Snack Attack

Navigating food allergies and celiac disease

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  • Written by
    Suzanna Cullen

Millions of Americans are affected by food-related autoimmune disorders. From life-threatening food allergies to the deeply painful celiac disease, both children and adults are challenged with serious food issues. 

Food allergies affect more than 15 million people in this country, and that translates into roughly two children per classroom suffering from this potentially deadly medical condition. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that food allergies rose more than 50% between 1997 and 2011, and more than 200,000 cases are seen each year in emergency rooms.  

Food allergies are an autoimmune response to a specific food that can be fatal with immediate death by anaphylactic shock. It’s imperative to understand that even trace amounts of contaminants or any cross-contamination among cooking utensils can cause a reaction. 

There are eight primary foods that trigger the most severe allergic reactions: peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, milk, wheat and soy—with the two most common being peanuts and shellfish. Given that more than 50% of food allergy deaths occur when eating outside the home, it’s critical that everyone from consumers to restaurant employees understand the highly sensitive and potentially fatal nature of this medical condition. There is no cure for food allergies, and the nut, shellfish and fish allergies are lifelong. 

When eating out, dealing with food allergies is the responsibility of everyone from the consumer to the restaurant management. Many restaurants do not have the capacity to separately prepare and cook potentially lethal food items, so it’s imperative for the consumer to communicate with the restaurant management and wait staff. 

A cooking spoon that’s not properly cleaned, or cooking in the same oil, or using the same prep surfaces as an allergen can harbor enough trace amounts to trigger an allergic reaction. Additionally, hidden ingredients such as anchovies in Worcestershire sauce can be lethal to a diner with fish allergies. 

Typically fine restaurants with larger kitchens or small restaurants that specialize in one type of food are better prepared to accommodate people with allergies. The best advice is to do your own due diligence. 

Call ahead to find out if a restaurant can accommodate someone with food allergies. Make sure the management knows that there is a diner with food allergies. And communicate with the wait staff to ensure they understand. 

Many restaurants in the South Bay have small kitchens and specialize in seafood or use peanut oil. However, some South Bay restaurants have responded to people with autoimmune disorders, including the Terranea restaurants, Petros, Stacked, Misto Caffe and Kincaid’s.   

Celiac disease is an autoimmune sensitivity to gluten. This disease affects approximately 2 million Americans who suffer when the small intestine interferes with the absorption of food, causing deeply painful responses. 

While the effects can be very uncomfortable, celiac disease does not cause immediate death. It can be greatly accommodated by substituting acceptable ingredients in cooking for those that more commonly trigger this painful condition. 

While having celiac disease makes dining out more complicated, restaurants are responding to the needs of people with this disorder by creating menus that offer gluten-free options. Many websites and cookbooks are available with recipes for delicious, healthy, gluten-free food. 

There are many autoimmune diseases, and most have food sensitivities as a byproduct. However, by understanding the nature of these disorders and knowing how to accommodate them and what to do in an emergency, knowledge becomes power. By creating recipes and dining options for people with autoimmune food disorders, we make the world a safer and more comfortable place for all.