'Devil wrap' sparks serious reaction

Dazz Switalla thought his career as a chef was done, dashed. “And it still scares the hell out of me,” he admits.

Professional ‘foodie’ and columnist Dazz had crafted a buckwheat and chia seed wrap for friend Michell and her daughter Bella. But the wrap just about killed Michell.

Chef Dazz Switalla unwittingly created the ‘devil’ wrap.

Chia seeds – “the only superfood worthy of the name and perhaps the healthiest food on the planet,” say the websites – the same chia seeds which stall the aging process, help people lose weight and build muscle.

But despite the puffery, on rare occasions like this one, they can be deadly.

“My jaw locked, my heart was bursting through my chest, my throat was constricted and I couldn’t breathe,” recalls Michell. “I am tough, but I was so frightened.”

She believes it was the chia seeds that sent her spiralling, sweating and gagging into anaphylactic shock. “I really thought I was dying,” she admits.

Chia seeds, which are just 1mm in diameter, are powerful seeds loaded with nutrients for the body and brain. Globally, they are a food fashion.

Despite being tiny, chia seeds are little powerhouses. They’re loaded with fibre, protein, Omega-3 fatty acids, anti-oxidants and various micro-nutrients and are prized for providing sustainable energy.

But some people like Michell may experience allergic reaction to chia. The seeds contain proteins that can act as allergens - substances that trigger allergic reaction.

Michell’s immune system recognised the proteins as a foreign threat, released antibodies to fight the invaders and her fight for life had started.

“Try it, you will like it,” Dazz told Michell. But moments later he was wondering if he would ever cook again, whether he would ever enter another kitchen.

“I’d eaten wraps and falafels before,” says Michell. “And I’d consumed sesame and mustard seeds and tree nuts – all the other ingredients in the wrap without ever having a reaction.”

However within three minutes of the first bite, Michell was stricken with severe chest pain.

“I thought whoa! Is this serious heart burn?”

Just three to four minutes – it was that fast. And that’s what scared Dazz.

“I couldn’t believe it would happen that quickly,” says Michell. “From perfectly happy and healthy to distressed in a flash.

“Within six minutes my throat was swelling. I couldn’t breathe, my eyes were watering and my nose was running.”

Thoughts of impending doom took over, because she was sure the tiny seeds with the big rep were trying to snuff her out. In severe cases - and Michell’s case was a severe one - the victim will go into shock and if not treated immediately, can die.

“I am going redder and redder,” she explains. “My face was going to explode. My head is spinning and next moment I am hovering over the toilet and power chucking.” Michell was on the brink of something life threatening, but the ambulance was on its way.

Everything was going crazy and quickly. “I was fighting because my daughter was so anxious,” she says. “I am thinking get here ambulance, get here.”

In the meantime, a New Zealand chia distributor told SunLive: “Anaphylactic shock would not be ignored even if it is a one in a million occurrence. We will take it on board.”

However they did question how chia could be pinpointed as the culprit. Dazz and Michell agree only allergy tests later this month will confirm one way or the other.

The distributor “as a responsible food supplier” sought advice on labelling. Apparently their labelling meets or exceeds mandatory requirements.

When the ambos arrived at Michell’s house that night, they had her wired in moments.

And when they thwacked her in the thigh with a dose of adrenalin, a crisis was averted. The heart slowed, normal breathing returned and the anxiety abated. But for four hours she was under close observation at Tauranga Hospital before she could go home.

“Doctors asked me whether I understood how serious it was,” she says.

But it’s what’s not spelled out about chia seeds that now concerns Michell.

She believes packets of chia seeds and chia products should carry a bold warning of the dangers of anaphylactic shock – regardless of how rare the occurrence. But it seems there is no legal requirement to do so at the moment.

The packet of seeds Dazz used says in tiny writing: ‘Ingredients sourced from various countries. Packed in a facility that handles peanuts, soy, wheat and sesames seeds’.

“What does that tell us?” asks Michell. However the chia distributors explain that the ANZ Food Standards Code dictates which allergens need to be declared on labels in New Zealand and chia seeds are not on the list.

She adds: “I believe it needs to tell us specifically that on rare occasions, chia seeds can trigger a serious allergic reaction. And that warning needs to be big, bold and specific.”

And she says we need to know specifically where seeds are sourced. In this case, the company says the seeds are sourced from Australia.

Michell now wears a badge of honour from her experience – a MedicAlert bracelet.

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