My Top Food Allergy Pet Peeves: It Doesn’t Have to Be This Hard

in Managing Allergies, Travel & Dining
Published: January 17, 2023
My Top Food Allergy Pet Peeves: It Doesn't Have to Be This Hard
Photo: Getty

Lately, some food allergy pet peeves have really been getting on my nerves. They are things that, as a person with food allergies, I experience routinely and repeatedly. And frankly, I’m tired of it, since these issues negatively impact life with food allergies. What’s most irksome? These peeves can be fixed, if there’s a will to try. 

If we could only get buy-in from restaurants and people without food allergies, adult life with food allergies would become so much easier. 

Pet Peeve 1: Menu Items that “Hide” Allergens

What is “salsa macha”? How about pesto? Do you know the ingredients of either of these condiments? If not, you may be surprised to find out that they both have tree nuts as ingredients. You may also be surprised to know that your server may not have a clue that these commonly contain nuts. 

“Hiding” allergens is my top pet peeve because it makes dining out much harder than necessary for people with food allergies. This could easily be avoided by requiring restaurants to clearly indicate which dishes contain the top allergens. I was recently frustrated by a restaurant that was very good about indicating which items contained dairy (and therefore were not vegan). Yet, the menu didn’t bother to note the items containing nuts – like those with salsa macha. Why? It would be so easy to do.

The lack of transparency puts the onus on food allergy folks to research menus ahead of time or while at the restaurant. Lately, I’m often on my phone at a restaurant, Googling ingredients listed on the menu that I want to check are safe for me to eat. I do this because unfortunately, I don’t always trust my server to get it right. 

But I do believe a better system is possible. Restaurants, if you’re reading this: please indicate when items contain Top 9 allergens, or prepare an allergen guide for customers to consult. This allows for a more enjoyable dining experience for the customer, and also minimizes the risk of allergic reactions occurring at the restaurant. Is that too much to ask?

Pet Peeve 2: Mystery Drink Ingredients

My Top Food Allergy Pet Peeves: It Doesn't Have to Be This Hard
Hannah at a bar.

Alcohols can contain allergens, and so can mixed drinks. Individuals with food allergies need to be as vigilant when ordering alcoholic drinks as they are with dinner. For example, some gins and amarettos are made with almonds, and orgeat, a classic cocktail syrup, is too. A drink with a frothy top? That’s likely got egg.

So, here’s another pet peeve. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been at a bar where the server is aware of the allergen risk with alcohols. If I read a cocktail ingredient list, I Google every single alcohol or syrup to make sure it’s safe for me. (Or, I order a glass of wine – to avoid the hassle!) 

This is getting on my food allergy nerves. Bars should indicate on their menus if drinks contain common allergens like dairy or nuts – both of which are relatively common in alcoholic beverages. Bars are an extra risky space because as people consume alcohol, they tend to let their guard down. People with food allergies are no different. This means we have to be extra careful when drinking to ensure we are still practicing safe food allergy management. 

Having a “go-to” drink order that you know is safe is one approach. But bars could help a lot by training servers and by indicating on the menu which drinks contains allergens. Once again, this helps create a more enjoyable experience for all involved.

Pet Peeve 3: Caterers’ Lack of Allergen Guides

If you also work in an office, one of the perks is that you sometimes get free lunch. These lunches are often catered by companies that focus on corporate catering, with easy ordering from set menus. An office manager often coordinates the catering, meaning we food allergy folks don’t engage with the caterer directly, unless we arrange to contact them. 

I recently had the opportunity to order a free breakfast. But the photo of the breakfast sandwich I wanted (with roasted tomatoes, feta, and basil) looked like it might have pesto (which is often made with pine nuts). I couldn’t find an online allergen guide for this company. So, I opted for a meal I was less interested in, but more confident would be safe for me. (We also flagged my food allergies on the order). 

This has become another pet peeve. It could all be avoided if catering companies offered online allergen guides indicating which items contain common allergens. Several restaurant chains offer online allergen guides, which I think are a fantastic and highly accessible resource. 

They also make a lot of sense given that about 10 percent of adults today have a food allergy. That’s a growing audience of corporate customers, and caterers are likely to have to deal with multiple food allergies. These firms should make it easy for their customers to safely order food that everyone can enjoy. 

Pet Peeve 4: Servers Ask: “Is Cross-Contact OK?”

It wouldn’t be a pet peeve list without this common question! When a server asked me this recently, I replied bluntly: “No.” What did he expect me to say? “Yes, it’s fine if I have a little bit of peanut on my plate?” This question annoys me because it indicates a total lack of food allergy awareness.

With the proliferation of dietary lifestyle choices such as veganism or keto, servers and restaurants are bombarded with questions about ingredients. Understandably, it gets confusing when some customers claim to be unable to eat dairy or gluten, but fine with cross-contact. 

Yet, there is an important and even life-threatening distinction between food allergies and dietary choices. While cross-contact will not cause an allergic reaction for someone who eats vegan or gluten-free as a lifestyle choice, it certainly can for someone with severe food allergies. With a bit of education, servers can learn the distinction.

Requiring food service staff to take mandatory food allergy training would help clarify the distinction between food allergies and dietary choices. Such training explains exactly what cross-contact is, steps to avoid it, and how serious it can be. 

These are the top things that have been on my mind lately as I navigate life with food allergies. I’ve always had to deal with the issues I raise here. But they’ve become allergy pet peeves because it’s my firm belief that their negative impact could be significantly mitigated. 

It takes awareness, caring about customers and the resolve to do it. Plus, the bottom line: implementing some of the strategies I’ve outlined also makes business sense. 

I’d love to hear – what are some of your food allergy pet peeves?

Regular contributor Hannah Lank is an articling student and graduate from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. 

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