Are Food Allergy-Friendly/Gluten Free Menus Lulling You Into a False Sense of Security?
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.
Food Allergy Menus Are Just One Factor To Consider When Dining Out
While seemingly beneficial on the surface, there are hidden pitfalls to this trend of food allergy menus. 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.
- Realize that special menus don’t always mean special training. Putting together a gluten free menu or allergen list is relatively easy. Training an entire restaurant staff to follow strict food allergy protocols is a completely different and much more important issue. A specific allergy menu isn’t “safe” if the staff doesn’t know how to properly communicate the allergy, doesn’t have the training or supplies to avoid cross-contamination in the kitchen, isn’t taught to understand that allergens can’t simply be removed from a dish, etc. A restaurant could have gluten free pizza on their menu, but unless their staff knows that the gluten free pizzas must be prepped at a separate station, cooked on clean surfaces with clean utensils, and kept away from ingredients containing gluten (e.g., not sprinkled with flour, not pulled from the oven on a board containing wheat products, etc.), it’s not safe for someone with celiac disease or gluten-sensitivity to eat that pizza. On the flip side, a restaurant with proper training and food allergy protocols might be able to accommodate diners with special dietary needs fabulously, despite not offering special menus or allergen lists.
- Use special menus as a tool. Allergy-friendly menus (including the interactive online allergy menus that some restaurants now offer) can be helpful tools to use at home as you’re planning your meal choices. They are also valuable to use as a conversation starter: “I have a dairy allergy, and I see that you have a burger on the dairy free menu…” Beyond that, however, their usefulness is limited. Communication is a far more important tool.
- Be proactive all the time, everywhere you dine. As gluten free menus became trendy, many establishments began catering to the “gluten free by choice” audience. At these restaurants – which weren’t necessarily educated or strict about their gluten free protocols – I’ve found that people with legitimate gluten-related medical conditions, such as celiac disease, were more often accidentally ingesting traces of gluten, triggering severe physical reactions. There have been countless stories of people being “glutened” after eating their supposedly gluten free meal.
- Find allergy-friendly restaurants. Use resources like AllergyEats to check out peer-based allergy-friendliness ratings and feedback from the food allergy and gluten free community about restaurants anywhere in the U.S. Look beyond special menus, making sure the restaurants are properly trained in accommodating food allergies. Call ahead to ask if they can make a meal that you (or your food-allergic loved ones) can eat and to gauge whether the restaurant personnel truly understand how to keep you as safe as possible. Remember – having food allergy training, education and protocols is far more important than offering allergy-friendly menus.
Food Allergy Menus Are A Guide, Not A Guarantee
While there’s no doubt that accommodating people with special dietary restrictions is good for restaurants’ business – and that’s a valid motivator – the best way a restaurant can do so is with proper training, procedures, and protocols. A special dietary menu may be “nice to have,” but do not let it lull you into a false sense of security. Realize that it still remains up to the food-allergic diner (or their parents/guardians) to take every precaution in every restaurant, every time. Always communicate your food allergies, ask questions about food preparation and ingredient lists, and never make assumptions based on an allergy-friendly menu – or anything else.
How do you feel about gluten free menus, allergen lists, and the like? Have you had positive or negative experiences dining at restaurants with them? Please share your comments below. And, remember, please rate your restaurant experiences on the AllergyEats app and core website to help the entire food allergy community make more informed decisions about where to dine.