Food Allergies in the Media

By Kristen Chandler

Today - Season 62

Trying to help other people understand the severity of food allergies is challenging when they don’t deal with food allergies themselves or know someone who does. It is even more challenging when food allergies are inaccurately portrayed—sometimes even made fun of—in movies and on television. Showing food allergies in the media this way misinforms those who don’t have food allergies and upsets those who do.

Food Allergies Are Not a Joke

Last year, a Super Bowl commercial caused an uproar among people with food allergies and celiac disease. It portrayed gluten avoidance as a weak choice, rather than an actual, dangerous disease people struggle with.

This year, during Food Allergy Awareness Month no less, Matt Lauer and Al Roker joked about nut allergies on a segment of the Today Show. This was not taken lightly by the food allergy community. Seemingly to make amends, later in the month the Today Show did a spotlight segment on the food allergy epidemic, with Al Roker talking to different children and parents affected by food allergies.

Unrealistic Movie Reactions

Several other television shows and movies have also shown food allergies in a not-so-serious light.

I remember the first time I saw the movie Hitch, featuring Will Smith. I thought it was hilarious. At the time, my son had not been born and I didn’t have much experience with food allergies. Eleven years and three food-allergic kids later, I see what’s wrong with it. The reaction to shellfish was accurate: swelling of the eyes, face and lips. The date’s response was somewhat smart: taking him to buy Benadryl. However, in real life, if someone had such a reaction, others should have immediately called 911.

If he knew that he had a shellfish allergy, he should have had epinephrine on him, taken a shot and then called 911. Benadryl alone will not stop an anaphylactic reaction. Also, no one should drink a whole bottle of Benadryl, as it will put you to sleep, not make you drunk.

A more recent example (and more of a family movie) is the animated movie Boxtrolls. I screen what my children watch and noticed this one was causing a stir in the food allergy community, so I watched it to see why. The villain has an allergy to cheese (or milk, in other words), which progresses throughout the movie. It causes blurred vision, swelling and angry outbursts. His cronies use leeches as a treatment. Toward the end of the movie, the villain takes a bite of cheese and explodes.

Although a fictional movie, Boxtrolls deals with food allergies in ways that are nowhere near realistic and could even be scary to young children or kids who are newly diagnosed with food allergies. My youngest child takes everything literally, so I was afraid she wouldn’t be able to watch this without making the connection to food allergies and herself and her siblings, and that she would worry they were going to blow up. So, I decided not to let my children watch this one.

More Realistic Portrayals of Food Allergies in the Media

Smurfs 2 handled food allergies in somewhat of a joking manner, but it did also portray a realistic reaction. The scene shows kids at a birthday party, and the father recites a long spiel about the cake being free of this and that, and even the plates “are PCB and BPA free!”

Following that scene, a man gives corn dogs to all the kids at the party. A parent asks if the corn dogs contain peanuts, and the man says no. The parent assure the child he can take a bite, but as he does, the man says “It would be silly to include peanuts in the recipe since the whole thing is deep fried in peanut oil” in a joking manner.

Everyone freaks out, someone grabs the phone and the parents make the child spit it into their hands. This was a more realistic picture. I’ve made my kids spit something out before because they started to eat it before I gave them the go-ahead. And yes, I caught it in my hands.

We don’t see the follow up, but through a phone call later on we learn the boy did have hives and throat swelling but was treated promptly and was going to be okay. Still oblivious, corn-dog-man says, “Well at least it wasn’t life threatening.”

Most people in the food allergy community thought it was handled more in a joking manner, for comedic effect rather than food allergy awareness. My opinion? I think the first scene was overly dramatic and made parents who eat healthy or have kids with food allergies and dietary needs seem a little over protective. We’re not being silly and we’re not being helicopter parents; we really are looking out for our kids’ safety. The reaction scene I felt was a little better. It was a perfect example of how clueless some people really are when it comes to the severity of food allergies.

There are several more; these are just a few examples.

On a Positive Note

But, surely not every portrayal of a food allergy reaction or food allergies is incorrect or negative, right?

A few positive examples are:

  • On an episode of JoJo’s Circus, JoJo has a reaction to merry berries. His friends handle it realistically and positively, making it a good learning experience.
  • The website for the television show Arthur has several helpful resources bringing awareness to peanut allergies and asthma, including a video entitled “Binky Goes Nuts.”
  • The Food Network has featured several chefs on their shows who have  food allergies and/or cook to accommodate them.

What Comes Next?

What do you do when your child watches something that shows an unrealistic reaction or makes fun of food allergies? What can we do about the negative light shed on food allergies?

The best thing to do if your children watch something that doesn’t show food allergies realistically is to talk to them. Talk to them about how it makes them feel. Compare what was shown to what really happens in the event of an allergic reaction.

What else can we as parents of food allergy kids do? The more we talk about it, the more we educate people. More celebrities are beginning to advocate for food allergies because their kids are allergic. Spread the word. Talk about it. Help educate.

On our website, we have a whole section of resources that you can share with family and friends, other parents and children to help educate them about food allergies. Also, be sure to check out our FREE food allergy “Awareness to Action” toolkit!

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