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Outside In: Special Foodie Perspective Part II

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Misty O’Conner is 31 years old. She grew up as a farm to fork gal. She was taught to eat everything on the plate and never miss trying something at least once. Watermelon was one of the family staples. She loved it. At 18 years old she went into a restaurant with her family and took a bite of that familiar watery, red, sweet, deliciousness and suddenly her throat was itchy and she had some troubles with breathing.

Within the next few months Misty was tested for food allergies. She actually tested negative for watermelon but positive for other melons, even though it was watermelon that made her ill. It’s called a cross reactive symptom in the world of allergies and also part of what is known as Food Families. The food allergy gal website shares information about this from the Southern California Asthma, Immunology and Allergy Clinic.

The severity of Misty’s food allergies grew worse as she aged. It is common for adults with late onset food allergies to have more severe reactions to foods as they age. She was hospitalized continuously over the years.

Misty says, “I knew I was sick but I didn’t know why. Just as I was about to give up and accept that I would just be sick all the time, my GI specialist requested we do this scope, which showed I had Esophagitis and 16 food allergies.”

Misty lives in middle Kanas today in a small town with her husband and 3 children. She is a busy mom and her husband often works out of town or long days, so she is responsible for all the shopping, preparing, cooking, chauffeuring, getting kids dressed, hosting playdates, cleaning the house, keeping up with laundry- (You know the normal mom stuff.)

When you are ‘Chef Mom’ with 3 kids, a break from the kitchen is a wonderful treat. Of course eating out it is a luxury item that many of us take for granted. When Misty and her husband want to celebrate a special occasion, they would generally go out to eat. Misty recalls, “When I just had to avoid one food that was uncommonly served, it was much easier and safer to be served at a restaurant. I just made sure to avoid fruit that may have cross contact with watermelon.”

Today it’s an entirely different story for this busy mom and wife. When she and her husband go out to eat, Misty says she only orders a drink and watches everyone else enjoy their food. Eating at restaurants is not her only challenge though. Shopping at the grocery store, eating outside of her kitchen at family gatherings and even cooking in her own kitchen is just as much of a challenge.

Most of Misty’s family does not understand food allergies or think they are real. Her husband and children expect to eat a full, regular meal. Being that Misty is newly diagnosed with these 16 food allergies, she hasn't yet learned how to prepare full flavored meals at home that everyone will love that happen to be free of the 16 things she is allergic to, so she is still preparing multiple meals in her kitchen to accommodate each of her family members. When you are diagnosed with food allergies, there is very little information a doctor will sit down and give about lifestyle changes. It's more of writing a prescription for an epi pin, telling you to strictly avoid all the foods you are allergic to and sending you out the door to be followed up with 12 months later, leaving most newly diagnosed patients a bit clueless and sometimes overwhelmed when they face the reality of life: Food is Everywhere!

Misty's extended family hosted Thanksgiving at their house this year. While Misty offered to cook the turkey (so she could eat too), the family insisted they do it then stuffed it with the very things she was allergic to but tried to avoid informing her. Finally after lots of questioning these familiar words were said, “There is only a little bit of _________ and it didn’t touch, so you'll be fine." Often food allergics get mistaken for picky eaters.

Most people who haven’t seen or experienced a food allergy reaction think that “a little bit,” won’t hurt. I, personally, would hate to be the family member that tells Misty’s 3 children their mom died because of “just a little bit.” Even with organizations like FARE and other advocacy and awareness groups discussing this topic in the media much more now that there is a rise in diagnosed food allergies, people still don’t believe they are real.

Many believe having food allergies is some new diet and don’t understand that even “just a little” could kill and symptoms are all different based on the person. Sometimes it’s immediate and sometimes a reaction can happen 8 hours later. We must also understand that the severity is likely to increase with time (especially with adults). Maybe “a little bit" didn’t do damage today but “a little bit” next month might be the last “little bit” there ever was.

There is a growing trend of adults being diagnosed with food allergies for the first time and multiple food allergies, not just one, according to FARE’s CEO, John Lehr. In the United States we are now required to list what is known as the big 8 food allergens on packaged food products. The United Kingdom is required to list 14 ingredients on packaged food but that does not necessarily apply to restaurants yet. With this issue on the rise, it’s something that food providers, no matter what aspect of the industry they are in, will have to address. Consumers will begin to demand transparent ingredient list and unless the industry responds, there will likely be a decrease in product sales.

Misty says that eating out is not something she feels confident with anymore. While larger chain restaurants may focus on the Big 8 allergens, they don’t make any promises to be able to accommodate someone with multiple food allergies that are not the Big 8. Subway and Applebee’s were two places she could eat at but she won’t even attempt to order unless there is a supervisor over the age of 20 who is well informed about food allergies. Today even eating at Applebee’s is not an option. “There is far too much that could go wrong and their lack of knowledge about their ingredients is too risky,” says a food allergic.

Misty says, "With the number of food allergies I have today, I am afraid to even tell the local restaurants about them. I don't think they would know how to accommodate me or even be willing to try."

Red Robin has just launched an interactive online allergen menu where guests can select their food allergens (but only if you have one or more of the big 8) and get a list of menu items that do not contain those allergens. It speeds up the process of ordering and ensures a higher level security for both the restaurant and the consumers as long as:

  1. The restaurant is using all the corporate approved products & ingredients that were input into the interactive online menu and has not made any changes.
  2. The consumer has properly informed the staff of their food allergies.

AllerSmartMenu is not a fail proof system but it certainly saves a lot of time and a million questions. Staff should equally be trained on food allergies using a certified food allergy course for commercial kitchen professions. While bigger chain restaurants are finally beginning to take issue more seriously, they are still behind the curve to truly accommodate those with special dietary needs, but it is nice to see steps being taken in the right direction.

Red Robin will publically be highlighting and advertising the interactive allergen menu starting January 2014.

Misty O'Conner has a long way to go in a very short amount of time, to be able to manage her disorder and live a comfortable life again with food. It's heartbreaking to hear how under supported she. While she is not dying of cancer and hospitalized, it's something that impacts nearly every aspect of her life and no one around her understands it or supports her in the disease, making it a very isolating and anxiety filled experience.

Coming up in the next article, hear another Inside Out, Chef’s perspective on this issue, with Top Chef's, Kevin Gillespe.

If you missed Part 1 of this series, read more here: http://www.examiner.com/article/inside-out-the-chef-s-perspective

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