Help for picky eaters | October 4, 2013 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |

Mountain View Voice

News - October 4, 2013

Help for picky eaters

Food allergies can be deadly; local researchers are working on a fix

by Nick Veronin

Stephanie Lau-Chen's children are picky eaters. According to the Mountain View mother, there are only a handful of restaurants where she can take her kids, and most of the time she and her husband cook at home — making sure the food is just right. And for good reason. If they didn't, their children might die.

Lau-Chen's two daughters both have food allergies. Her older daughter, a 9-year-old, is allergic to shellfish, which isn't too hard to avoid, according to Lau-Chen. But feeding her 7-year-old girl, who is allergic to milk, egg, peanuts and tree nuts, poses a much bigger challenge.

"We've had three close calls with my younger daughter," Lau-Chen said. Her daughter has gone into anaphylactic shock — a serious allergic reaction, which can cause death if not treated immediately, often with a shot of epinephrine. "We need to carry medication everywhere we go — an EpiPen or an EpiPen Junior."

Lau-Chen's daughters are just two in a growing cohort of people with food allergies. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of children experiencing allergic reactions to food has risen nearly 2 percent since 1997.

It's an increase that has gotten the attention of the medical community, prompting studies such as ones now being conducted at El Camino Hospital.

Lau-Chen's younger daughter recently engaged in a double-blind allergy test to determine whether she might be a good candidate for a study led by Dr. Kari Nadeau of Stanford University. The Stanford Alliance for Food Allergy Research (SAFAR) is working with patients from the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital in an effort to come up with ways to help children overcome their allergies to food — and learn more about food allergies in the first place.

There are still many questions that remain unanswered when it comes to food allergies — in particular why exactly they occur and why they may be on the rise, according to Tina L.R. Dominguez, a physician assistant, clinical manager and trainer with SAFAR.

Dominguez said she and the researchers at SAFAR understand the mechanism behind food allergies — for some reason the body interprets certain foods as threats and attacks them with antibodies, which in some cases can cause the kind of swelling that will close up a person's throat and lead to asphyxiation. But it's not exactly clear why the body would think something as seemingly benign as a tree nut is a danger.

Researchers think that it may have something to do with the way food is grown, harvested and processed. Environment and genetics also are likely contributors.

"When you look at society and the way it was a generation before, things weren't mass produced in the way they are today," Dominguez said.

Genetic modification of food has been vastly expanded in the past generation or two. Processed food is pumped full of preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, and is subject to cross contamination from other foods and pollutants. Dominquez said she believes that all of those things have to play a factor in the rise of food allergies. "When you add up the amount of changes in manufacturing, all the environmental pollution, and you add the genetic component, that seems to be the combination that is causing some of these food allergies."

Research projects like SAFAR, and others around the country, are yielding results. According to Dominguez, it is possible to help the severely food allergic, like Lau-Chen's younger daughter, overcome their violent reactions to peanuts.

With the help of the doctors, nurses and scientists working at SAFAR, Lau-Chen's younger daughter — if selected — will undergo a process called "oral immunotherapy." If she is accepted to the study, she should eventually be able to eat a full serving of peanuts.

Oral immunotherapy, or OIT, is a process by which a food-allergic patient is slowly introduced to a larger and larger portion of the food to which they are allergic, Dominguez explained. Starting with an almost imperceptible portion, the patient's dose is steadily increased over a matter of months until he or she is able to eat a full serving of whatever had caused allergic reactions.

The process is still "experimental," according to Dominguez. And once someone has a resistance to a given food they have to keep eating a certain amount of that food every day in order to maintain that resistance — in other words there is no "cure."

The FDA has yet to approve oral immunotherapy and it can only legally be conducted in a highly regulated setting. "Safety has to be absolute," Dominguez said. "This isn't even allowed in clinics for allergists to do."

