The risks of eating out

Most people are able to eat any type of food without any reaction. A portion of the population however, have adverse reactions to certain types of food. Food allergies are on the rise, in fact food allergies among children have increased by 50% over the past 15 years! The number of children being hospitalized for severe reactions, has increased sevenfold over the past decade. The number of adults with food allergies is also growing but there is no clear answer as to why.

A food allergy is different and more serious than a food intolerance such as ‘lactose intolerance’ or ‘gluten intolerance’. Intolerances are the result of the body being unable to digest certain types of foods.

So what is a food allergy?

Our bodies have an amazing defense mechanism. When a person eats something that the body believes is harmful or toxic, this defense mechanism springs into action to eliminate it. Unfortunately though, for many people, certain food proteins are seen by their bodies as being harmful or toxic, and their bodies immediately react, resulting in allergic reactions.

It is important to understand that the food containing the allergen that causes the allergic reaction is NOT toxic. It is perfectly safe for most everybody except those with the food allergy. The only way to prevent such a reaction, is to avoid the food that causes the reaction. There is no cure for a food allergy.

Those in the business of food supply should be taking allergens very seriously – but are they?

The unfortunate answer is that most food establishments are not allergen aware. This situation exists because of a lack of training and also because – at present – there are no laws in South Africa forcing allergen awareness training or Allergen Management systems in food establishments. The result is that both staff and management are painfully unaware of the dangers that certain foods pose to the allergy sufferer.

Most allergic reactions take place outside of the home. The onus therefore is on you and you alone!

The plot thickens somewhat when you consider that the ingredients being used to make up foods, comes from outside sources – and so beyond the control of the food establishment. Unless there is an Allergen Management System in place, there is no proof that it has not been contaminated with your particular allergen.

Unfortunately, no one can ‘see’ that you have a food allergy. You therefore have the responsibility to inform others of your allergy, and to fully satisfy yourself that what you are about to put into your mouth is safe. The only way that others will know that you are allergic, is if you tell them so. It is therefore your responsibility initially, to let the food provider know that you are allergic to certain types of food, and, once you have informed them, it is your choice to decide whether or not to take the first bite! So the next time you decide that you want to eat outside of the home, be prepared to become a sleuth. Your health may depend on it.

What should you do? Here are some pointers, but this list is by no means exhaustive. You know your allergy. Make sure that you do everything you can to gather the information needed to protect yourself.

    1. Tell people about the type of allergy you have. If they seem an interested or confused, call the manager and tell him or her. If you still get ‘dumb looks’ or dis-interest, walk out!
    2. Ask loads of questions. You will very quickly be able to tell whether the person you are questioning is knowledgeable. Once again, if you’re not satisfied, ask someone else for example the chef for the manager. If they are unsure, walk out!
    3. Ask for proof of any answers given. If it is not to your satisfaction, walk out!
    4. Be sure to ask if your allergen is used in the establishment at all – for instance in other products or recipes. Remember that there is always the risk that cross contamination has taken place. If your ‘so-called’ allergen free recipe your product is prepared in the same vicinity as a product containing your allergen, walk out!

It’s very important to be vigilant about allergy triggers. Here are just a few examples of possible unseen sources of allergens.

      • Deli slicers often cut both cheese and meat.
      • Some brands of tuna contain casein.
      • Some processed meats contain casein.
      • “Non-dairy” products sometimes contain dairy ingredients.

Read more about Cow’s milk allegy

Peanuts are commonly used. They may be in baked goods, ice cream, cereals and breads. They may also be in:

      • Salad dressings, which may contain peanut oil
      • Ethnic recipes (African, Thai, Indonesian, etc.), which often have peanuts or “groundnuts”
      • Candies with nougat

Read more about peanut allergy.

Eggs or egg protein (albumin) may be in virtually anything, including:

      • Marshmallows
      • Mayonnaise
      • Meringue
      • Frostings
      • Packaged or processed meat products

Read more about egg allergy here.

Like milk and peanuts, soy is widespread in the food chain. Here are triggers for those with a soy allergy:

      • Prepared dressings
      • Meat substitutes
      • Tofu, miso, tempeh
      • Hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP)
      • Textured vegetable protein (TVP)
      • Thickeners

Read more about soy allergy.

Take the time to get to know more about your food allergy – how to identify your allergen in food establishments and where it may be ‘hidden’. Your life may depend on it!

AFSA would love feedback from you to help us with our Allergy Aware Restaurant project. The information regarding your experiences – both good and bad – would therefore be very useful to us. Please contact us via info@allergyfoundation.co.za or leave a note on our Facebook page @SAallergy.