All posts by Whyriskit.ca Blog

Barbados in Peanut-Free Shell

Your footprints disappear in white sand behind you as clear turquoise water laps gently against your toes. The air smells warm, the breeze carries tranquil scents and the sights offer endless blue horizons and lush green gullies. It’s hard to have any worries when you’re surrounded by such beauty, but the reality of having a severe food allergy is and it follows you anywhere you go.

I had the opportunity to travel to a slice of paradise last year when visiting the Caribbean island of Barbados. My family and I stayed at a condo-style facility where I had the opportunity to make most of my own food, which is an ideal situation for anyone who, like me, is at-risk for anaphylaxis to several foods. I thought I would find issues with food labeling laws or lack of information available when it comes to prepackaged foods. I was surprised to walk into a grocery store to see both North American brands that I am more comfortable with and precautionary labelling (e.g. “may contain”) on other brands. As well, an abundance of fresh foods like meats, vegetables, and fruits gave me variety in what I chose to eat. I was also shocked to see separate sections for all tree nuts away from the produce, along with closing bags and wash stations, a feature that I’ve never seen at a grocery store! It was amazing to see food allergy safety protocol outside of my home. It put my worries at ease and I felt safer and more comfortable.

Having bags that zip shut, and a place to wash or disinfect your hands is an idea worth considering for other grocery stores internationally. Whether it be for sanitary reasons, or food allergy safety, it’s a protocol I wish more would adapt. All of this made cooking on our vacation no sweat but I was still looking forward to trying the local foods and spirits.

Before I eat anywhere whether it be at home in Canada or abroad, I always research several restaurants online and gather any information I can find. From menus and allergen information, to hopefully contacting the restaurant by email or phone, I like to be prepared when I dine out. If I’m travelling, I try to contact a restaurant beforehand and see what (if any) allergen policy they may have. My emails and phone calls always have the same message and questions. If there isn’t an email or contact, I try to contact the restaurant on social media like Facebook or Twitter with simple questions. In my experience, they’re usually great at responding but I was floored at the responses and multiple follow ups I received from several restaurants in Barbados. The moment that caught me off guard was the remembrance of me and my food allergy. I emailed a particular place about two weeks before our trip, after being assured it was safe, I made a reservation, and to my surprise the manager remembered my name and allergy when we arrived. She took time to get the chef to chat with me about my options and assured me he would personally make my meal. I haven’t felt that safe and confident in my meal choice since Walt Disney World, where the staff went above and beyond! The chef brought my meal out specifically and even made me a special dessert since none were safe on the menu.

It was such a nice surprise to be greeted this way. I never expected that level of involvement and assurance from the chef, not to mention the sheer acknowledgement of my name and allergen was enough to keep a smile on my face the entire meal. I never expected that level of involvement and allergen awareness when I entered that restaurant. Here in Canada, restaurants are great when it comes to food allergy awareness. One thing I think some could learn is the hospitality and comfort I was offered in that fateful place. The assurance of safety and knowledge in the kitchen and care from the chef and staff boosted my confidence in asking questions and voicing my concerns.

A travel advertisement once left you with the line “life wasn’t created here, but it was perfected.” When each day starts with crystal blue water and ends with picture perfect sunsets, it’s hard not to get swept away into the peace and beauty that is Barbados. When you have a food allergy, it can be hard not to let a black cloud hang over your head when travelling. Between the plane and being in a different location, it can cause serious anxiety regardless of where you are. It can also be easy to forget about or be less vigilant when it comes to your food allergy when you’re on vacation and already in a relaxed state of mind. Whether you’re the former or the later it’s important to plan ahead, do your research, and come prepared wherever you may be.

With less worry blocking your view, that black cloud can lift and you’ll be able to see that beautiful view of vacationing.

-Arianne K.

Be Our Guest: Dining at Walt Disney World

Let’s face it, we’ve all looked at a menu with hesitation. Wondering what limitations or substitutions await you. We’re all on the edge of our seats waiting for the lines “made on the same grill, pre-made at another facility, or may have come into contact with.” It can be so discouraging that you almost want to wait to crack open that menu until you can talk with a server or chef. I’ve always held off on making decisions on ordering until I’ve spoken with someone, that is, until I stepped into the most magical place on earth and was handed a menu that helped me put away my worries and strife.

