Monday, August 27, 2012

Allergies & Atopy on Television

I've written a post with my PR cap on. This time, I'm writing it with my media cap on since I have a ridiculous amount of media education.

I find it interesting whenever I see a character on television or in the movies who has an allergy, asthma or more rarely eczema. So, I've taken a quick look at some television allergics and atopics. I can't say that I like what I see.

1. Being Erica - This show, about a time-travelling Toronto girl (in a very un-multicultural Toronto, might I add), had a lead character with a hazelnut allergy. She ends up in the ER in the first episode because she accepts a sample of coffee which turns out to have hazelnuts in it. Erica ate out, but never mentioned her allergy and she certainly didn't carry an auto-injector around with her. It was just a lazy, plot device to make her life seem even worse. At least she wasn't a stereotype like the following examples.

2. Big Bang Theory - I enjoy this show, though I don't go out of my way to watch it. I get the shirts that Sheldon wears and I giggled girlishly when Neil deGrasse-Tyson made a guest appearance. What bugs me about this show is that allergies and eczema are seen as part and parcel of being a geek or nerd. Leonard has lactose-intolerance which makes for some boring fart jokes. Sheldon has eczema which is seen as part of his anal attitude. Wolowitz has a severe peanut allergy (and yet no auto-injector), which resulted in a very disturbing ER scene which was meant as a joke.

3. The Simpsons - Poor, gawky, geeky Milhouse carries around his blue puffer like an addict. Any little thing could set him off and he has to take a dose. On one episode, Bart steals Milhouse's puffer to use like an oxygen tank. I won't even bother trying to critique that one. On another episode, Bart develops a temporary eczema-like condition on his scalp and it just contributes to his transformation into a geek.

4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Geeky and a member of the wanna-be villainous Trio in the latter seasons, Jonathan is allergic to methane. My unscientific guess is that you can't be allergic to methane, but a hyper-sensitive geek has to be allergic to something. I can't even imagine how you'd test for that. Plus, depending on the parts per million, methane is a toxic gas. Therefore, it will kill anyone. Sorry Joss Whedon! I mostly love your stuff, but try again.

5. VEEP - White House employee and impossible to like Jonah is fructose-intolerant. No, it's not an allergy and yes, the condition does exist. Funny that the most annoying character has it. Not funny that the reaction from his co-workers is "Just when you thought he couldn't get any weirder, he did" since allergic and atopic conditions don't make one weird.

I don't watch a lot of television, but everyone has an image of the coke-bottled little geek puffing away from his blue inhaler or a nasally-voiced child whining that he can't eat peanuts, shellfish and a million other things that make him sound like the last person you'd want at your party. The kid with eczema is always just kinda gross.

Allergies and atopic conditions are becoming increasingly common and it would be nice if television writers could do their jobs and be creative and funny. Out-dated stereotypes as fodder for "humour" are boring and cheap. If writers can't use their imagination to write funny yet responsible portrayals of people with allergies and atopy, best not to write them at all.

While my examples are shows geared towards older teens and adults, I don't think it's fair for this kind of ill-informed stigma to be placed on young children. These aren't choices made in order to be difficult or to annoy people. No one would choose to have a life-threatening reaction to a Montreal-style bagel with cream cheese and lox; so, I cannot fathom how writers and some viewers are able to find humour in something that can cause pain, suffering and death.

Further Information:
How Kids With Asthma are Stigmatized by the Media

Monday, August 20, 2012

Easy, Allergy-Friendly Chili Burritos

I promise I'm not going to make a habit of posting recipes, but this one was just too easy. It's a bit of a non-recipe, since I'm not going through all the steps, but I loved the result I got from leftovers.

The story is that I had leftovers components after making quesadillas. I had been thinking about making burritos and looked up some recipes. All of a sudden it occured to me that I had some leftover chili. So, this is the "recipe":

Easy Chili Burritos
Makes 1
Dairy-free, egg-free, nut-free, peanut-free, shellfish-free & fish-free

Can be soy-free, gluten-free, vegan

Your favourite chili recipe
Tortilla shells (small- or medium-sized)
Daiya Cheese-style Shreds (Mozzarella, Cheddar or Pepper Jack)
Fresh coriander (optional, but highly recommended)
La Bomba or your favourite hot sauce (optional)
Your favourite salsa
Baking sheet
Aluminum foil

1. Turn the oven to 350 F. I don't preheat for this. By the time you assemble one burrito, the oven is probably hot enough.
2. Place a medium-sized piece of aluminum foil on your baking sheet. It should be large enough to totally wrap one folded burrito.
3. Place one tortilla shell on the aluminum foil, in the centre.
4. Place a good teaspoon (or two) of La Bomba or your favourite hot sauce on the tortilla. Make sure to keep it mostly central. The amount you use totally depends on how hot you want it.
5. Spoon a couple tablespoons of your favourite chili onto the centre of your tortilla. Don't overfill.
6. Lay a few coriander leaves on top of the chili. If you love coriander, 5-7 or more will do.
7. Sprinkle your choice of Daiya Cheese-style Shreds on top.
8. Wrap your tortilla. Fold over the bottom and the top and while holding those down, fold over the sides so they overlap the bottom and top and you end up with a wrap.
9. Holding that closed, wrap the sides and then the top and bottom of the aluminum foil around your burrito. This keeps it nice and tight and you'll end up with a sealed burrito when you're done
10. Turn over the burrito package so the seam side of the burrito is down.
11. Pop in the oven for 10 minutes.
12. If you like a nice brown top, turn on the broiler (don't worry about pre-heating), unwrap the foil so the top is exposed and bake for another 2-3 minutes. Watch carefully. You can also sprinkle a little extra Daiya and get a bubbly, cheesy topping.
13. Serve with your favourite (warmed) salsa and a side salad.

