I started to piece things together one day while we were having a little picnic lunch outside. It was a breezy day, but he was showing no signs of stuffiness, so whatever pollen happened to be in our neighborhood air didn't seem to be affecting him. I fed him his usual frozen blueberries (organic blueberries are much cheaper and easier to come by in the frozen food section). A bit of goat cheese. A few organic "cheerios." Then I opened the jar of freshly diced cantaloupe.
The reaction was almost instantaneous. Suddenly he was snotty and breathing through his mouth. He still wanted to eat, but it was a bit more of a struggle because his nose was so stuffed up. A couple of minutes later, he started coughing a little. Not severely, but enough that I knew something wasn't right. Against his protests, I put the melon away. How had I not noticed that this was a reaction to the cantaloupe before?
I hadn't noticed simply because usually, at this point in his life, Jem was feeding himself from a tray at lunchtime. I'd give him his food and then keep half an eye on him to make sure he didn't choke or anything, but otherwise just let him eat happily while I attended to other things. So I hadn't realized the stuffiness was starting every time I put the cantaloupe on his tray. This particular day I noticed because we were outside and I was feeding him by hand.
Now, I was a little bit confused. I had never seen cantaloupe on any list of allergenic foods. This also clearly wasn't an anaphylactic reaction he was having, it more closely resembled a seasonal allergy. What was the deal? I sent an email to his pediatrician (who had suspected either seasonal allergies or possibly something viral) and then did some Googling.
What I found was surprising, but made quite a bit of sense. Apparently there is a phenomen called "cross-reactivity," whereby people who are allergic to one kind of plant can also develop allergies to other plants (like fruits and vegetables) which have somewhat similar proteins. If your body is already on the defensive against, for instance, a certain type of pollen, then it may mistake other plants that have similar proteins for that pollen and produce an identical allergic response. This is known, in the medical world, as Oral Allergy Syndrome, or sometimes Pollen-Food Allergy Syndrome.
We all know ragweed is a huge allergen for a lot of people, including my dad and others in my family. Well, can you guess one fruit that is commonly cross-reactive with ragweed? Yup, cantaloupe.
Of course I hadn't seen a doctor about this yet, but getting another doctor's appointment for Jem would take a few days, so in the meantime I simply stopped giving him cantaloupe to see what would happen. The next day he was fine, no stuffiness whatsoever. And the next day...and the next...
So did this mean I had to keep Jem away from cantaloupe, a highly nutritious fruit that he loves, forever? Nope. Here's the thing: cooking or freezing fruits and veggies somewhat alters the proteins, usually to the point where they no longer resemble the offending pollen protein and the body won't react to them. Since dicing and steaming the cantaloupe was time consuming and usually turned the cantaloupe into a soggy mess, I started just tossing it into the freezer. Bingo. Jem has never had another reaction from eating cantaloupe, and, like his blueberries, he now has another refreshing, natural, popsicle-like fruit treat for these hot summer days. Or, if it's too cool for frozen foods, I'll let his blueberries and cantaloupe thaw in the fridge for awhile before lunch. Either way the proteins have already been rendered harmless and don't effect him!
So now you know: if you or your child are getting stuffy and exhibiting a mild reaction to a particular fruit or vegetable, the solution may be as simple as cooking or freezing it. However, you should always report such allergic symptoms to your doctor in case there is a need for further testing. Click here for a list of cross-reactive pollens and foods (please note that this list is by no means complete and should only be used as a reference. Also note that not everyone with pollen allergies will necessarily exhibit signs of Oral Allergy Syndrome).
Have a wonderful Tuesday, everyone!