Gwen Martens of Atwood has almost died three times because of her food allergies.
The first time was at a bank when she was 5 years old.
"Mom was in the middle of a transaction when someone cried out, 'That little girl is turning blue!'" Martens said. "That was my first trip to the ER – then, throughout childhood, trips to the hospital as they discovered I was also allergic to tree nuts."
Next, Martens was deprived for years of cow's milk and chocolate when her family feared she was allergic to those substances.
Eventually, extensive allergy tests at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis confirmed only the peanut, nut and some other nonfood allergies.
Soybeans were not part of most diets – nor her testing – in the late 1970s and early '80s.
"Years later, after drinking a Carnation Instant Breakfast loaded with soy protein, I had to leave a class at the University of Illinois to collapse in the women's bathroom," Martens said. "I was found by another student who called an ambulance. I had a near-death experience before being revived by skeptical docs at UI McKinley who thought at first I was OD'ing on drugs until I was able to gasp 'allergy.'"
Her next scare was almost dying after eating lentil bean soup.
Further testing revealed her allergies to most legumes. That includes not only peanuts and soybeans, but beans like lentils and limas, chick peas and peas.
Now, the 55-year-old Martens says: "I carefully read the fine print on everything I buy to eat, never eat anything I don't know everything about, carry an injection kit and Benadryl and give thanks for the increased public awareness of food allergies."
More than 3 million people in the U.S. are reportedly allergic to peanuts, tree nuts or both. Severity of reactions can range from hives after eating peanut butter to anaphylactic shock (airway obstruction and heart failure) from merely smelling nuts on someone else's breath.
Peanuts are in the legume family, which also includes alfalfa and clover. Tree nuts are things like almonds, pecans and walnuts.
To further complicate the issue, some people can eat one kind of nut but not others.
A peanut allergy is the most common cause of food-related death, according to the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America. Some medical experts call that statement an over-reaction because there is only one death annualy per 830,000 children who have food allergies.
But even that statistic can strike fear among parents of young children.
"It's scary," said Johnalene Radek of Champaign, who has a daughter with a severe peanut allergy. "Birthday parties and play dates are always a source of anxiety. She's only 5, but we have to juggle letting her live a 'normal' life and hovering to keep her safe."
Ellison Radek's first exposure to peanut butter, at age 2, turned her lips blue and swelled her face. She had another anaphylactic reaction with a minuscule amount of the allergen injected for skin testing.
"We are blessed to attend a school (Next Generation) that is vigilant about keeping her safe," Radek said. "Her classroom is nut free. They sent home a letter to parents at the beginning of the year that it was not only an allergy, but a life-threatening allergy. Some people assume an allergy is just a sneeze or a rash."
Urbana neighbors Theresa Sweeney and Chris Atkinson both have 4-year-olds with peanut allergies. They trust sending the kids to each other's homes, but worry nearly everywhere else.
"If we go to a party as a family, I'm always telling Patrick, 'You can't eat anything without asking Mommy or Daddy,'" Sweeney said. "I remember being at one where there was a big bowl of trail mix, which I called 'a big bowl of death.' The cereals (and nuts) were mixed with M&Ms, which he wanted."
"As a baby, he had horrible eczema while I was nursing him," Sweeney said. "I had his nails trimmed down to nothing and was giving him oatmeal baths. I love and was eating Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and maybe that started it for him."
Patrick was diagnosed with the peanut allergy at age 2 after some breakouts around his mouth. He had another episode – breaking out in hives – after merely walking with a friend's dog that had eaten peanut butter.
Rosie Atkinson was 1 year old and eating strawberries, cheese and her first tiny amount of peanut butter on a piece of toast.
"It was only 15 to 20 minutes before she developed hives around her mouth and started vomiting," Chris Atkinson said. "Nurses at her doctor's office thought it probably was the strawberries and suggested I give her some Benadryl. I gave her two doses, and she still was sick for nine hours."
Doctors once warned parents not to introduce peanuts to young children's diets, but the American Association of Pediatrics now says there is no reason to avoid peanut foods until a child shows a reaction. British and Australian pediatricians still advise waiting to introduce peanuts in youngster's diets until they are at least 3 years old.
There are a lot of misconceptions about food allergies.
"At restaurants, some servers think the allergens can be cooked out," Sweeney said.
Said Atkinson: "Some people think the kids are just being picky or don't like something."
It is not just the ingestion of peanuts, but the fear of cross-contamination that worries those allergic to peanuts and their caregivers.
"Buffets are not any fun for me," Atkinson said. "You never know if the tongs have been moved from one food to another, and the ice cream stations all have peanuts around them."
Sweeney remembers taking her children to movie theaters where the popcorn was popped in peanut oil. She had to talk them into candy treats instead.
But she had at least one good experience at a local food shop.
"We had gotten a gift certificate to Marble Slab Creamery, and I went there with all the kids to get ice cream," Sweeney said. "When we got there, they were mixing ice cream on the counter with Reese's. When I explained our problem, the clerk washed the scoop, got ice cream from a new container and even opened up a new package of cups and lids. I really appreciated it."
The Urbana moms plan to request that Patrick and Rosie be in the same classroom at nearby Yankee Ridge School so they will have only one teacher to educate about their kids' peanut allergies.
Atkinson is pleased that Aramark, which provides food for the Urbana schools, has changed its alternative to a hot lunch to a cheese sandwich instead of a peanut butter sandwich.
