Lucy Gibney, a former emergency room doctor in Hampton, now runs a bakery factory, making allergen-free products.

When her 4-month-old son had a life-threatening allergic reaction to formula, Lucy Gibney, a board-certified emergency doctor with a practice in Hampton, started down a new career path.

As she and her husband, Paul, struggled to find safe foods for Colin, now 10, they also searched for tasty, fun alternatives to accommodate his allergies that include intolerance to dairy, eggs, wheat and nuts.

Always an avid amateur baker, Gibney started experimenting with different recipes but kept coming back to the tried-and-true scripts from her mother's kitchen. In 2007, she launched Lucy's, cookies made without gluten, dairy, egg or nuts. Her commercial bakery in Norfolk recently surpassed the100 million-cookie mark and introduced two new flavors, bringing the total to 13. The cookies are carried in stores throughout the United States, as well as in Mexico, Canada and England.

"People love the cookies. We're reaching beyond people with dietary needs. They're a better-for-you snack than junk food," said Gibney.

Food allergies

Food allergies are a growing problem in the United States with 15 million people affected, an increase of 18 percent in the decade between 1997 and 2007, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

In a 10,000 person study, just released by the National Institutes of Health, there are certain identifiable patterns. There's a noticeable increase in incidence of environmental allergies among the 1- to 5-year-old set in the South, which includes Virginia.

"It seemed to be attributable to dust mites and cockroaches," explained epidemiologist and lead author Päivi Salo. The CDC notes that children with a food allergy suffer from asthma at as much as four times the rate of others.

The study, which used blood serum tests for nine antibodies in the younger group and 19 for those six and older, found greater sensitivity to indoor allergens in the South and higher food allergies in the region among older male children. It found the highest sensitivity to milk and eggs in the earliest years, allergies that approximately 85 percent outgrow.

Gibney, 50, can't explain the origin of her son's severe allergies, although she says there's always a genetic component and his dad "is a sneezer" with significant environmental allergies.

Current theories for the explosion of food allergies point to the first four to six weeks of life when it's essential for babies to develop "normal gut flora," she said. The lack of exposure to "good bacteria" during childbirth — either through Caesarian birth or the use of antibiotics to kill harmful strep B in the birth canal — is one currently popular theory. The NIH study, she noted, doesn't address epigenetics, the effects of lifestyles across generations, such as a grandmother's smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke.

On constant alert

Gibney's family has adapted to exercising constant vigilance. "A big risk is succumbing to the fear — and there's a reason to be fearful. It's very hard to be normal about it," she said, noting that exposure to the danger foods is always accidental.

Five times Colin has had to use the lifesaving EpiPen (a prefilled injection of epinephrine) for anaphylaxis — once when a piece of honeydew picked from a salad bar had a piece of cheese attached to it and another time when his grandmother served him a hot dog bun from an unmarked bag.

His preschool adopted a "shared snack" philosophy and Gibney provided the snacks. "It was really important to us to avoid social isolation over food," she said. Still, her son now takes his own lunch to school while his contemporaries eat cafeteria-style, and he typically eats before attending birthday parties or visiting friends.

On out-of-town excursions, Gibney always chaperones her fourth-grade son. This summer, as he heads to sleep-away camp for the first time, she and her husband will serve as the camp doctors.

"Colin is amazingly responsible, so aware, so in charge, but we don't put him in a situation where he has to manage it himself. He's still too young," she said. At the same time, Gibney doesn't believe that "peanut-free" schools are the answer. (Peanut allergies have tripled in the past decade, partially attributable to the roasting process, she said.) "Someone inevitably makes a mistake and then people's guard is down."

A study by FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education), a Virginia-based nonprofit, showed that 25 percent of food allergy reactions at school occur before a student has been diagnosed, and that almost one in five students with food allergies have had a reaction at school.

To show solidarity, the family eats the same diet as Colin, though Gibney confesses to having a secret stash of cheese and nuts, and indulging in fancy ice cream once or twice a year.

Cookie business