Food allergies: a real thing, or just a way to be a picky eater?
On New Year’s Eve, this is what a Portland restaurant kitchen looked like. Nope, not full of pots and pans. Full of post-it notes specifying all of the various diners’ food allergies.
We’ve become used to living in a world with food restrictions, and maybe that’s no surprise: in a world of agro-business and industrial processed food, it shouldn’t really be a shock that many of us are opting to take ingredients out of our diet. Nowadays when you host a dinner party, you’re probably more likely to kick off the email invite with “what are your food restrictions” than “what night are you available?”
In fact, there are many people that live with sometimes debilitating food allergies. If they get even a trace of peanut on their plate, their throat will tighten and they’ll go into anaphylactic shock. But most of us don’t have those kinds of allergies. Most of us have either chosen to get rid of certain foods, either because of ethical or other health reasons that aren’t necessarily allergy related, and once in awhile, despite our best efforts, we’ll break down and eat them anyway. That’s not a food allergy, that’s a personal choice to not eat certain foods. The two are very different things.
It is estimated that up to 15 million Americans have a food allergy. That’s a lot of people, but it comes out to only around 0.04 percent of the total population. That being said, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room every three minutes, which means that there is a percentage of the population that when they eat out and say “I have a food allergy” when they order, they really mean it. Their life depends on specification.
But most of us are in the other category, and when we say “I have an allergy to [insert food],” we don’t really mean that we’re completely allergic, we mean that we’d really rather avoid said food. Choking, breaking out in hives and falling off of our chair probably isn’t going to be the outcome if we do ingest some of that food. So why do we claim to have an allergy? Maybe it’s that ultimately, we don’t have the willpower to be challenged on our personal choices.
Saying that we have an allergy to dairy is a lot easier than explaining that for the last three months we’ve cut out dairy because we’re on an elimination diet, and we happened to bring a bag of raw nuts with us because we have to eat those every two hours as part of our new regime. “I have a food allergy” says “I will have a severe health reaction if I eat said food” while “no [insert food] please” says “I have personally chosen to not eat [insert food] and there’s a chance that you’re going to roll your eyes at me because of it.”
There’s no denying that a rise in food restrictions has made for some annoyance in the industry. Some chefs just want to make what they make, not inhibited by the specific needs of their customers, and whereas before only people with severe food allergies would specify what they could and couldn’t eat, now it seems like everyone does. When only a handful of customers have specific requests because they have severe allergies is one thing. When every other customer is asking for a dish without this and that, it’s quite another. While we all have a right to choose what we eat, is it possible that our personal food demands end up having a negative effect on those people that really do have severe food allergies?
Specifying what you can and can’t eat is good in the sense that it allows you to have a conversation about food, and in turn, move the food system forward. Since we have to vote with our forks, then we certainly need to indicate what we want on those forks. That being said, eating is as much a social as a personal process and it’s important to understand how our personal choices and how we talk about them affects not only ourselves, but others.
How do you treat your food restrictions or allergies when you eat out?
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