What I wish people knew about food allergies

It actually is serious. We aren’t just being difficult.

Before I started dating a person with food allergies I had no idea how serious they were.  I’d hear stories about parents freaking out over peanuts and sigh.  I had a cousin with a kid with multiple allergies and it was generally accepted that they were overreacting.

Restaurants have gotten so much more responsive about this in the last 10 years but I can think of two restaurants in my town who aggressively refuse to answer questions about allergies.  They have signs up that say that allergic people shouldn’t eat there and one refused to even tell us if their hamburger buns had sesame seeds on top before we ordered.  Not cool.

Not All Issues With Food Are the Same

Preference – I’m a vegetarian.  I chose that lifestyle.  If I accidentally eat some meat I won’t be happy but nothing bad will happen to me.

Intolerance – My body doesn’t function well if I eat dairy or wheat.  This has been verified with blood testing.  If I eat something that I have an intolerance to I’ll be uncomfortable but it isn’t life threatening.

Allergy – People with food allergies quickly develop signs from a rash to hives to anaphalaxis.  This can be life threatening.

Don’t be the person who claims to have an allergy to an ingredient when actually you just don’t like it.  Too many of those people can make restaurants less responsive to real allergies.

The Paranoia is Real – for some people

A vegetarian and a person with food allergies live together?  Yeah, we’re those people.  I read every label on everything everytime even if it doesn’t seem like there should be an allergen in it.

The worst is when an allergen gets trendy.  Sesame is traditionally in Asian and Middle East food.  Avoiding that is bad enough.  Now people are sneaking sesame oil into everything.  So if I ask to look at the ingredients on something you made from prepared ingredients, it is the voice of experience talking.  It isn’t (just) that I don’t trust you.  I don’t want to spend the next six hours in the hospital.

I’m way more paranoid than the husband is.  I think it is because once the reaction being treated, he goes to sleep in the hospital bed.  He doesn’t have to sit up all night making sure his favorite human isn’t about to have a secondary reaction.  He’s never tried to find a hospital in an unfamiliar small town at night while on the phone with the 911 operator because his spouse said, “My lips feel funny” and then collapsed.  As I tell him, he isn’t at risk of having to be a grieving widow.  He’ll just die and get it over with.  He agrees.  That’s why he does things like pop a cracker in his mouth on a flight halfway over the Atlantic Ocean without reading the label.  They almost needed the defibrillator to restart my heart when he did that.

Cross Contamination

I notice this all the time now.  I was at a bagel shop when the person working dropped a piece of ham into the cream cheese.  When he pulled it out it had sesame seeds that I guess had been spilled in the cream cheese stuck to it.  He put it on the bagel sandwich he was making without a thought.

I don’t buy food from bulk bins if the scoops are able to reach containers that contain allergens because people don’t always use the designated scoop for the bin.

Open wire baskets of bread that sprinkle seeds down onto the loaves below, Reusing a knife at sub shops after just wiping it off, the list goes on and on.  When I see it I automatically think, “There’s a hospital stay.”

How People Can Help

It is our responsibility to protect ourselves from allergies but people can help.

  • If you are going to be making food for an allergic person, find out what you need to know.  (Tahini = sesame paste isn’t common knowledge it turns out).  Ask if you aren’t sure.
  • Watch out for contamination.  Don’t switch utensils in containers at the salad bar; use the designated scoop at stores; clean up spills of common allergens well in public places; etc.
  • Don’t act like you are being persecuted if someone asks you not to bring food with a specific ingredient.  How are you going to feel if someone dies because you fought for your right to have a peanut butter sandwich?  You can have it when you get home.  You can go without.  Seriously, I gave up hummus because I liked a guy.  Don’t think that I didn’t weigh the pros and cons of that decision for longer than you might expect.  “He’s a really great guy but… Hummus!”  If I survived so can you.

Does anyone else deal with food allergies?  What should people know?