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Tips for eating out with food allergies

Whether you're trying to avoid peanuts or dairy products, experts offer strategies for dining safely at restaurants.

WebMD Feature
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Having a food allergy used to mean eating out was limited to carrying your plate from the kitchen to the patio or, at best, eating at the home of a close friend or relative who could guarantee your allergy triggers were nowhere in sight.

Today, however, eating out is a lot easier, and safer, for the 2% of people in the UK who have a food allergy.  One reason: restaurants are more aware and more prepared than ever before.

The Food Standards Agency has developed online allergy training and posters for restaurants and their staff. The emphasis is on making sure staff give correct answers to questions from those with allergies about ingredients, and if they don’t know, always to check.

Doctors caution, however, that greater awareness on the part of the restaurant doesn't mean you can let your guard down completely.  

“The level with which you practice vigilance is obviously linked to the severity of your food allergy, but everyone who is allergic needs to personally take steps to ensure their safety when eating out”, says allergy expert Dr David Rosenstreich.

Where do you begin? Experts say it starts with a good understanding of your food allergy.

Food allergies: Know what to avoid

The most obvious way to avoid a food allergy reaction when out is not to order the food that triggers your allergy, but that's not always so easy. Sometimes you don’t know what you're getting on your plate.

“You really have to be aware of hidden ingredients. Your allergen could be lurking in batter, a salad dressing, baked food, or sauces, then it might not be obvious when your meal arrives”, says allergist Dr Jonathan Field.

You should also know the alternative names for your allergens. Sometimes, Dr Rosenstreich says, products used by chefs, such as mixes for sauces or dressings, list ingredients by alternative names. That means if you're going to ask the chef to leave something out of a dish, it's vital to know all the names, including derivatives, under which your allergen may be listed.

European directives adopted into UK law say a list of allergy-causing ingredients must be declared on the labels of pre-packaged food. As well as criminal law, there can be liability under consumer law. Manufacturers have a duty of care to supply safe products. Some companies also make other statements on packaging highlighting allergy information, but this is voluntary. Phrases like “may contain nuts,” warning of possible accidental contamination during production, are also voluntary. However, the labelling rules do not apply to restaurants.

New rules were introduced in January 2009 that ensure any food claiming to be “gluten free” contains less than 20 parts per million in the final product. The Food Standards Agency website carries full details of what the laws and rules say.

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