How the rise of gluten-free and vegan options affects peope with food allergies

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A ccording to the Allergy, Genes and Environment Network (Allergen), about 2.5 million Canadians have at least one food allergy. As more people, with or without allergies, search for gluten-free and vegan options, more restaurants, bakeries and other food and beverage businesses are working to be more accommodating.

Kim Banman, the owner of Urban Oven Company, runs a gluten-free dough business. She also uses ingredients like applesauce and coconut oil instead of dairy.

Banman was inspired to run the business because her son has allergies tied to gluten.

“I know what it feels like to not have options,” she said. “There just always seemed to be, in the shelf products, something that he was allergic to.”

She said that her customers who have allergies told her that the hospitality industry in London, Ont. is more accommodating than it was in the past.

Alexandra Connon, the owner of Boombox Bakeshop, said that gluten- free and vegan food options are becoming more common.

“We used to be one of the only vegan places in the city,” she said. “[Now] I see vegan places and gluten-free places and plant-based kitchens popping up pretty much everywhere in the country.”

Glenn Whitehead, the owner of Plant Matter Kitchen, said that the vegan restaurant, which offers gluten-free options, prides itself in using local, organic “whole foods in their natural form, cooked with pure ingredients”. He said that he felt using whole foods in cooking would help cut down food sensitivities, intolerances and allergies. Whitehead added that he’s noticing more bakeries and restaurants, even chain eateries are following suit.

“It’s an interesting place to be in as the awareness is coming,” he said. “It also brings out the awareness that there are a lot of allergies out there. Like more than you could even imagine.”

Glassroots owners Mike Fish and Yoda Olinyk both said in an email that when they are informed of allergies, sensitivities and intolerances, they look at it as an opportunity to be inventive with the meal. They noted that while the city’s hospitality industry is “overall very accommodating”, the pair would like to see more effort.

“A lot of chefs still get frustrated with food sensitivities and aren’t very creative in their offerings,” they explained. “It would be great if restaurants really challenged themselves to make their specialty menus inventive and exciting for their diners.”

Morganna Sampson, VP Entertainment for the Fanshawe Student Union (FSU), has “slight” allergies to corn, dairy and soy, and is allergic to gluten. She also does not eat a lot of red meat.

“It’s pretty hard for me to find a meal on campus,” Sampson said, adding there are restaurants in London that are accommodating for people with allergies.

“They tend to be more higher scale prices, but they do cater to allergens.”

Candis Bross, a first-year computer programming student at Fanshawe, and former graphic designer for the Interrobang, has been vegan since January 2016 and has an egg allergy.

Bross went vegan because of how she felt about eating meat, especially after researching factory farming.

“My original reason for choosing a vegan lifestyle was because it was easier,” Bross explained. “There were so many meat products that contained eggs that it was much simpler to just stop eating meat. I had already stopped drinking dairy years before so it just seemed to make sense.”

Bross said she also cooks more often than she used to, finding it healthier and more cost effective. She added that there are limited options at the college for her to eat.

“Many of the options at the college cannot guarantee anything allergen-free and because my allergy is fairly severe, I can’t risk buying anything at the college.”

Dr. Brenda Hartman, an assistant professor at Brescia University College, said that many eateries at the Western University affiliate are aware of potential food allergens and will notify if a product may contain one. She said Brescia often provides daily hot meals for the students, including some that are gluten-free. However, she added the school is not allergen free, as with the city’s restaurants.

“It’s virtually impossible. There are eight top allergens that account for 90 per cent of all allergic reactions. Even if they’re vegan or gluten-free restaurants, there’s still the possibility of contamination from things like peanuts, tree nuts and sesame seeds,” Hartman explained.

How to search for food that accommodates food sensitivities, intolerances and allergies?

Sue Brush, a professor for Fanshawe’s food and nutrition management program, said that it is important to recognize the difference between a food sensitivity, intolerance and allergy. She added that these concepts are taught to her students.

“The effects of ingesting the wrong food if it’s an allergy [are] far more serious than an intolerance,” she explained. “An intolerance might make you have an upset tummy, might just make you feel unwell for a while, but it will not cause you any severe effects like anaphylaxis or anything like that.”

She said that those with allergies, sensitivities and intolerances should read and understand everything on a food label.

Bross said that it is important to read food labels and ask servers questions to ensure your food avoids cross-contamination as much as possible.

“Just because something is labelled vegan or gluten-free does not mean it’s allergen- free,” she said.

Banman said that the term “gluten- free” is one used to describe different scenarios.

“Some think it means that they just don’t add wheat to the product, but for me, I’d be looking for gluten-free as it doesn’t come into contact or it isn’t processed near anything that has gluten in it,” she explained. “It’s a loose term and people should be aware that every business takes it to a different level.”

The restaurant and bakery owners featured in this article all said they do what they can to prevent cross-contamination, such as using bowls, cutting boards, utensils and cooking areas separate from the potential allergens.

Connon said yeast and milk can make her feel sick. She said it’s important to be upfront with restaurants about specific allergies, sensitivities and intolerances.

“Some people go, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a problem. I don’t want to bother them,’ but for me, it’s like I’d rather know than have you go into shock or hives or whatever. I have allergies too, so I get it.”

Whitehead also said that customers who inform restaurants of allergies, intolerances and sensitivities should expect their food to take extra time to prepare.

“If we have someone who is celiac or someone who’s got an epi-pen and have an anaphylactic reaction to something, the food is going to take an extra 15 to 20 minutes.”

Fish and Olinyk said that it’s important to explain whether the sensitivity is an allergy or intolerance, so they know what steps to take to prevent it. “If you have multiple allergies, the staff might have some follow-up questions for you so we make sure we have as much information as possible.”

The Glassroots owners added that customers don’t need to feel bad about telling their servers they have an allergy.

“You didn’t choose that allergy and we certainly won’t make you have to sacrifice a good meal for it.”