Birthday cupcakes not a treat for all

Updated May 03, 2013

Bringing birthday cupcakes to school is a tradition, right?

Parents spend hours the night before the big birthday making the batter, baking then frosting the treats, then finding a container that can hold 20-plus cupcakes for safe transport to school the next day. (Or they run to the grocery store the day of — no shame in that.)

Then parents come to school the next day to deliver the baked goodness to a room full of adoring fans. Except, in today’s world, some of these would-be fans can’t have the cupcakes. In schools across Central Texas, kids have allergies to nuts, peanuts, eggs or dairy, or they are gluten intolerant or diabetic or have some other health reason why a cupcake could be a danger.

“Food allergies and celiac disease are both on the rise,” says pediatric gastroenterologist Ashis Barad with Scott & White Clinic — Round Rock. “Part of that is we are just recognizing it more.”

There are a lot of other theories as to why cases of food allergies and autoimmune diseases like celiac, which requires a gluten-free diet, are rising, including that we are too clean with our use of antibacterial soaps or more antibiotics in food.

An allergy usually has an instant reaction such as rash or hives or swelling in the throat. An intolerance or an autoimmune disease might not be felt right away but can cause lingering pain and intestinal troubles days later.

For Barad’s patients who have allergies, celiac disease or gluten intolerances, or other food sensitivities, they have to learn coping strategies and focus on what they can have rather than what they can’t have.

“You don’t want them to feel like they have a horrible disease,” he says. Yet, he recognizes that eating is a social activity and it can be hard to have to separate yourself, especially in the teenage years, by not being able to partake in a social event like eating the cupcake, he says.

One of his patients, Hagen Birck, has eosinophilic esophagitis, a condition which causes white blood cells to rush to the esophagus to attack it any time he eats one of the 22 foods he can’t digest, which includes gluten, dairy, chocolate, apples, beef and chicken.

Hagen is 5, and his mom, Ronnie Birck, already has talked to his future kindergarten in Johnson City. Hagen will not be able to have any food that isn’t provided from home. She will leave candy or something Hagen can have with his teachers when a special occasion happens at school, “so he’s not feeling left out,” she says.

Austinite Vivian Ballard, whose fifth-grade daughter Mimi is gluten intolerant, made gluten-free cupcakes for Mimi when she was younger. They were kept in a freezer at school to be taken out on special days. Now that Mimi’s older and “delayed gratification works,” Ballard says, she keeps the cupcakes at home, and Mimi lets her know when she owes her a cupcake because the other kids got one that day.

Ballard also is proactive. On recent STAAR testing days when a snack was provided, she brought fruit because she knows that Mimi and the other kids in her grade with food allergies or intolerances could eat it as well as their gluten-eating, nonallergic friends.

Kristen Douglass has taken her family off gluten and other foods to practice the paleo diet. Now that her children, 9-year-old Kaelie and 5-year-old Jordan, have gone without gluten since fall, they can no longer tolerate it and will be sick if they sneak and eat a pretzel. Third-grader Kaelie has had new food challenges this year at her Austin school. They had thought the message got to other parents in Kaelie’s class to provide a piece of fruit for Kaelie to have instead of the cupcake, but that didn’t happen.

Douglass makes sure to pack Kaelie’s lunch filled with good foods so that she won’t need the treat. “She doesn’t really need a cupcake,” Douglass says. “I’d rather her eat her lunch.”

Douglass questions why we need to do birthday treats at school at all. What Douglass sees on cupcake days is that the other kids rush to “finish” their lunches, without really eating them all so they can get to the cupcake. When it came time to celebrate Kaelie’s birthday, Douglass brought trinkets instead and passed them out to the kids.

Kids with diabetes face some of these same challenges, but no food is really off limits, says Dr. Stephen Ponder, a pediatric endocrinologist at Scott & White. Foods like cupcakes can be worked into a meal plan by swapping the cupcake for another carbohydrate or adding more insulin. That’s a hard calculation for young kids to make, he says, so he writes school plans to give to school nurses to help kids navigate these decisions and add extra insulin on special days.

“We don’t worry about cupcake parties or birthday parties; that’s just life,” Ponder says. “You can work anything into it if you know what you’re doing.”

For kids like Hagen, Mimi and Kaelie who really can’t have the cupcake, turning it down might be hard until they eat it and feel the consequences. “Early on, they snuck stuff and they paid the price,” Kristen Douglass says of Kaelie and her sister. “Now they don’t cheat.”

And Hagen, whose list of foods he can’t have seems to overpower what he can have, he just says, “That’s how God made him special,” says Ronnie Birck. “As adults, we feel sorry for ourselves. He’s not even feeling sorry for himself.”