Why You Shouldn’t Let Your Guard Down with Food Allergies

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in Managing Allergies, Travel & Dining, Your Stories
Published: October 18, 2018
Hannah Lank in Chicago.

As someone who actively advocates for food allergy awareness, I consider myself to be a well-informed, responsible allergic person. I always carry my epinephrine auto-injector, am very careful when I eat and always inform kitchen staff of my food allergies, and never eat something if I am uncomfortable with how it looks or smells.

The truth is that even the most diligent of us can make mistakes and let our guard down, which is why I’m sharing my most recent experience during a family trip to Chicago where I had an allergic reaction.

My trip to Chicago was overall wonderful and extremely positive in terms of my food allergies. I safely ate some of the best meals I’ve had in recent memory!

Unfortunately, our final dinner in Chicago did not continue this trend. I hadn’t had an allergic reaction in over three years, something that felt like even more of a success because those three years had been my first time living away from my parents.

It seemed so unlikely that when we were reunited on this family trip to Chicago anything could happen. Although neither of my parents have food allergies, they know my allergies better than anyone else and are always incredibly careful about making sure I’m safe.

We decided to eat at a local Italian restaurant for our final night in the city. My mom and I were excited to discover that the menu included lemon spaghetti, a dish we had loved when we tried on a visit to Italy. This is what we both ordered and my dad ordered a spring vegetable pizza.

I informed our waiter (who was, admittedly, not the most reassuring waiter I’d had) of my food allergies. Another reason I had decided to order the lemon pasta was because I had successfully eaten it before and knew it was unlikely to contain nuts.

When our food arrived, I enjoyed my pasta without any problems. However, it wasn’t the most delicious entrée ever and when my dad offered my mom and I a piece of his pizza, we both accepted.

I’ve eaten pizza hundreds of times without any problems and I know that pizza can be problematic if it contains pesto.

This spring vegetable pizza was completely unassuming and looked like something I’ve eaten many times before. My dad ordered by looking at what the table next to us was having and had not noticed on the menu that the dish did, in fact, contain pesto. Our waiter had not connected the dots far enough to know that pesto contains nuts and to warn the table that it was not safe for me to eat, in case we were thinking of sharing. And I did not bother to check the menu or ask our waiter because this pizza was so totally unassuming, it would be crazy for it to contain nuts.

I made what I think can be the most dangerous mistake for someone with food allergies to make: assuming that a food is safe because it looks safe or you’ve had it, or something like it, before. I let my guard down. That’s something I never thought that I would do.

My previous allergic reactions had all been because of an error on behalf of the kitchen, not my own error. But when I began feeling nauseated, I knew something was wrong. I immediately checked the menu to see what was listed for this pizza. There it was: pesto. (A sauce often made using pine nuts).

I had never had a reaction to pine nuts before – only peanuts and almonds and possibly cashews – but knew that I was allergic.

I took antihistamines to treat my nausea, monitored my symptoms, and was prepared to both use my auto-injector if more symptoms emerged and go to the hospital. Thankfully, I fully recovered and emerged with a fresh reminder to adhere to the principles I share as a food allergy advocate.

Your allergens can appear when you least expect them to, so never let your guard down and always check with the kitchen about every dish. Remind your waiter repeatedly about your food allergies – it’s okay to double-check! It’s not silly to check if something that seems benign (for me, something like pizza or grilled cheese) is safe for you to eat because it could save your life. And always carry your auto-injector on you and don’t hesitate to use it.

These are all things I know, but I made a little mistake and it resulted in a scary outcome. I hope that my experience can serve as a reminder to others that your allergens can appear when you least expect them to, at the most inopportune times, even on a family vacation. The best thing we can do is be prepared. Thank you to my parents for helping me stay safe and recover from this reaction!

Read more articles by Hannah Lank:
You Can Be a ‘Foodie’ with Allergies, But Also Be a Food Detective
When Non-Allergic People Stand up for Food Allergies, We All Win
Working as an NYC Barista Opened My Eyes to Food Allergy Risks