As readers of the AllergyEats Blog and other members of our community are surely aware, food allergies have skyrocketed in recent years. At the same time, there has been a surge in demand for gluten free foods, due to both medical and lifestyle reasons. Therefore, many restaurants have been introducing allergy-friendly and gluten free menus to satisfy this new customer demand.
While seemingly beneficial on the surface, there are hidden pitfalls to this trend. Don’t assume that restaurants offering gluten free menus and allergen lists must be safer and more educated about food allergies and intolerances than restaurants without similar menus and lists. The converse is also true. A restaurant without gluten free and/or allergy-friendly menus can be allergy-friendly and accommodating, so don’t assume otherwise. In fact, four of ten restaurants recognized on our Annual List of the Most Allergy-Friendly Restaurants don’t provide an allergy or gluten-free menu.
With the abundance of allergen lists and gluten free menus appearing in restaurants nationwide, please keep these tips in mind:
- Don’t assume. Sometimes, food-allergic and food-intolerant diners get a false sense of security after seeing a specific menu for dairy free, nut free, or gluten free dishes, thinking the restaurant must really understand food allergies and intolerances. After all, restaurants wouldn’t offer special menus if they didn’t truly “get” food allergies, right? Wrong. Restaurants create what potential customers want, including allergen and gluten free menus and lists. It helps attract diners from the food allergy community and, therefore, is good for their business. However, in this case, what’s good for a restaurant’s business doesn’t necessarily equate to what’s good for the food allergy community. While some restaurants with allergy menus are very accommodating and educated about food allergies, others aren’t. Never make assumptions, and don’t let your guard down. Regardless of whether restaurants have special allergen menus, continue asking questions and communicating about your food allergies everywhere, every time.
- Engage in conversation. If you assume that a particular restaurant is knowledgeable about food allergies based solely on their allergy-friendly or gluten free menu, you may be more lax about talking to their staff about your dietary restrictions, relying solely on the menu instead. This is dangerous! Suppose you’re allergic to dairy and you see a hamburger listed on the dairy free menu. You may feel comfortable ordering the hamburger, figuring that it’s “safe” for you to eat because it’s on the special allergen menu. But it’s still critical to communicate your allergies with your server, the manager and/or the chef. If you don’t specifically mention your dairy allergy, you leave yourself susceptible to substitutions (perhaps the restaurant is using different buns that day), cross contamination (the burger may be cooked where a cheeseburger was just made), and other unexpected issues (the bun may be buttered as standard protocol on that restaurant’s “regular” menu). If you don’t make the staff aware of your allergy – even if they’re capable of accommodating it – you may inadvertently receive a meal that contains your allergen.