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Victoria's Allergen Diary Part 2 : Eating Out With Allergies

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

Last month Erudus’s own Victoria McEwan took over from 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, and in Part 1 she spoke about how stressful and challenging it has been with living multiple allergies.

This time she’s digging a bit deeper into eating out at restaurants – and how the rise of ‘faux diets’ and healthy eating fads have impacted dining out for allergy sufferers…

“It makes me feel safe whenever I visit a restaurant that has allergen labelled menus or a separate gluten-free menu, or when the staff are trained and able to have an actual conversation about allergens. But that should be the bare minimum, what’s even better is when there are multiple options to choose from for each course, and an actual sugary, indulgent dessert for us on the menu – allergy sufferers are so often stuck with fruit as a pudding.

There are a number of independent places I have been to where the Chef has come out of the kitchen, sat down with me and told me exactly what I can and can’t have and how certain dishes can be adapted to suit my dietary needs. It’s (rare) experiences like this that make eating out genuinely enjoyable as an allergy sufferer.

I would love to be able to say that this progress is purely down to businesses wanting to cater for those with allergies, but in reality “lifestylers” are said to be the biggest reason for the growth in free-from product development – specifically those that are gluten and dairy-free.

This prevalence for specific, restrictive diets is both a blessing and a curse for allergy sufferers. It’s led to more choice and options for us – supply and demand has resulted in great swathes of free-from products. However, as it’s part of a broader healthy living philosophy it also leaves room for disregard for those like myself with actual medical conditions.

For example, if you explain you don’t eat dairy or eggs, Caterers sometimes automatically assume that you’re vegan and give you a vegan option, which often still contains dairy due to production or manufacturing methods. If you’ve actually got an Egg or Milk allergy that could be fatal. Once at a pizza counter I asked if they did gluten-free pizzas and the server kept saying that they had vegan pizzas. These are two very separate dietary requirements, but I think a lot of the time people assume that if something is vegan it’s also gluten-free, which is most definitely not the case – many vegan products contain Wheat or Cereals containing Gluten.

My Dheli, A nut free Indian Restaurant in Newcastle.

It’s not anyone’s fault that they don’t automatically understand this, but education, communication and understanding of food allergies is important, and desperately needed across the foodservice industry – especially as allergies are on the rise.

I’ve met people who say they are ‘allergic to gluten’ because of a health fad or because they think a gluten-free diet will help them lose weight, only to see them eat a Domino’s pizza complete with gluten base on a cheat day! As someone who has navigated Coeliac disease from the age of 6 and been admitted to hospital because of accidentally eating gluten, it’s frustrating to watch someone use my medical condition as their most recent health kick. It can really perpetuate the idea that it is just a diet, and not an actual condition.

There have been a number of news stories recently surrounding frustrated Caterers – Vikki Wood was backed by others in industry after she published a list of demands from a table of ‘fussy’ festive diners where issues ranged from allergies to rare cooked meat, and vegans within the group ordering calamari and crème brûlée. She said that faux dietary requirements are one of the industry’s biggest challenges, and killing the catering industry.

Top Australian chef Patrick Friesen created a post on Instagram criticizing those with contradictory dietary requirements, saying ‘people with dietary requirements… make it really damn hard for people with actual allergies and dietaries to go out and eat.’ These establishments obviously take allergies and intolerances very seriously, but have no time for faux dieters and I agree. Whilst I don’t think there is anything wrong with disliking or not wanting certain foods, branding dislikes as allergies takes away from the serious and fatal nature of the situation.

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.

Allards On The Quay, North Shields

Despite some scary incidences, I personally feel most restaurants I go to are accommodating to me and my allergies and intolerances. If I don’t feel comfortable somewhere I don’t eat there, but I have seen stories suggesting that some places don’t take allergies seriously enough. A poll conducted by Censuswide and law firm Slater & Gordon found that 58% of those with allergies say potentially life-threatening conditions had been triggered by food that staff that had assured them was safe to eat – as well as negative treatment when ordering food, such as being branded as ‘fussy’.

This should not be the case, everyone should be able to go out and feel comfortable and safe when they eat.

We have made progress, but there is still a long way to go.

Next time on Victoria’s Allergy Diaries: Victoria shares her experiences about moving away from home for University and how to cope with your allergies when you first start living away from home.

Catch up on Part 1 here.

Catch up on the first series of The Insider Diaries – Beth’s Allergy Blog, here.