How our daughter’s experience with food allergies inspired us to help other families prevent them
Guest post by Catherine Jaxon, Co-Founder of Mission MightyMe
I’ll never forget the day we became a food allergy family. Our daughter Niall was just a toddler, nearly three years old and full of curiosity. My mom was visiting us in Manhattan and pulled a small bag of walnuts out of her purse for a quick snack at our apartment before we headed to the park. Niall toddled over and popped one in her mouth. Within a minute or two, her face had blown up like a balloon, she was covered in hives and vomiting repeatedly. It was terrifying to see our sweet baby react so violently to something as simple as a tiny bite of food. Thankfully her symptoms resolved quickly, but after follow-up allergy testing we learned that she was severely allergic to nearly all tree nuts.
We had been following our pediatrician’s guidance to avoid allergenic foods in infancy. The American Academy of Pediatrics had issued that guidance in 2000, and even though it was rescinded in 2008 due to lack of evidence, avoidance became the norm. We had not yet introduced the most common allergens, including tree nuts, into Niall’s diet, and yet somehow she had developed an allergy. We were devastated. It was an unexpected gut punch: this lifelong and potentially life-threatening condition had crept into our lives, seemingly out of left field.
We didn’t know much about food allergies at the time, but we’ve learned a lot since then, including that in the two decades since we removed allergenic foods from infant diets, the rate of nut allergies has tripled and food allergies among children increased by fifty percent, adding up to a staggering 5.6 million food allergic children in the U.S. today – an average of two in every school classroom.
Our curious toddler is now a precocious tween, and the daily management of her food allergy has become second nature for our family: poring over product labels in the middle of grocery store aisles, always triple checking with waiters about ingredients, teaching her to ask about treats at birthday parties, reminding host families of her allergies at drop offs – the list goes on, full of “just in case,” “you never know,” “did you pack your EpiPen,” “what if,” “be prepared,” and “are you sure…no nuts?”.
If you’re a food allergy parent, I know you’re nodding along right now. The impact of food allergies on quality of life is huge. Like most parents, if there was any way we could’ve removed this burden for her, we would’ve done it in a heartbeat. We are still hopeful that some day there will be a cure for our daughter and the millions of other food allergic children, but it never occurred to us that it might be possible to prevent food allergies in the first place.
Then in 2015, everything we thought we knew changed thanks to the groundbreaking Learning Early About Peanut Allergy Study (LEAP), which found that, to everyone’s astonishment, peanut allergies are actually preventable. This 5-year clinical trial, led by Dr. Gideon Lack, took 640 babies at high-risk for peanut allergies. Half the babies ate peanut foods regularly, starting in the first year of life until age 5; and the other half completely avoided peanut foods for the first five years of life. The results were dramatic: the babies who avoided peanut foods entirely were five times more likely to develop a peanut allergy than those who consumed peanut foods early and consistently. This discovery was so powerful that it would eventually reverse feeding guidelines around the world to recommend early allergen introduction, especially for peanuts.
Our third child was just starting solids around the time the LEAP Study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. My husband JJ and I read the research and, like so many other food allergy parents, we were stunned by the findings. We were determined to do anything we could to help our youngest avoid a food allergy, but nuts and nut butters are a choking hazard for babies, and when we looked around for products that would make it easy to follow the science and guidelines, we quickly realized there was a huge gap in the market because the baby food industry is almost entirely allergen-free. So we set out to help other parents get proactive about prevention for their own children by making it simple to follow the prevention guidelines.
We partnered with the lead author of the LEAP Study, Dr. Lack, as well as one of the original co-founders of the organization that is now FARE, Todd Slotkin, to create Mission MightyMe – a line of science-backed snacks that make it simple and safe to include peanuts and other common allergens in little diets early and often, as pediatric feeding guidelines now recommend. All of our products are carefully developed to match the protein levels consumed in Dr. Lack’s clinical trials. They are also made with only clean, all-natural, non-GMO ingredients that are organic whenever possible. And they dissolve quickly for babies, while also tasting delicious for big kids.
We launched our Proactive Peanut Puffs in 2020, followed by the launch of our Proactive Nut Butter Puffs (with peanuts, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts and cashews) in early 2022, with more products in development. Our goal with these two variations of nutritious, tasty, quick-dissolve puffs is to make including nuts in baby’s diets easy and enjoyable. The response has been incredible. Many of our customers are parents like us, who already have a child with food allergies, and want to help their younger children avoid the same outcome. We can certainly relate - we had to develop our own product to find exactly what we were searching for! The first time we watched our youngest child devour a bag of MightyMe, I cried happy tears, knowing that this product would help him and so many other kids follow the new prevention guidelines, and potentially avoid a life-altering food allergy.
There are still very few products on the baby aisle that contain nuts or other common food allergens in sufficient quantities, but word about early introduction is spreading and pediatric feeding guidelines are changing. The USDA included early allergen introduction recommendations for the first time ever in its 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, joining the American Academy of Pediatrics and National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease. And a real-life case study shows we’re on the right track if we can increase adoption of the new guidelines: Australia has already seen a 16% decline in peanut allergies after taking a much more aggressive public health education approach. Still, a recent study showed only about 30% of U.S. healthcare providers are fully implementing the new guidelines with their patients, so there is still much work to be done.
That’s why we’ve made it our mission to raise awareness and empower parents with the information and tools to feed confidently and follow the science. Go to www.missionmightyme.com for resources and more. Importantly, caregivers should also always consult their pediatrician with any questions about whether and how to start introducing allergens, based on their child’s individual risk factors (current NIAID guidelines recommend a doctor's evaluation and possible allergy testing first, for high-risk children with severe eczema and/or existing egg allergy).
We are still hoping and praying for a cure for food allergic children like our daughter, but I’ll leave you with a promising statistic for the next generation: based on the LEAP Study data, if early peanut introduction was adopted on a mass scale, we could potentially prevent more than 100,000 peanut allergies each year – and the emerging data on other food allergies is promising as well. That gives me such hope.
I’ll always wonder if I could have done more to prevent our daughter’s food allergy, but I think it’s important that we all give ourselves grace. While the prevention data is strong, it’s not 100% and we were all doing the best we could with the information we had at the time - parents, doctors, all of us - which reminds me of the wonderful Maya Angelou quote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Now that we know better, we can help stop the rising tide of food allergies, because prevention is everything until there’s a cure.
While FARE does not endorse products, we support and appreciate enterprises and organizations that are committed to serving the food allergy community.