Every time I step into a restaurant, I wonder if I will leave it healthy or poisoned. As a teenager living with a food allergy in a very culinary-centered society, even one misstep can lead to sickness. Though food safety progress has been made, I must tread lightly to ensure my safety.
I was diagnosed with celiac disease at age five. Celiac disease is slightly different from a food allergy because of the auto-immune response involved. If I eat gluten, which is wheat, barley, and rye, among other grains, my immune system attacks itself which can lead to a series of problems if left untreated. However, avoiding these ingredients isn't the hard part. People with celiac disease are often so sensitive to gluten that even a crumb that falls into their glass of water can trigger a response. This is called cross-contamination and can often be more miserable than direct contamination.
Communication is so important to make sure that people living with food allergies are safe, but it is often what restaurants and other people are lacking. I was in New York City for Thanksgiving four years ago and my parents were excited to take us to a dedicated gluten-free restaurant. We were going to get their Thanksgiving special, which consisted of turkey, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, much like our traditional Thanksgiving meal. Our waiter came to take our order and my mom went down the customary checklist to see if a place was safe for me to eat at. "Do you clean your cutting boards? Do you serve anything that isn't gluten-free? You're a dedicated gluten-free facility, right?" The waiter had a really thick accent, that much I remember, and he assured us that everything the restaurant served was gluten-free, except for a case of beer in the back of the bar. My mom went on to grill him about the meal we planned to order and he assured us that it was all safe for me to eat. "So, the Thanksgiving Special, with the turkey and the mashed potatoes, is one hundred percent gluten-free?" The waiter was shocked. I remember that he seemed appalled that we would even consider a gluten-free rub on the turkey. By making that single dish with the allergen, the place was no longer a dedicated facility.
When I get contaminated, I feel like I've gotten the flu. I throw up, have headaches, and feel too tired to do anything. Not to mention the internal consequences. My immune system attacks my villi, the structures in the small intestine that absorb nutrients. However, this is a cakewalk compared to what can happen if someone with a more severe allergy eats something that they're allergic to. My father's co-worker was camping with his daughter, who had a severe allergy to peanuts. It was dark and she ate something that shouldn't have had peanuts in it, but it did. She went into anaphylactic shock and eventually passed away. I was so upset when I heard that stories like this still happen. Her life could have been saved by a simple cardstock sign over the food that warned her of what it contained.
Thirty two million Americans live with food allergies, and yet stories like this happen far more frequently than they should. Every year, 200,000 people in the United States require emergency attention because of a reaction to food. Our communities have made huge strides toward a more inclusive society, but people with food allergies, especially children, still face issues on a day to day basis. One in three children with a food allergy is bullied as a result. There was even an incident where a child with a severe allergy to dairy passed away as a result to being chased with milk by his classmates. When I heard of this, I was angry. Someone who doesn't live with an allergy can never truly understand, but the least they can do is be understanding and support others in whatever way they can.
Another issue is the cost of living. Families caring for someone with a food allergy spend $25 billion each year. I've noticed that gluten-free food is much more expensive than other types. This doesn't worry me now, because my parents are very supportive and our whole family is gluten-free, but I am concerned about when I move out and go to college. How will I be able to pay for a living space, schooling costs, and student debt, all while dumping my minimum-wage paycheck into food that is up to 145 percent more expensive, according to a 2019 study.
Food allergies also have an emotional impact. 92 percent of parents say that they fear their child's safety some or all of the time. 75 percent say that it causes anxiety for their family, not just the person with the allergy. It can also lead to some conflicting views within the family. My mom, for example, is very protective and lives by the motto "better safe than sorry." If I ask her if something is safe for me to eat, she often asks me, "Is it worth it?" To me, it's never worth getting sick, so I often miss out on food opportunities that are probably okay for me to eat. My dad, however, thinks I should expand my horizons and try new things.
Another issue I experience because of my allergy is lack of trust. My librarian once tried to pressure me into eating ice cream, even though I assured her several times that I couldn't. She kept telling me, "You'll be fine," and "What's the worst that will happen?" Those kinds of things are easy to say when it isn't your health on the line, but that experience really stressed me out. If someone offers me something and tells me it's gluten-free, I still check and double-check the ingredients and grill them for information.
The trust thing goes both ways, though. Sometimes doctors don't trust me when I swear that I haven't been eating gluten. I have elevated levels of gluten in my blood and have since I was five, even on a gluten-free diet. I have had nurses look at me skeptically and ask me if I was "cheating." My mom reassured her that I would never do that and that I prioritize my health over food pleasure, but the nurse didn't believe me. "Teens cheat all the time," she went on, "and they don't tell their parents." I knew my mom still believed me, but it hurt that a nurse who I didn't even know had already pegged me as a liar.
Staying safe with a food allergy is difficult sometimes, with social pressures, constant fear of getting sick, and even bullying, but I feel confident that the world of food safety will only improve from here!