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  • Writer's pictureAli

What you don't know about avoiding allergens

As someone who has to avoid gluten, I'm very grateful for allergen labelling.

But the widespread controversy about the Pret A Manger sandwich where a girl died from a reaction to unlisted sesame has prompted widespread opinion, some based on supposition rather than fact.

How many allergens are in this sandwich?

Let me tell you what it's like to live with a medical food restriction. Firstly, I have absolutely no choice in the matter. It is not the same as going on a Keto diet or deciding to avoid meat. This is not a judgement on those reasons, which may be well-founded, but it is not the same as having a medical condition. Accidental consumption of a tiny amount of the food you're avoiding will not induce a physical reaction.

My own reaction to the food I must avoid is awful but not immediately life-threatening. By comparison with those who go into anaphylactic shock, I am lucky.

But the reaction I get is hideous and therefore enough for me to go to great lengths to avoid gluten. I would never, ever risk consuming something I wasn't sure was gluten-free.

Because of this, I sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to ensure I don't accidentally eat gluten.

The food looks great but I probably can't have it (& won't just in case).

Sometimes, however, I encounter situations where anyone could reasonably expect the food to be gluten-free and it isn't.

Example scenarios:

  • The packaged, fully wrapped item on the supermarket shelf that doesn't list gluten but then has a product recall for failing to state barley as an ingredient.

  • The gluten-free curry being made where someone dunks their (normal) bread into the sauce before the curry is served.

  • The knife that's been used to butter sandwiches and is then used for the gluten-free ones.

  • The restaurant that insists the dish is gluten-free (despite repeated interrogation) and then realises they've made an error.

These instances have happened to me, two as a result of cross contamination from people who should know better (but think if I don't know what they've done it won't matter). I challenge anyone to tell me I could prevent these scenarios. Sure, I can learn from them, but there are always new situations around the corner. Most I avoid. Some slip under the radar. Please don't blame me if (despite all efforts to prevent a problem) something goes wrong.

Unless you have a medical condition that means you have to avoid a particular food or allergen, it can be very easy to think you know how you'd behave if it were you.

But life isn't that simple. The ignorant comments I've seen about the poor girl who died from the Pret sandwich are incredibly disappointing. Let's go through them:

"I would have made my own sandwich at home and taken it on the plane."

This sounds sensible, doesn't it? But it doesn't allow for the fact that you have to buy the bread to make the sandwich and that bread could contain sesame if it's not listed. And don't forget that product recall I mentioned earlier. We can't always rely on allergen labelling to be accurate.

"Why don't people take more responsibility for themselves? Millions of people eat Pret sandwiches every day and they're ok."

Oh my goodness. I challenge this person to say this to a sesame or nut allergy sufferer. The vast majority of people on this planet will never go into anaphylactic shock but for those that do (and carry an EpiPen with them) it's desperately important they get the information they need.

"The girl shouldn't have flown with that allergy."

Really? Perhaps she shouldn't take the bus, either, or a train. Or be in a room with other people. There are no "safe" places when you have a severe allergy. You never know when you will fall victim to it. You can only limit the possibility of it happening and hope that your EpiPen (or alternative) will prevail and that you'll get the medical assistance you need.

Let's not forget that current labelling laws mean you often have to rely on staff for their knowledge of what goes into products. I once had a waitress tell me some tortilla chips were suitable for me. When probed further, she said they contained wheat gluten, which she said wasn't the same as gluten. If I had taken her at her word, I would have suffered.

Then there's arguably the worst of situations: when a food most definitely shouldn't contain the allergen or food you're avoiding, but it does.

These apples shouldn't have any allergens in, right?

Think about this:

Jack has been eating salted peanuts. He then selects some apples at a supermarket, putting back the ones that don't look so good upon closer inspection. Along comes Sarah, who's severely allergic to nuts, and buys a few apples to eat later. (Can you see where this scenario is going? Yup, Sarah's going to have to wash those apples, make sure she hasn't transferred any of the nuts and then be super careful about washing her hands. But she doesn't know about Jack having eaten those nuts. The likelihood is she's going to have a reaction.)

If you still don't understand where I'm coming from, I have a test for you...

The Allergen Challenge

(This, by the way, is not a medical challenge, but more of a way of seeing if you can avoid transferring something from your hands into your mouth.)

Buy a headache relieve stick (they're quite small & contain a mint-smelling gel to sooth a sore head). Take the top off the stick, apply it to your forehead and then replace the cap. Try doing this without touching the gel. Now continue with the rest of your day. If at any point you suddenly taste the minty gel on your tongue, you have failed.

Why am I suggesting you do this? It goes to show how easy it is to think you've avoided something when you haven't. (This may explain one of the reasons I frequently wash my hands, even when I'm not about to eat something.)

So please, if you have opinions about what you should do if you need to avoid a food, try listening to sufferers' experiences first. Ask questions rather than make statements. People are usually happy to explain why they need to take the precautions they do. They are less happy to be judged by people who don't know what they're talking about.

Have you got a medical food issue that people don't understand? Please share your experiences below.

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