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Bittersweet: Today’s Growing Sensitivity to Food Allergies

Our columnist discusses the road to allergy awareness.

[Updated: May 18, 2015]

These days in Massachusetts, the signs of increasing food allergy awareness are—quite literally—everywhere.

Before placing your order, please inform your server if a person in your party has a food allergy. By law, this language is now plastered on every menu and posted around every restaurant in the Commonwealth. Each time I go out to eat, these words remind me just how much things have changed since I was a child.

When I was growing up, visiting a restaurant was a harrowing experience for both my parents and me, one that relied on advanced planning, good communication and a little bit of luck. Even then, I was often met with perplexed stares, careless mishaps, remade orders and, on occasion, open hostility. Given my allergies to milk, eggs, nuts, peanuts and shellfish, an empty stomach or minor allergic reaction was simply an occupational hazard of dining out.

Recently, however, the culinary world in Boston has become dramatically easier to navigate. Suddenly, servers know about ingredients, common allergens and even cross contamination, managers often oversee orders and some restaurants keep special versions of their menu on hand. For those with food allergies and sensitivities, it is a paradise compared to only a few years ago.

In Massachusetts, this stark shift is due in part to the Food Allergy Awareness Act, which now requires that restaurant employees undergo food-allergy training and that restaurants post notices for both employees and patrons. It’s also thanks to the ongoing efforts of wonderful advocates such as Ming Tsai, the Massachusetts chef and restaurateur who helped spearhead this legislation.

Yet this greater awareness stems from a troubling trend: the rate of food allergies and other sensitivities is exploding. A recent study found that 8 percent of children now have at least one food allergy and 40 percent of this group have experienced severe allergy reactions. Another survey found that the prevalence of peanut allergies has more than tripled in just 15 years.

In elementary school, I was the only student out of a few hundred with severe allergies and my teachers and school nurse were largely unfamiliar with the idea of caring for a food-allergic child. This year, my mother, who teaches pre-school, carries four EpiPens for a class of less than 20.

Food allergies used to be a lonely condition but those days are over.

The increasing prevalence of food allergies is nothing short of a health crisis, one that, at present, we can only respond to defensively. Thus far, research has yielded little insight into the underlying cause. And while better awareness undoubtedly saves lives and makes living much easier for those with special dietary needs, it can’t slow the rising tide of allergies and sensitivities of all types.

It’s this ongoing epidemic that gives me pause whenever I go out to eat. I’m now able to navigate the world with greater ease and lower risk. And for that, I am deeply grateful. Yet I know it comes at a cost.

Today, the individual with food allergies and sensitivities is better off—but it’s only because there are so many of us.

Writer Joshua Feblowitz lives in Boston and attends Harvard Medical School.