My mantra has always been that my food allergies will not hold me back – and I’m repeating that core value to myself a lot these days.
In England, we’re still emerging from the lockdown and, as we do, I’m focusing on pushing myself to get out in the world again. I got a little too comfortable with eating at home with multiple food allergies. It was easy, with ordering our groceries for delivery, and never dining out.
At home, I’m in my little bubble with Matt my fiancé, and cook safely around my allergies. It’s comfortable and, as many have found, cooking at home from scratch has been a pastime, distraction, and often a way to relax and chill.
While there are so many things I missed during the pandemic, eating out and the anxiety which goes with that was not one of them! However, I recognize that this is not healthy – I am working to overcome this, and also get back to my diligence in choosing accommodating places to dine.
Checking Food Labels
It was easy for complacency to build around food label checking during the pandemic. Making our own meals at home every day, I wasn’t having to do the daily labor of reading every label of on-the-go snacks and other food products while commuting. As we have increasingly more human contact, I’m pushing myself to shop in person and to explore my favorite eateries – I’m getting back to it.
So I am relearning to be highly vigilant with product label checking. It won’t stop there though, I will also be generally campaigning in the U.K. for better and more user-friendly labeling over the next year for anyone living with food allergies.
Complacency is real and it happened to me in the summer of 2020. I bit into an ice lolly, a regular brand that had been safe for me for years, and quickly had an allergic reaction. My lips and face swelled up and I had to take emergency measures to prevent anaphylaxis from taking hold and affecting my breathing.
It turned out that the ‘nut-free’ status of that lolly had changed, yet there was no obvious indication of this. Apparently, the brand had changed production methods, and cross-contamination in the production process was now a risk. This could have been a lot worse for me and this is something the food industry has to address.
Restaurants: A Need for Training and Trust
A big issue for me when it comes to eating out is the restaurant staff’s knowledge of food allergies, and the commitment of the chef and staff to cater to those with allergies. My experience is that many restaurants don’t feel that there is a need to cater for people with allergies, and don’t particularly want to take responsibility. However, what such establishments miss is that people like me have plenty of friends, and I’m usually the person who will pick where to go, based on where I can safely eat. So cater to the minority with allergies, and the majority will come along.
While I want to take part in dining out, a concern is that it’s not entirely clear what allergy accommodations will be like post-pandemic. Training on allergen risks does need to be maintained and refreshed in a timely manner. If you’re running a dining establishment at reduced capacity and with reduced staff due to COVID-19 restrictions – will those with food allergies remain a priority?
In London, there was the recent example of a pizza chain posting signs saying they can’t guarantee their food is “100% allergen-free”. Prior to the pandemic, I was asked to sign a waiver at a large London restaurant that I was dining at my own risk. This waiver-signing request of allergic diners is becoming more common. It’s concerning that abdicating responsibility could become a dining trend. In fact, the growing number of us with food allergies need and deserve the opposite: restaurants caring enough to train and reliably accommodate.
People like me rely on trust when eating out. We have to trust that staff in a restaurant will not get angry with us for asking probing questions, even down to how food is prepared. We have to trust that when we ask about certain dishes and what dishes contain we’ll be told the truth. I have found in the past, that I have to trust my own instincts and I will leave if I feel talked down to, or made to feel like a difficult customer or, possibly, even lied to about the food. Such a lie could kill me.
My solution for this – and for anyone reading this who has food allergies – is that forewarned is forearmed. Choose your restaurant online and give them a call. Experience has taught me that if they don’t respond well over the phone to those probing allergy questions, then move on – you will not have a good experience there. If they respond positively, it gives me confidence that I should take the plunge and book a meal for me and my friends.
Julianne’s Top Questions to Ask:
- Can you cater to those with severe food allergies? (Spell out what you cannot eat, plus take an allergy card for the chef).
- Do you have an allergy-specific menu and, if so, are those dishes at risk of cross-contact?
- Sauces often affect me, can I check if their ingredients are safe for me to eat?
- Have you changed your supplier for any sauces, ingredients or dishes that could affect me? (This is a good question if you’re returning to a favorite eatery).
I’ve found in life and in business, having a little plan can aid confidence, help you make better choices and create the best possible chance of having a good outcome. Therefore I apply that to anything which makes me anxious around my allergies – I hope you find that works for you, too
Julianne Ponan is CEO of the U.K.-based free-from food brand Creative Nature. She is also an allergy advocate and ambassador for the Anaphylaxis Campaign. Julianne has severe food allergies including peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, chickpeas and more. Find out more about Julianne at Creativenaturesuperfoods.com or Julianneponan.com.