Allergens on eat out menus

There are more than 2 million allergy sufferers in the UK and an estimated 600,000 with coeliac disease. For them, eating out can be a minefield. All it takes is one small ingredient to cause a potentially life threatening reaction.

Since December 2014, those who eat out, whether it’s a takeaway or in a restaurant, will no doubt have noticed the increasing availability of allergen information appearing on menus and notice boards. This is due to new legislation from the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (EU FIC), changing the way food business provide allergen information to their customers.

In order to get a clearer understanding of the effects that making allergen information more widely available has had, a small UK representative sample of people with allergies were asked to fill out a two week diary detailing their experiences of eating out or ordering takeaway food.

The study was commissioned by the Food Standards Authority (FSA) and carried out by the University of Bath.

What they found

Overall, participants felt increased confidence in the available allergen information and were likely to eat out more frequently. They also said they would be more likely to return to and recommend venues where staff where helpful and attentive to their allergen needs.

Heather Hancock, Chairman of the Food Standards Agency, said:

“Everyone should be able to trust their food. When people live with a food allergy or intolerance that can make them really ill or be life threatening, that trust becomes critical. This new research shows that many food businesses have a good understanding of the allergen information rules, with the result that consumers trust them and feel confident that they'll be safe when eating out.”

Eating out strategies used by allergen sufferers

Allergen sufferers often have to employ specific strategies when eating out or ordering takeaway food. For example, some choose to avoid specific cuisines such as Indian, Chinese or Thai food. They may also choose to only visit places they are familiar with or where they could have some degree of control over their food order. For example, selecting certain elements of their meal or ordering an allergen-free meal in advance.

Participants often have a preference for fresh foods. This means venues with complex or unclear ingredients, or with pre-prepared or processed dishes which don’t allow the potential for alteration or exclusion of allergens from recipes were deemed to be a particular risk.

Post legislation confidence

The new legislation has given many allergen sufferers an increased confidence to ask about the components of their food. Where once they may have felt they were being a ‘fusspot’ or picky, now they feel restaurant staff generally have a greater understanding and awareness of their condition.

But it’s not always straightforward. The following comments were from two participants of the study.

“I asked for an omelette on the breakfast menu and because their omelettes, little did I know, come already done, all they do is put them in a microwave. She couldn’t tell me – I said ‘I don’t want cheese in it,’ because it’s a cheese omelette. I said, ‘I don’t want cheese in it – can I just have the plain omelette?’ ‘Oh no, we can’t do that,’ and she wasn’t explaining to me, ‘no, they come already’…because she didn’t know herself.”

“I was at someone’s birthday in a (name of Asian restaurant), and most of the menu…so I have to keep asking, and I had the plainest thing on the menu, just in case. But you never know if it’s cooked in oils or… So, yeah, I was really worried then. I’d never go back.”

One the other hand…

“It wasn’t a carvery company or anything like that. It was a pub that sort of had everything on show and you went and picked what meat, and then all the veg was there, so you could… I prefer that, because, when you buy a roast somewhere, sometimes they put cauliflower cheese on your plate, but when it’s like that, you can put whatever you want on, so I haven’t got to worry about saying, ‘oh, I don’t want cauli cheese and I don’t want…’ you know”…

This is certainly great news for those with allergies or conditions such as coeliac disease. Eating out should be an enjoyable experience, not fraught with anxiety!

See the full report here.