C'est tout. Enjoy! If you're a singleton like me, this is an easy, yummy and not entirely unhealthy dinner for any night of the week.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Vocal Lessons, the Olympics and Asthma

Well, the Olympics is finished, the Paralympics is about to begin and I am only two weeks of singing lessons away from singing at a wedding. Since you're probably asking what an international amateur sport competition has to do with singing lessons, I'll get into it quickly.

Briefly, in my early 20s, I was a fairly decent singer. I got my Grade 8 from the Royal Conservatory of Music, was accepted into a semi-pro choir (though couldn't join), asked and hired to sing at weddings and if there was one thing I was confident about, it was that I could sing well. Over a decade later, my voice hasn't gotten much exercise and singing is something I'm no longer confident about. So, when I was asked to sing at wedding recently, I knew I had to take lessons again. Unfortunately, my asthma is now an issue. I simply don't have the lung capacity I did when I was younger. I'm also suffering from intermittent hoarseness which I will bring up with my doctor shortly.

What got me thinking about the connection between singing and sports was this article from the Globe and Mail - Why Asthma Doesn't Stop Elite Athletes. While the increased prevalence of asthma amongst athletes may be caused by the fact that they often train in very polluted environments, asthma seems to have no impact on their results. In fact, athletes with asthma are well-represented in medal counts. Why doesn't asthma stop these athletes? Researchers pinpointed that the extensive warm-ups performed actually gave a protective effect against broncho-constriction. In other words, proper warm-ups and exercising are good for asthma. It's something doctors have been increasingly telling their asthma patients after decades of saying the opposite, but it's something that needs repeating.

Regarding singing, I've started to increase my physical workout hoping to increase my lung capacity. I won't warm-up with an exercise routine directly before vocal practice for various reasons, but I hope by practicing daily (when I'm not suffering from hoarseness) and exercising, I can restore my voice and help my lungs and asthma out in the process. The lesson here is an old one - use it or lose it.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Happy Food Allergen Labelling Day!

Today, August 4th, is the day that new food allergen labelling comes into effect in Canada. Definitely a good reason to post early*. Advocates from across the country and from many allergy advocacy groups have been working to get to this stage for years. So, it's impressive and very welcome.

The question is what does it mean? I can't possibly cover everything, but I will point out a few changes.

First, there are improvements regarding the clarity of what priority allergens are included. "Contains" means that the allergen is an ingredient deliberately used in the product. Statements like "may contain" or "manufactured in a facility that processes peanuts" are considered "precautionary labelling" and are not covered under the new labelling law. If these are included, it is done voluntarily by the company. It's also important to note that labelling laws in Canada are not the same for foods produced elsewhere; so, please continue to use caution when buying imported foods.

Second, the priority allergens contained in food (i.e. seasonings) have to be spelled out. So, if your allergen(s) or intolerance(s) fall within the Big 9, which includes sulphites, gluten and now mustard seeds, you're in luck. For example, for people with egg or soy allergies, you don't have to call the company to find out what type of lecithin is in your product any longer. However, if you have an allergy to garlic or cinnamon, your allergen may still be hidden.

Third, any wine dated from 2012 and onwards is required to list any of the priority allergens on the label. Fining agents (i.e. egg, dairy and fish proteins) are often used in the production of wine; however, not everyone with a shellfish or egg allergy will react. Vintage wines, 2011 and before, will still maintain the same labels. This makes sense of course. It's hard to grandfather this sort of thing and according to Health Canada, no traces of allergen protein were found in a random sampling of 100 bottles of wine which followed "good manufacturing practices"; so, there is no huge risk to the allergic population. However, in cases where these practices are not followed (i.e.: proper filtration), proteins can be found in sufficient quantities to trigger a reaction. According to Health Canada, should proteins not exist in the wine, no labelling is required, even if the allergens were used as fining agents. However, should the proteins be present after filtration, then the new allergen labelling must be applied. Sulphites will also be listed on the label where present.

However, what's true for wine is not true for beer. Beer is considered "standardized" - made up of relatively similar ingredients, no matter the brand or type of beer. However, beer can contain allergens (besides gluten) and sulphites; so, it is still up to the allergic consumer to be careful of what they drink. For a list of some beers which contain allergens, read Elizabeth Goldenberg's 2011 post "Allergic to Beer or Wine?" on her OneSpot blog. What is important to note is that beer labelling is not considered a "done deal"; so, write your MP and the Minister of Health, Leona Aglukkaq, to let them know you want allergen labelling for beer. 

That is a very brief overview of the new allergen labelling regulations. I encourage you to read up on the new labelling to find out how it impacts you and your family and if you find an error, contact the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Personally, I will still read all the ingredients, not just the "Contains" section, even though my allergens are all priority ones. It's just another tool I'll use to make sure my foods are safe.

In the end, this is an amazing step forward. Still, we shouldn't stop here. The end goal for the allergic community should be to make sure that no food has hidden ingredients. As consumers, we deserve to know exactly what we're putting into our bodies.

* This post takes the place of next week's Monday post. Regularly scheduled AtopicGirl posts will return on Monday, August 13th.

Food Allergen Labelling - Health Canada 
Vintage Wine and Application of Enhanced Allergen Regulations - Health Canada
Questions and Answers About the New Regulations to Enhance the Labelling of Food Allergens, Gluten and Added Sulphites - Health Canada