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Smoothie Bars & Ice Cream Parlors: A Potential Allergy Nightmare

Smoothie Bars & Ice Cream Parlors: A Potential Allergy Nightmare

Standing in line at Trader Joe’s last week, I noticed a sign alerting shoppers of a recent recall of their Matcha Green Tea Ice Cream due to “the potential presence of small metal pieces in the product.” If you’re thinking, “That’s nuts!” You’re right—although in my case, either would probably be just as harmful as I’m fatally allergic to nuts. 

The idea that some small dangerous object may be hiding in your food is not a far-flung concept for the food-allergic. If you’ve never lived with a food allergy, or cared for someone with a food allergy, it’s hard to appreciate the dangers that seemingly innocent foods present. And they often hide in the most unsuspecting places. Two such places are ice cream parlors and smoothie bars—or what UCLA pediatric allergist Dr. Maria Garcia-Lloret refers to as “allergy minefields.”

If you’ve ever been to an ice cream parlor with a food allergy, you know that the only thing standing between a scoop of almond praline swirl and plain vanilla is typically a bucket of water—and for someone with a severe food allergy, that’s not going to cut it. Trace amounts of a food allergen, as low as parts-per-million levels, can be fatal for those with a severe food allergy.

Indeed, many popular smoothie bars offer “protein boost” health supplements, which may include tree nut and peanut powders (as well as other plant-based options such as green pea, brown rice, chia seed, hemp seed, sunflower seed, or pumpkin). These powders can have incredibly high allergen concentrations, which is to say, the slightest trace of one of these powders can trigger a severe reaction for those managing an allergy to one of these ingredients.

Dr. Garcia-Lloret, a professor of pediatric allergy at the Mattel’s Children Hospital at UCLA and a pioneer in the food allergy community, has been treating food-allergic patients for nearly 20 years. Needless to say, she’s seen countless allergic reactions and anaphylactic episodes. “Experience has taught me to be wary of ice cream parlors and smoothie bars. Patients usually do not think of this type of establishment as hazardous and lower their guard. Teenagers are particularly vulnerable in this setting. Every summer many a carefree outing with friends ends up in the emergency room.”

If you happen to have a food allergy and need your cold smoothie or ice cream fix, the most important thing you can do is know all of the ingredients in the treats, and make sure you’re comfortable with the measures the facility takes to prevent cross-contact. Additionally, here are a few other tips:

1.     Ask the smoothie maker to use a freshly washed blender. Double-check their sanitizing process to ensure the blender has been thoroughly cleaned and there is no lingering allergen residue.

2.     Make sure the ice cream scoop has been thoroughly washed since its last use.

3.     If the person behind the counter wears gloves, ask them if they’d kindly change their gloves (or wash their hands if they’re not wearing gloves, as appropriate). Many of these establishments will also offer other foods, so this is a good way to ensure you’re avoiding cross-contact.

On the upside, many ice cream parlors and smoothie bars are becoming increasingly allergy-conscious, and are implementing more stringent procedures and practices to accommodate those with severe food allergies. Let’s be honest, what kid doesn’t want to participate in this classic summer pastime? If you’re now wondering, Where do I find hidden allergy-friendly gems?! Spokin recently compiled this wonderful shortlist of some the nation’s most allergy-friendly ice cream parlors! Or, if you’d prefer to purchase a pint instead, check out this list of top allergy-friendly ice creams.

Wishing you all a SWEET summer!

- Abi and the Allergy Amulet Team

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