Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Food allergies - A founder's story

(This month's post is written by Jonathan Kelley, a co-founder of Element Bars. Recently, Jonathan Kelley was diagnosed with food allergies and thought he would share his experience.)

After centuries of agricultural and technological progress, you would think we’d have a simple way to control what goes into our bodies. After all, how hard can it be to find natural foods that provide sustained energy without jeopardizing health? I recently found out just how difficult it is, when the doctor forced me to cut out a broad part (the tastiest part) of my normal diet. As a co-founder of ElementBars.com, I was pleasantly surprised when ElementBars came to the rescue through my latest custom energy bar recipe.

I’ve always had a problem eating. It’s nothing as serious as major allergies, but food and pills have always taken the scenic route down my throat. I was such a slow eater that my siblings always managed to gobble down the lion’s share of the family dinner while I was counting my chewing. To this day, I remain a little underweight, and if you ask my wife, she’ll tell you I eat as slow as ever.

Upon a recent routine endoscopy, I was diagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis (EE). Basically, white blood cells flock to the esophagus in response to some sort of intrusion. Doctors have begun diagnosing this more and more, and they still don’t know why. Some of the leading researchers, at Northwestern University in Chicago, suggest that the “intrusion” is food allergies. There isn’t a gentle treatment for EE, other than lifelong use of steroids or regular stretching of the esophagus. I’m not keen on either of these, so my doctor recommended a crash course elimination diet, followed by gradual reintroduction of possible offenders. Ideally, this stops the white blood cell overreaction, so you can reintroduce foods while gradually looking for complications.

My elimination diet consists of removing the following:
• Eggs
• Dairy (lactose)
• Soy
• Wheat and gluten
• Corn
• Seafood
• Peanuts and all other nuts

You’d think after centuries of agricultural and technological progress, it would be easy to control the specific foods you eat. You’d be wrong. Aside from home cooked meals, I was basically out of luck. We’ve always focused on all natural foods and high quality ingredients at element bars, but didn’t understand how rare this is in the food industry.

This was a total wake up call.

Pick up your favorite packaged food and check out the label. You’ll probably see much of what I’ve been looking at the last three months. Derivative foods and additives abound. Corn is everywhere - Syrups, sweeteners, oils, meal, even fuel. Soy is much the same way – tocepherols, oils, sauces, beans, nuts, flavorings. Beyond that, there are all sorts of preservatives, hydrogenated oils and fats, artificial sweeteners, and a general mixing of ingredients in the final product.

Don’t even get me started on restaurants… I love a great meal out, when I can just forget about the amount of butter on the vegetables or cream in the dessert, but the elimination diet changed all that for now. Here’s a recent encounter:
Me: “Could I have the New York Strip with the potatoes” (a safe bet I hoped)
Waiter: “What kind of crust and sauce would you like on it?”
Me: “Does the blackened crust have any butter?”
Waiter: Yes, sorry
Me: “What about the au poivre?”
Waiter: I don’t think so.
Me: “What type of oil is used in it”
Waiter: Vegetable oil.
Me: “Oh, what kind of vegetables are used?”
Waiter: I don’t know-I’ll have to check.
Me: “Thanks, well, I can’t have any butter, peanut oil or soy oil. If either of those are used, can you request that it is cooked in some other way?”
Waiter: Certainly
Me: “Oh, and one last thing, can you make sure no flour or egg is used in the crust? Actually, don’t worry about the crust, can I just have it plain?”

As you can see, the process is a bit tiring. Twenty minutes later, my order came out with a side of asparagus instead of potatoes, as they are normally cooked with butter. I hope the grilled asparagus was coated in olive oil, because I didn’t have the heart to ask. Everyone has their breaking point.

Luckily, my wife and I love to cook, so dinner at home continues as usual (with a little more attention to the oil used, a lot less bread and cheese, and a few new foods like quinoa). At home we’re eating healthier and better than ever, but work is far from home, so making home cooked lunches every day is a big challenge. Locally, the best quick options are sliced deli meat, sunflower seeds, or a bag of natural potato chips. Beyond that it’s all fruit and rice milk. Everything else includes one hundred ingredients, tons of unnatural stuff, or some forbidden substance.

This elimination diet was cutting down my calorie intake, and my doctor commanded that I keep a healthy weight. I needed convenient food that met these crazy restrictions, but I wasn’t willing to sacrifice food quality. So I took matters into my own hands, and turned to my business partner Jonathan Miller at ElementBars.

I knew the ingredients we use at ElementBars are of the highest quality. One of our earliest decisions to only use the best sweeteners – agave syrup and brown rice syrup – had a nice unintended benefit that they aren’t associated with normal allergies. Knowing how much control you can have over the ingredients, I went onto the website and designed my own custom energy bar. It’s called “JK’s Elimination Bar” if you want to try it out. I selected my favorite ingredients, cherries, apricots, and blueberries in a Datey base. Sadly, my favorite base, Chewy, has peanuts. I added pumpkin seeds to get extra protein. In the end, I grab a bar or two each morning on the way to work, and it gives me the energy to get through the day without breaking my diet. Once the doctor lets me add nuts or whey, you can bet I’ll be redesigning my bar to boost the protein. Until then, I’m enjoying a fruit filled energy bar, that was handmade by my friends at ElementBars.

Building a “restricted” bar on our website, taught me a few things about the difficulties of food allergies and restrictions. We at ElementBars are now working on an improved “build a bar” experience that will let you specify your restrictions. The “build a bar” ingredients will then adjust to your specific needs – gluten free, soy free, vegan, nut free, or lactose intolerant. This should make your customization process easier than any other place on the web. We hope that this will help you to meet you dietary goals or fit your personal needs in the future.

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