"It will be hard enough to give up control to the school," said Theresa Sweeney, who is a psychologist at Jefferson Middle School in Champaign.
Debra Dempsey, Christie Clinic dietitian, said, "When my son was at Barkstall (a Champaign school), there was a proposal to eliminate peanuts from the lunchroom, but there was an outcry from parents whose kids loved it. They compromised on a nut-free table."
Lori Grant, food service director for the Champaign School District, said the decision is up to each school.
"Some are peanut-free, some have nut-free tables and some have no divisions at all," she said. "It is generated by severities of allergies at that building and reviewed as the kids enrolled change. But the central (administration) office is looking at fine-tuning an allergy policy."
Robin Allen, administrative dietitian for dining services at the University of Illinois, says most college-age students are adult enough to avoid their allergens
"Some may be used to adults overlooking their menus, so we encourage them to ask questions," she said.
She also pointed out the UI's online EatSmart nutritional analysis system.
A user scrolls to the name of a dining hall where he plans to eat, chooses the daily menu and a meal, then scrolls down to the bottom to check allergy labels.
"But we are not a peanut-free operation," Allen said. "If a student is sensitive to airborne food allergies, we advise them to live elsewhere (besides a dormitory.)"
Both Patrick Sweeney and Rosie Atkinson sometimes get teased by other children that they will get stuck by their epi pens if they aren't careful about what they eat.
The pens contain epinephrine, also called adrenaline, which is the only known quick fix for a reaction.
"We have practiced with ours because I don't want her to be scared of it," Atkinson said.
For the most part, both Patrick's and Rosie's older siblings, two each, are protective of their sensitivity to peanuts.
"We were all settling down one night to watch television and eat some new chips, and our older daughter said, 'Look, we can't eat these. They were cooked in 100 percent peanut oil.' I had missed it," Atkinson said.
The Atkinsons try to keep all peanut-related products out of their house.
The Sweeneys allow Patrick's two older sisters to eat peanut butter at home but require good hygiene around it.
"We wash hands and faces, countertop and table afterward," Sweeney said.
A peanut-allergic person can just stay away from the legume or things processed with it. When the allergy is diagnosed later in life or other family members miss certain foods, such as Asian dishes, cooks may substitute soy butter, almond butter or tofu if diners are not sensitive to those items.
The Atkinson family likes a treat made from soy butter and almonds that Chris Atkinson devised from an original peanut recipe. She uses the I.M. Healthy brand of soy butter that is peanut-, nut-, gluten- and dairy-free. She calls the snack:
SOY BUTTER ALMOND BARS
1 cup honey, 1 cup soy butter, 2 cups instant nonfat dry milk, 1 cup finely chopped coconut, 1 (12-ounce) can finely chopped Blue Diamond almonds (about 3 cups).
Warm honey and soy butter together. Add milk, coconut and almonds to honey mixture and blend.
Press mixture tightly and evenly into an 8-by-8-by-2-inch square dish. Refrigerate for about two hours. Cut into squares.
Makes 16 4-by-4-inch portions or more if cut smaller.
2 cups white sugar, 1/2 cup butter, 1/2 cup milk, 3 tablespoons cocoa powder, 3 cups quick cooking oats, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.
Mix together sugar, butter or margarine and milk in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
Remove from heat and mix in cocoa, oats and vanilla. Drop by spoonfuls on waxed paper.
Recipes from http://www.soynutbutter.com include:
BREAKFAST PITA POCKET
1 whole wheat pita pocket half, 1 tablespoon soy butter, 1 tablespoon apple butter, 6 apple slices.
Spread soy butter and apple butter in pita half. Arrange apple slices inside pita.
SPICY SOYNUT BUTTER SAUCE FOR GRAINS
3/4 cup brown rice vinegar, 2 tablespoons apple juice concentrate, 2 tablespoons tamari, 1 tablespoon minced ginger root, 1 clove garlic minced, 1 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes, 1/3 cup soy butter.
Whisk ingredients together. Store in glass jar. Pour over grains such as quinoa, brown rice or pasta.
SOYNUT SAUCE FOR SATAY
1/2 cup water; 1/3 cup soy butter; 1 small garlic clove, minced; 1 tablespoon brown sugar; 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper; 1 1/2 teaspoon soy sauce; 3/4 cup lemon juice.
In medium saucepan over medium heat, combine water, garlic and soy butter and cook until mixture comes to a boil and thickens. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients. Cool and serve with baked chicken, beef or pork.
CREAMY "PEANUT" GINGER SOUP
1 large onion, chopped; nonstick spray; 1 stalk celery, chopped; 1 pound carrots or sweet potatoes (or a combination); 2 large white potatoes, peeled and chopped; about 5 cups water and 1 cup plain soy milk; 12 ounces extra firm light silken tofu; 1/2 cup soy butter; 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger root; 1 1/2 teaspoon salt.
Simmer onion in nonstick spray over low heat until clear (about 5 minutes). Add vegetables, water and soy milk, cover and simmer over medium heat for about 30 minutes or unitl vegetables are soft. Liquid will cook down some.
Add the soy butter, ginger root and salt. Stir. Remove from heat.
Puree the entire contents in a blender in batches until smooth, then return to a clean pan and heat through before serving. Adjust seasonings.
Makes 10 cups.