Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Food Allergies != Fun

Sarah and I grew up without allergies and in allergy-free homes with allergy-free extended families and mostly allergy-free friends. That’s why it’s so strange to us that Maya has unpleasant sensitivities to so many different foods.

The confirmed list of banned foods includes:

  • Tomatoes
  • Pineapple
  • Blueberries
  • Dairy

And some recent probable foods:

  • Soy
  • Corn

In case you haven’t checked a food label recently, that means she can’t eat anything. No cheese, ice cream, ketchup, fruit salad, anything sweetened with corn syrup (e.g. almost everything), anything with soybeans or soybean oil (everything else), or anything with butter in it.

Maybe I’m being a little dramatic—she’s not going to starve—it’s just very difficult to get used to and impossible to eat meals prepared by others. She gets by on a solid diet of delicious home-cooked meals, supplemented with scrambled eggs and peanut butter.

Fortunately, Sarah’s taken this all in stride. She bakes all of our bread and sandwich buns (you cannot find buns that are safe for her to eat at a regular store—it’s crazy), and somehow prepares three meals a day for her and dinner for us without the above ingredients…and they’re good.

So as you might imagine, we’ve become quite good at reading food labels. We love that labels are often very clear, including nice bold statement like “contains milk, soy”, but sometimes they hide ingredients behind phrases like “natural flavors” and “spices”. As a parent trying to figure out why my almost-two-year-old daughter is sensitive to a dish it’s very helpful to know what’s actually in it. Concealing ingredients behind groupings like those is very frustrating for us.

imageA recent example of our struggle is Progresso chicken broth. What’s in chicken broth you say? According to the product label, the website, the toll free number on the back of the box, and the letter they sent us, this is what’s in there:

Ingredients: Chicken Broth, Sea Salt, Sugar, Autolyzed Yeast Extract, Carrot Puree, Natural Flavor, Salt, Chicken Powder, Chicken Fat*, Celery Juice Concentrate, Onion Powder, Chicken Meat, Carrot Juice Concentrate, Spices, Onion Juice Concentrate, Garlic Powder. [underlining added]

Oh, so the first ingredient in broth is…broth. That makes sense. So Sarah emailed and called Progresso to find out what exactly are: chicken broth, natural flavor, and spices. I’m wondering what chicken powder is, too, but that’s for another day. Their response: we don’t know (i.e. they don’t tell us so we can’t tell you). I called again and pressed further and was simply told to stop buying Progresso Broth if I was worried about it because they can’t tell me what’s in it.

Well that was frustrating. This as a great example of a company failing to win a customer. There’s probably a dozen reasons not to tell us what’s behind those ingredients but I can’t think of one that really stands up to scrutiny. It’s not like we’re going to start making our own broth. Plus, if I was a real competitor, I would think more scientific approaches to figuring out what is in the box would be more fruitful. Instead of giving us a complete, uncensored list of ingredients like Superior Touch did for their Better Than Bullion product (they were awesome—completely answered our questions in a single phone call), they took our name and promised a call back. Days later, the callback was unhelpful. Weeks later, we received a package from General Mills, Progresso’s parent company. This contained a letter with the same unhelpful answer: we won’t tell you what’s in there, but thanks!

As expected, they included some coupons for more broth (which we can’t use in anything Maya touches because we still don’t know what’s in it). Unexpected, though, was the reason for the package: they included a bunch of General Mills-themed matchbox cars. Seriously—we have four of these things:

IMG_6340 IMG_6337
(Charlotte pictured, not Maya) 

Maya loves them. So, Progresso, thanks for the coupons and the toys—I guess we’re even. I wish I could feed your product to my child, though!