Camera? Check. Sunscreen? Check. Swimsuits? Check. A list of allergy-friendly restaurants your family can safely enjoy while far away from home? Ummm…
Organizing what to pack for a family vacation can be quite a chore. But, if you have a family member with any type of food allergy or intolerance, you’re probably already aware of the benefits of planning ahead when it comes to dining out while on the road.
New England father of five, Paul Antico, knows all about those benefits. Three of his children collectively have a variety of food allergies, which typically made finding one restaurant suitable for the whole family pretty tricky.
“I’ve traveled extensively with my children — who are allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, sesame, and dairy — and have learned some key lessons from our experiences,” notes Antico in a recent press release. “There have been countless times that my family has spent up to an hour or more visiting many different restaurants, looking for a place that could accommodate my children’s multiple food allergies.”
In fact, one evening a few years ago, he spent more than two hours driving around, looking for a restaurant, with his increasingly hungry and cranky family in tow. The frustration felt that night inspired Antico to create an online resource for researching menus and planning ahead in order to help families with food allergies make more informed decisions about their restaurant choices.
So, in 2008, he went to work on launching, AllergyEats.com.
Antico describes AllergyEats as “a peer-based ratings and review site that lets people see at-a-glance which restaurants are willing and better able to accommodate special dietary requirements — and which are not.”
What you’ll find online
AllergyEats now lists more than 625,000 restaurants nationwide. Food-allergic diners are invited to log onto the website and rate the restaurants for their “allergy friendliness.” Also, even if an establishment listed has not yet been rated, you’ll find handy information about it, such as its menus, allergen lists, nutrition information, certifications, web link, and directions on how to get to it.
In addition, families specifically looking to vacation at Walt Disney World Resort, near Orlando, FL, will appreciate AllergyEats’ Disney World microsite, at www.allergyeats.com/disney. Here, visitors get help navigating the many restaurant options in and around the Disney theme parks, as well as the area restaurants surrounding the parks.
Of course, AllergyEats features plenty of listings for restaurants right here in Baltimore, too. For example, when searching for a place to eat within a two-mile radius of the local zip code 21212, the site called up 122 establishments, of just about every variety. Within seconds.
At the top of the list was Cafe Spice, which serves Indian cuisine, at 321 York Road in Towson. One local diner, Abby Goodlaxson, of Towson, gave it five stars for its “allergy friendliness” and five stars overall.
Goodlaxson notes in her review, “I am very impressed with the staff at Cafe Spice. I have peanut and tree-nut allergies, and they are always able to tell me what is safe for me to eat. I have never had a problem here.”
Be vigilant here and there
“AllergyEats helps families with food allergies reduce the guesswork — and the anxiety — surrounding dining out while traveling,” notes Antico, adding, “My family knows how nerve-wracking it can be to dine in unfamiliar restaurants.”
Nevertheless, while AllergyEats has received endorsements from groups such as the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), and the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, the website is careful to caution users to consider its information as a guide — not a guarantee.
In fact, it states very clearly: “The ratings have been created by peers, NOT allergy experts. Always inform restaurant staff about your allergies and restrictions upfront. Ask questions and remain vigilant, as always.”
That said, Antico offers additional tips for traveling with family members who have food allergies and intolerances, all of which also apply to dining out locally:
- Research restaurants in advance. Avoid frustration and wasting precious vacation time by looking up restaurants’ menus, ingredient lists, and allergen statements before you leave.
- Be prepared. Even restaurants with the best intentions and food-allergy protocols can have a mishap. Therefore, always travel with emergency allergy medications, and know where to find medical help wherever you’re headed.
- Ask open-ended questions. Inquire about ingredient lists, restaurants’ procedures for avoiding cross-contamination, and staff communication protocols — but do so in a way that inspires ongoing dialogue. For instance, Antico’s son is allergic to peanuts, so instead of asking if the French fries are cooked in peanut oil, resulting in a yes-or-no answer, he asks what kind of oil is used in the fryer. “By keeping my questions open-ended, the server is forced to ask the chef about any unknowns — as opposed to possibly guessing,” Antico explains.
- Read ingredient lists and labels. If the restaurant staff doesn’t offer to show you ingredient lists and labels, ask to see them. You’ll want to double-check that the sauces, breads, and other foods are free of allergens.
- Avoid restaurant buffets. Even if a dish wasn’t cooked with peanuts, dairy, eggs, gluten, or other allergy triggers, it can be cross-contaminated from items or utensils in a buffet. It’s best to avoid buffets altogether and ask the restaurant staff to prepare a separate meal that’s free of your food allergens.
- Trust your instincts. Does the restaurant’s server, manager, and/or chef sound confident and knowledgeable about how to handle your special meal preparation? If not, leave and find another restaurant.
- And STAY vigilant, wherever you go. There’s that word again — vigilant. Never assume that another restaurant – even if it’s part of the same chain of a local restaurant you already trust – will be able to cater to your allergy needs. “Chain restaurants often have different owners and managers at each location — each with a different level of food allergy knowledge, experience, and training,” says Antico.
When it comes to food allergies, making sure your family dines safely is paramount, at home or away. At least now, with AllergyEats, you have help finding that safe place…and you and your family can really feel like you’re on vacation.
AllergyEats now goes mobile
Have a last-minute change of plans? Or, don’t have time to check for restaurants before you leave home? Access AllergyEats wherever you are with its free, interactive app for iPhone and Android smartphones. You’ll have mobile access to the same allergy-friendliness ratings, as well as restaurants’ websites, menus, directions, and phone numbers.
Download the app online, at AllergyEats.com.
Food allergies’ eco-connection
It’s no secret that the number of Americans diagnosed with having food allergies has grown significantly in recent years. Also worth noting is that efforts to curb this growth might be all the more reason to protect our natural environment.
According to the recent article, “Why Are Children’s Food Allergies on the Rise?,” by Sue Russell, on the General Electric-sponsored health blog, Healthymagination, about 12 million Americans currently have some sort of food allergy or intolerance, almost half of whom are children. It also cites a 2010 study by Dr. Scott Sicherer, a pediatrics professor at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai in New York, reporting that peanut allergies in children more than tripled between 1997 and 2008.
Such startling statistics have prompted more research into what exactly causes food allergies. No one answer has been found, and a variety of theories continue to be studied, many of which link food allergies to our changing environment.
One such eco-link theory has to do with “hyper hygiene” — or, the overuse of antibiotics and anti-bacterial products, creating a hyper-hygienic environment. Some believe that a human body that is underexposed to pathogens can develop an autoimmune disorder, which then may be linked to the body developing an allergic response to certain foods.
Another theory linking food allergies and the environment has to do with global warming. The reasoning is that, the warmer the climate, the higher the presence of carbon dioxide in the air, causing plants and trees to create more pollen.
Researchers have noted that, along with food allergies, there has been a recent, sharp increase in the number of Americans who have seasonal allergies. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), the number of people who have hay fever from airborne allergens has doubled in just 20 years. It is also widely believed that there is an increased risk of food allergies among people who either have seasonal allergies, such as hay fever, or who have a family history of having seasonal allergies.
More about food allergies
- Medline Plus, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is a good source for basic information on food allergies. Go to www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000817.htm.
- Healthymagination, a health blog sponsored by GE, at www.healthymagination.com/blog/why-are-children%E2%80%99s-food-allergies-on-the-rise, offers discussion about the increase in childhood food allergies.
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