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Victoria's Allergen Diary Part 1 : Living with Multiple Allergies

Welcome to our new series of The Allergen Diaries, in which we explore first-hand the challenges and problems faced by severe allergy sufferers as consumers in the foodservice industry.

This month Erudus’s own Victoria McEwan succeeds the fantastic Beth Newton as our regular columnist. Victoria suffers from a number of serious allergies, as well as some of the health issues commonly associated with them. Over the series, she’ll be sharing her good experiences, her bad experiences, and the lessons that can be learned from life on the allergy front line.

So, let us introduce you to Victoria…

“I was just 2 years old when I was diagnosed with a severe peanut allergy after taking a small bite of my mum’s peanut butter toast. I was too young to remember the incident itself, but I do remember annual trips to the hospital to have skin prick allergy tests to see if my allergy was improving with age. But each time I was told that I showed no signs of outgrowing my peanut allergy, that it remained severe and that I’ll always need to carry an adrenaline autoinjector with me wherever I go.

At the time I remember thinking, ‘Well how hard can it be to just avoid that one food?

When I was 6 years old I was very ill. I constantly felt sick, had stomach pains and was tired all the time, I had no energy, and was extremely anaemic.

After multiple trips to the doctors, and blood tests I was eventually sent for a biopsy, and afterwards told that I have Coeliac disease and would thereafter have to follow a gluten-free diet.

At the age of 12 I wanted to try my hand at making a delicious smoothie, and threw into the mix a range of my 5 a day. Drinking it, I experienced a strange aftertaste, and (unknowingly but stupidly) drank more of the smoothie to try and wash it away. Then came a strange swelling feeling, with tingling around my mouth. I began finding it harder to swallow. It was the first time I had experienced any sort of allergic reaction that I could remember, and I was scared and in shock. After a very puffed up Victoria and a very worried Mum made a trip to the hospital it was concluded that I was also allergic to kiwi.

As I’ve gone through life I’ve discovered I’m also intolerant to chickpeas and lentils, and have been told I need to be wary of oral allergy syndrome – where allergic reactions occur after eating raw fruits, nuts and vegetables. Almost a third of people with a food allergy have reactions to more than one type of food*, which increases the risk of accidentally coming into contact with allergens and potentially anaphylaxis.

Victoria's arms beginning to break out in Hives due to an allergic reaction.

I also have eczema and asthma – essentially I’m a very atopic person prone to developing allergic diseases. A walking nightmare! Learning to cope and navigate life having multiple allergies is hard, and my allergies also have an impact on my other conditions. They make my eczema and asthma worse, so I have to be very careful with what I eat, and carry adrenaline, antihistamines, steroid creams and inhalers around with me at all times.

There are 2 major minefields that we allergy sufferers have to navigate – food shops and eating out. There are so many times I’ve done a food shop, thrown some cooked chicken into my basket and not thought twice about it, (because why would you ever think there’s wheat in cooked chicken) then read the label on my return home and noticed it has gluten in it.

Same goes with sauces – just because one sauce from a particular brand doesn’t contain wheat, it doesn’t mean the others won’t. So the golden rule is to always, always, always check the label. Triple check them in fact.

Trying to protect yourself from one food is hard enough, but throw multiple allergies into the mix and you’ve got yourself a potential recipe for disaster.

You do become used to it, though when I was diagnosed with Coeliac [disease] I was told adapting would be hard and it was – gluten is found in so many products. The food I received on prescription was equivalent in taste to polystyrene, and in 2003 trying to find gluten-free food in supermarkets was almost impossible.

What made things even worse was that during my religious label checking I’d often find that if something didn’t seem to contain gluten, it was also labelled as not suitable for those with a nut allergy. So what could I actually eat? I found it was best to stick to simple, plain foods like potatoes and rice, vegetables and meat. I would use recipes for normal meals, but make certain swaps needed to make it allergy-friendly.

Despite allergies, Victoria still enjoys eating out with friends!

Eating out is a completely different experience. At least with food shopping your life is proportionally within your own hands. Eating out means putting it into someone else’s hands and I’ve had a range of awful experiences there.

On a trip away with my mum, we ate in our hotel restaurant and notified the waitress of my allergies as we were seated, and then again prior to ordering each dish – so we knew that everything was suitable for me to eat. As I was eating dessert (Eton Mess) I noticed something extra crunchy and quickly realised it wasn’t meringue. Yes, it was biscuit. After speaking to the Chef we learned that our waitress hadn’t actually communicated my allergies to the kitchen, and the Chef had experimentally crumbled the biscuit into the dessert. And do you what we were then told? ‘It’s only a little bit of gluten.’

When I was at university I worked in a bar, and after a long shift my colleagues decided to go for an Indian. Silently I was terrified, as I know that nut oils are often used in Indian dishes and there may be a risk of cross-contamination, but I decided to go and just not eat. The waiter asked me why I wasn’t eating and after I explained my allergies he said that he would be able to give me some food that was safe for me to eat.

So I picked my dishes, double checked they were suitable and reiterated how severe my allergies were. About a minute into eating I could feel my mouth tingling and my throat swelling. I felt so sick, and ran to the toilet in panic. My friend followed me and I explained what was happening, he called an ambulance, and I ended up in hospital for the night due to nuts being in my food.

Victoria in a hospital after suffering an allergic reaction

These aren’t the only 2 incidents I have had from eating out, there have been more, and it makes it a scary experience. You live in the fear that you might react to something every time you eat if your allergy isn’t understood properly.

> It’s scary how some establishments have such lack of consideration and empathy towards allergy sufferers. Holding the attitude that ‘it’s only a little bit of gluten, it won’t hurt you’ can be literally fatal for someone with a severe allergy. Even if it’s the most minuscule amount. For me personally (and I imagine many other allergy sufferers) one of my favourite things to do is to go out, socialise and enjoy delicious food with friends and loved ones.

It can be quite difficult with an allergy – you can’t just order whatever you want, it requires prior research, lots of communication and hoping that the person on the other side understands and has knowledge of allergens. But despite some truly negative experiences, there have been some brilliant places that I have been to where I have felt cared for and understood.

And later in my Diaries series I’ll be delving a little more into these good experiences and what other foodservice businesses can learn from them, as well how allergens have become more prevalent, the rise of free-from brands, and the tools that hospitality companies can use to make sure they’re always on the right side when it comes to managing allergies.”

Next time on Victoria’s Allergy Diaries: Victoria tells us how the food landscape has changed as she has grown up, and discusses some more of her experiences when eating out.