According to the US Food and Drug Administration, about two percent of adults and five percent of children in America suffer from food allergies. Of this number, about 30,000 undergo emergency room treatments and about 150 individuals die due to allergic reactions.
Some of the leading causes of food allergies are milk, eggs, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, and soybeans.
Unfortunately, a cure for allergies has yet to be developed, and if you are allergic to certain types of food, avoiding these is your only option.
What causes food allergies?
Allergic reactions to food happen because your body’s immune system identifies some types of food as a danger to the body. The immune system will trigger a protective response when you consume the food you are allergic to, in the same manner that it fights infections to protect the body.
Although allergies usually run in the family, it is practically impossible to know if a child will inherit the allergies of one of the parents, or if a sibling will have the same allergies.
Food allergies usually manifest during childhood, although they may be developed at any age. If you suspect that you are allergic to a particular type of food, an allergist can confirm your suspicions based on your medical history as well as the symptoms you experience. Skin and blood tests, on the other hand, are used to determine if you have food-specific immunoglobulin E antibodies in your body.
It should be noted that a positive result does not necessarily mean that you are allergic to a particular type of food, although a negative result will rule out an allergy.
Allergists may also ask you to undergo an oral food challenge where you will be asked to consume a small amount of the food that is suspected to be your trigger. The amount will be gradually increased as the allergist observes your reaction.
Avoiding food allergies
Avoiding the foods that you are allergic to is easier when you shop for groceries as you can read product labels and choose which items to buy. It certainly helps that certain legislation to protect consumers, like the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA), has been enacted.
But what if you are eating out? Should you avoid eating in restaurants entirely or limit the number of restaurants you can eat at?
How have restaurants responded?
In recognition of the effects of food allergies, organizations like the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network and the National Restaurant Association have taken active measures to cater to patrons who are on restricted diets. Such initiatives are geared toward better responding to customer needs while encouraging more patrons to go to their establishments.
One such initiative is the development of food allergy management plans in restaurants. The goal of this plan is to enable an establishment to better answer customer questions and handle special requests. And at the same time, this management plan can help restaurants avoid potential lawsuits and loss of goodwill stemming from an allergic reaction.
But despite these initiatives, you should not let your guard down when you are eating out with friends or loved ones. What exactly can you do to avoid food allergies when you eat out in restaurants?
A little preparation goes a long way
If you are going out to an establishment you are not familiar with, you can find out about their offerings even before you arrive there. This has become easier as more restaurants post their menus online. In fact, there are many websites that have a list of restaurants with contact details.
Alternatively, if the restaurant does not have a website, you can simply call them up and ask if they can accommodate your requests.
Find comfort in the familiar
Once you have found restaurants that cater to your special requests, you can now make a shortlist of these and frequent these places. This can help eliminate the legwork associated with making requests in an unfamiliar restaurant.
If you are traveling abroad, you may want to find franchises or chains of restaurants that you are already familiar with. Most of these restaurants use the same products across different branches in order to maintain standards. However, do not assume, and always ask.
If you cannot find a familiar chain, your next best option is to visit restaurants that offer fare that you are less likely to be allergic to. For example, if you are allergic to the ingredients used in Italian restaurants, you might want to dine at any of the popular Thai restaurants instead. Perennial Italian favorites like stuffed pasta may contain nuts or milk while mortadella may contain nuts or hazelnut spread; many people develop allergies or intolerances for these and other similar ingredients.
Once you arrive at the restaurant, make sure that you speak with the manager and discuss your food allergy or ask questions regarding the menu.
Why the manager, and not the server?
Simply put, the manager is in the best position to communicate your requests to the kitchen staff and your server. Additionally, restaurant managers know exactly how his restaurant operates. You can talk to your server later on after you have talked to the manager.
What should you say to the manager?
You need to be upfront about your allergy. This will allow the manager to tell the kitchen staff about your allergy and specific requests, like the substitution of one ingredient for another.
Double-check your food
When your food arrives, do not assume that your request has been followed closely. Assume the worst. If your request was not followed, you can either have your order returned or ask for a different meal.
Always be prepared
Do not dine out without bringing your epinephrine injector. Again, assume the worst, even if the restaurant staff have been accommodating.
Kumar Samtani is the co-founder of MenuPages.ae. With an educational background in Industrial & Operations Engineering from the prestigious University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Kumar’s expertise lies in process improvement & operations management for all types of organizations. He is also an experienced entrepreneur with business interests in consumer goods, hospitality supplies & real estate.