Most people think food allergies are only diagnosed in kids, but both children and adults can develop different food allergies. In fact, 10.4% of the US population is food allergic, which translates to upwards of 32 million people.
One of the most challenging things about having food allergies is ensuring dining out safety for food-allergic people.
I have adult-onset food allergies and, like most food allergic people, I have had quite a few interesting and perilous experiences while dining away from home. Those experiences have led me to become somewhat of an expert in food allergic dining, so I created Certistar, technology to make dining out safer for people with food allergies. Additionally, here are my top five suggestions of what you can do to ensure dining out safety for food allergic people like me.
Reliance on Food Allergy Menus
Every time I go to a restaurant, I approach the server (or manager or chef, etc.) with something along the lines of, “We need to have the food allergy conversation” and something humorous to try to endear myself to them. When they immediately hand me the gluten-free menu or the top 8 allergen menu, my hackles rise. I can eat gluten without an issue and one of my allergies is outside the top 8, so I can never rely on those menus and when that’s the go-to for a server, I get a clear message that the waitstaff is not knowledgeable about food allergies and the kitchen may not be well equipped to keep me safe. Also, those menus rarely, if ever, take cross-contamination into account, so they aren’t sufficient for keeping me or any food-allergic people safe either.
Willingness to Work with You
Being a food allergic person oftentimes means being a bit of a pain in the neck for the service staff at a restaurant. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched people go to the same restaurant and order the same thing and not tell the server about their allergies after the first time ordering. I’m guilty of this error as well. There’s a place I go to regularly that used to have the best (and safe for me!) nachos. I never talked to them about my food allergies after the first time I ordered, I just always automatically ordered the nachos. One day, the nachos arrived at my table and there was chorizo (pork) mixed in. Thankfully they looked different than they normally did, so I flagged the server and asked about the new ingredient. I am terribly allergic to pork and this small menu change could have been life-threatening.
It’s exhausting to constantly have to be so careful and to have to center the conversation on your own health issues. But one mistake can truly be life-threatening, so until we have a cure, persistence is the only way. So, please do advocate for yourself and talk to the server every single time you’re dining out.
My worst allergic reactions to date have come from cross-contamination. The one that seems to be most frequent is from the fryer. I’ve been told by myriad chefs that the fryer is too hot to be contaminated and that any remaining food particles in frying oil are ‘vaporized,’ minimizing the risk of cross-contamination. False.
This assertion is simply not true.
If your food doesn’t magically disappear when it is in oil, neither do the food particles left behind by previously cooked foods. If your allergen is fried, nothing else that comes out of the frying oil is going to be safe for you. The same goes for the grill or flat top surfaces. Unless they’re segregated for the entire day, there could be food remnants that can put you at risk. I know it’s not ideal to have a burger pan-fried instead of grilled, but it’s much safer than using a grill that may have been cross-contaminated.
Many food allergic people are okay with eating the oils of their food allergy sources (like peanut oil, for example- some people who are allergic to peanuts may not be allergic to peanut oil). Having conversed with executives from cooking oil companies, however, I can tell you that they’re unwilling to stand behind the highly refined oils that they sell being pure enough to guarantee your safety. One of my first allergic reactions was to potato chips that were made in peanut oil and I remember being so surprised that this oil would be problematic for me.
Since then, I’ve also had issues with lard (pork fat) in a few items. I find it to be a best practice for me to avoid the oils of my allergens because it is not worth the risk to try them.
I know that many servers pride themselves on being able to take orders without having to write them down, and it’s impressive to watch when the orders come out magically accurate. With my food allergies, though, I always insist that servers take the time to write my order down. I want them to remember to have a conversation with the kitchen to make sure my information is on the ticket and that the list of my allergies is completely correct.
This suggestion, in particular, probably makes me a bit of a pain in the neck for my server, but I’m always concerned that my multiple allergies won’t make it through the game of telephone. I am not willing to risk my safety.
The best option to ensure dining out safety for food-allergic people like me, of course, is to find a restaurant that’s using technology like CertiStar to make their allergy information as fact-based as possible. CertiStar takes the guesswork out of food allergies with stoplight style menus individualized for any food allergies in any combination. But when that option isn’t available, please take the utmost care with yourself or your family members who are food allergic. And always, always, always carry your epinephrine auto-injectors and educate those around you on when and how to make use of them. My mission, and that of CertiStar, is to make dining out as easy and as safe as possible for food allergic people.
Guest Author: Shandee Chernow
Shandee Chernow is the Founder & CEO of CertiStar. In her late 20s, Shandee discovered she had life-threatening food allergies. After many years of struggling to dine out with friends, family, and clients, Shandee knew the hospitality industry needed a solution, not only to make things easier on the restaurant, hotel, school, or airline, but also on the customer-or person-with food allergies. Enter in CertiStar-a software launched in 2017 that allows for guests dining out to have a safer and easier dining experience. With a quick 3-second search, the restaurant server can provide guests with all their allergy-friendly offerings on the menu by way of a green, yellow, red list of options. CertiStar is revolutionizing the dining experience for both food-allergic guests and restaurants through menu innovation.