Everyone at SAFAR is trained to recognize the subtlest of symptoms of an allergic reaction, Dominguez said. If someone is administered too high of a dose of the food to which they are allergic, "you literally have minutes" to take action to avoid serious complications, including death, she said.

Despite the dangers of OIT, Lau-Chen is keeping her fingers crossed that her daughter will be accepted into the study.

"It would eliminate some of our daily fears." Lau-Chen said, speaking for her daughter and for herself. Both of them could breath easier knowing that they didn't have to worry about whether a meal may contain trace amounts of peanuts. Peanuts — which she said, are responsible for 58 percent of all deadly food allergy reactions. "It would be life-changing."


Like this comment
Posted by JT
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Oct 4, 2013 at 12:43 pm

"PICKY" eaters??? Do you realize these kids are not picky by choice (for example, due to a diet fad, dislike of the taste, etc.), but it's for their own safety? Anaphylactic reactions are life-threatening and no joke! Please consider updating the title so it's not so misleading. Thank you.

Like this comment
Posted by JT
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Oct 4, 2013 at 12:44 pm

Btw I do think the article is very informative. Just the title needs a little work. Thank you! :)

Like this comment
Posted by PS
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Oct 4, 2013 at 1:21 pm

Great article. We need more articles like this to drive awareness for severe food allergies. All too often people think that an allergic reaction just amounts to a scratchy throat--NOT TRUE. The general public needs to understand that life threatening situations can very easily emerge.

Thank you Stef and Dr Nadeau for her SAFAR research.

Like this comment
Posted by Polina
a resident of another community
on Oct 4, 2013 at 1:26 pm

What the children picky about? Their desire to live? Please correct the title to reflect the moral of the story, which is hope for children with life-threatening food allergies.

Like this comment
Posted by ABR
a resident of another community
on Oct 4, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Great article but the title is offensive to anyone who lives with food allergies. Please continue to raise awareness about this important issue, thank you.

Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of another community
on Oct 4, 2013 at 3:26 pm

THANK YOU so much for a wonderful piece about SAFAR! The research that they are doing is such great news for 15 million Americans who have food allergies. 1 out of 13 (2 in every classroom!) children have food allergies, some are allergic to multiple foods, some get very sick not only from ingestion but also contact and inhalation. We need more people like Dr. Nadeau and her team at SAFAR to help us find answers! Hopefully, people will realize that food allergy sufferers are not "picky" but must be careful to avoid their food allergens to stay alive.

I would like to invite Mountain View Voice readers to attend FARE's 5K Walk/Run for Food Allergies in Memory of BJ Hom on October 12, 2013. 9 am to 1 pm at Lake Cunningham Park (Cypress Pavilion) in San Jose. It is a FREE 5K walk/run with fun family friendly activites, sponsor booths, and live entertainment, raffles, and silent auction. Everyone is welcome!

Like this comment
Posted by Paula
a resident of Waverly Park
on Oct 4, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Thank you for your article on life-threatening food allergies and for helping to spread the word about SAFAR research. But please, the title of the article is misleading. While I get that you used the title Picky Eaters to describe the Lau-Chen kids, I feel pretty certain that they are not so much picky eaters, but terrified eaters. They know that just one bite can cause potentially life-threatening anaphylaxis, which makes them extremely cautious, not picky.

Like this comment
Posted by Victoria
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Oct 4, 2013 at 10:30 pm


There is a huge difference between not liking nuts and potentially dying from eating them. I have a child in the study and I can tell you it's not a resistance to the allergy that they are working towards, it's desensitization. There is no way someone on the SAFAR staff, especially the PA Tina that would get that incorrect. The journalist needs to get his/her facts straight.

On a happier note GO team SAFAR! I love the staff. Tina always makes us feel so safe and at ease. I applaud you and your team for all that you do. Your work one day will open the doors for so many other children like my son. Thank you for all your hard work and dedication.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.


Top restaurants to check out

Mountain View Voice readers have officially decided. See which local restaurants and businesses can now claim the title — Best Of Mountain View 2017.

View Winners