching a maintenance level dose. Known as desensitization, the maintenance dose is lifelong and must be consumed daily for continued protection.

Moreover, Robison’s clinic is involved in several research studies for other forms of food allergy therapies.

As part of Food Allergy Awareness Week, several iconic Nashville buildings will be lit up in the color teal, the color of food allergy awareness including the state Capitol and Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge.