For those of us with food allergies, especially severe ones, poison lurks in the most innocuous of things. That granola bar your friend just ate? It probably has nuts in it. Your favorite ice cream? One day it’s safe, the next they’ve changed manufacturing and now it’s cross-contaminated. The oatmeal you eat every morning? You can’t have any other breakfast products by that company. Your new boyfriend or girlfriend? If they aren’t thinking about what they eat as carefully as you are, that next kiss might send you to the emergency room.
I have found that there are four things that happen frequently that make food allergies just that much more difficult to live with. 1. Discovering one of your favorite foods is cross-contaminated while grocery shopping. 2. You go to an unfamiliar restaurant and have to check ingredients on seemingly everything. 3. No one brought a list of ingredients for their dishes at a potluck, so you can’t eat anything. 4. Someone has really delicious-looking food and offers you a bite – but you can’t.
Let me walk you through each of these situations.
1. Your cupboards are bare and freezer is empty. You go to your usual grocery store, the only one in town that carries the brand of gnocchi – your go-to meal – that doesn’t contain or “may contain” and isn’t manufactured in a facility that also processes your allergen. You double-check the package before tossing it in the cart (usually a good idea). You scan the back… and groan, because the labelling changed since last time you bought it and now it isn’t safe. On one hand, they might just be covering their butts in case of a lawsuit, but on the other, maybe they did change their manufacturing processes and now it is at risk of cross-contamination. You don’t know, so you put the food back and wonder where you’ll find safe gnocchi now.
This has happened to me with everything from cookies and jelly beans to frozen foods and snack foods. Most recently, one of the frozen meals I get from Trader Joe’s had the labelling change, and now I can’t eat the polenta. I noticed the change after buying it, so now we have several bags of it sitting in the freezer.
2. Your colleagues invite you to an unfamiliar restaurant. You appreciate the thought, but just the idea of going out somewhere new is a little scary. Still, it would be awkward to say no, so you accept. The day of, you triple-check that you have Benadryl and an Epi-Pen in your purse before you leave the house. You show up, you’re all seated, and the waiter comes around to take your orders. Everyone else places their orders easily while you sit squirming uncomfortably. They’ve chosen an Asian restaurant, and you’re deathly allergic to peanuts. Seeing your mortal enemy on the menu and feeling queasy from anxiety, you ask the waiter, whose English isn’t very good, if the noodles have any peanuts in them. They go fetch the manager, who explains that there are basically peanuts in everything and he can’t guarantee anything. By this point your self-preservation instincts have kicked in and, fearing both social retribution and the food itself, you reluctantly decline to order and hope your colleagues don’t make a big deal out of it.
I’ve only ever been to one Asian restaurant, a teriyaki place in Ashland, OR that does not use any peanuts or tree nuts because the owner is also allergic. That place became my go-to place for meeting in Ashland, because I knew it was safe (and the food is delicious!). When you have food allergies, you start keeping a mental catalog of which places are and aren’t good to eat at, and you develop an affinity for chain restaurants because they are consistent and ubiquitous. Trying new places is scary (or downright terrifying), especially if the person you’re with does not understand about food allergies and makes you feel bad for needing to go somewhere else.
3. It’s a holiday party, and everyone brought a dish! Great… except you don’t know who brought what, and no one thought to make a list of the ingredients in their dishes. Sighing regretfully, you take out your snack and choose a quiet corner to feel left out in private.
This happens to me so, so much. It’s frustrating not being able to eat anything but what you brought, especially when you see some of your favorite foods among the dishes available.
4. You’re hanging out with a friend, and they pull out a chocolate bar and offer you half. You eye it longingly, and ask to see the wrapper. There, right below the ingredients: “Manufactured in a facility that also processes tree nuts.” You shake your head and hand the wrapper back to your friend. “Sorry, I can’t,” you say. “It’s cross-contaminated.” If you have friends like mine, the next reaction is usually, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, I completely forgot!” Then they proceed to rewrap the chocolate bar and put it away, at which point you feel grateful that you don’t have to watch them eat it, but guilty to be denying them chocolate.
Food allergies can fall anywhere on a very large scale. Mild allergies might make your mouth tingle or your stomach uncomfortable, but you can still eat the food with no serious side effects. More severe allergies might cause hives, swelling of the mouth, and can cause anaphylactic shock, in which the person’s airways swell and become blocked. In extreme cases, these reactions can be caused by touching or smelling the allergen as well. Allergic reactions can also be caused by kissing, occasionally long after someone has eaten the food. Let’s say your girlfriend had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch, around noon. It’s now after seven in the evening, and she’s brushed her teeth, drunk lots of water, and eaten several other foods since the sandwich. You lean in for a smooch, tongues get involved… and then yours starts swelling from a reaction to the peanut butter she had.
Peanut allergies tend to be most severe, followed by tree nut allergies. In case you were wondering, coconut is not a tree nut.
It can be hard to comprehend how serious these allergies are. “What do you mean, touching my PB&J could kill my classmate?” “How can this almond bar cause me to trigger a reaction in my partner later?” “Why can’t my friend go to this cool new restaurant that just opened up?” To give you an idea, I have a visual for you:
This is what happens when a diluted drop of peanuts or tree nuts is lightly placed on my skin (no scratch, not ingested). These are hives on my back from the allergy test when I was 14. The biggest hive was larger than two quarters (peanuts); the smallest was about the size of a large pinhead (almonds?).
Labelling laws are weird, not everyone believes that you have allergies, and sometimes restaurant folks make mistakes. That aside, it is terrifying to live with the knowledge that a case of mistaken identity for your food could lead to your painful demise. The stakes are high, and caution is the rule of the game when food allergies come into your life.