The Vacation Kingdom of the World. You don’t get a title like that without being a well-rounded, fine-tuned, working machine. Now full disclosure, I am no slouch when it comes to Walt Disney World (WDW). We started going to Disney in the early 90’s, a turbulent time in the family as we had my newly discovered risk-for-anaphylaxis to peanuts and tree-nuts and my brother’s newly discovered food allergy to eggs. With all these food allergies packed into one family, we decided to pack up a trailer and drive from Ontario, Canada to the great state of Florida (a three day excursion mind you) and camp at the Fort Wilderness Campground. This way, my mom and dad could be in charge of all the food we ate because I was terrified to eat anywhere other than my mom and Grandma’s house.

Now, it may not come to anyone’s surprise that The Walt Disney World Company has their food allergy game figured out, but at the time I was still scared, I didn’t have the self-confidence to try the food in the parks. That was until I turned 13. Things changed and I became more confident in myself and my food allergies, and was ready to try new dining adventures. I had my very first dining-out experience at Tony’s Town Square Restaurant in the Magic Kingdom.

Since then, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for WDW. In such a safe and welcoming environment, I could discuss my food allergies with an actual chef, who took the time to explain the menu and reassure me of their due diligence. It was this stepping stone that laid the ground work for me to become more confident in speaking about my food allergies in restaurants anywhere. I learned to look over menus carefully and talk to servers myself and ask the right
questions. Because their cast members were so well trained and prepared, it rubbed off on me and helped me understand the value and importance of taking this time to be sure of my food choice and feel safe about them.

Fast forward to January 2017. My partner Steve and I decided to travel down to WDW to ring in the New Year with the mouse. I am continually impressed with how restaurants treat food allergies, but I am knocked off my feet in awe of how the Walt Disney Company is changing the game when it comes to food allergies. When you’re planning a trip to WDW, it’s in your best interest to book dinner reservations in advance. Booking online is the first step in WDW’s food allergy preparedness. You have the option to fill out all your food allergies in detail before you even step foot in the restaurant.
When we finally arrived to our first dining reservation, I was greeted with the question, “who has the allergy in this party?” and then promptly handed an allergy-friendly menu. The menu had detailed dishes from appetizers to desserts, outlining all ingredients and what dishes were free of certain allergens. It’s hard to put into words how I felt in that moment. I wanted to cry and laugh all at the same time. It was the first time I was able to go through a menu with confidence before speaking with someone from the restaurant. When we placed our order, the server asked if I felt comfortable and if I needed to speak with a chef just in case. I couldn’t help but remember that shy 13-year-old, who blustered up the courage to talk with a chef about her food allergies. I was bursting with emotions thinking about how a tool such as this will help kids just like me build confidence and a voice when it comes to their food allergy. Instead of being presented with a bunch of no’s and off-limits, we finally have a menu that is full of options and
opportunities.

Remember, the onus is still on you to disclose all of your allergies and take all of the necessary precautions you would usually take at any restaurant. It’s hard to guarantee anything, but WDW gets pretty close in my books!

The Walt Disney World Company truly gets it. They understand the mental toll it takes to dine out with a food allergy regardless of being a confident adult, or a parent with their child. They’ve stream lined a process with 100% visibility from putting menu’s online, to informing the restaurant when you book a reservation, down to a beautiful allergy-friendly menu. They also have the opportunity to look over menu books at quick server restaurants, and give you the option to speak with a chef at buffet style dining halls in their resorts. It is magical for a lack of a better term, but I think the word fits nicely considering the location. Food allergy awareness has come a long way and WDW is certainly looking like a gold standard contender. They are continuously innovating and discovering new ways to ensure everyone has a safe and happy dining experience while on vacation.

-Arianne. K

12 Reactions in 12 Months: What I Learned from 2016

From the news around the world, 2016 was a challenging year for many people. In my case, I developed more severe food allergies. It was like I’d gotten an extra, unwanted Christmas present that I just couldn’t return. Looking back, however, I can see how 2016 taught me a lot as well. Most of the lessons were learned the hard way… so I’m hoping that by sharing them, you can learn from my mistakes!

1) Take your allergens seriously!

Before 2016, I was prescribed an epinephrine auto-injector, but I didn’t always carry it with me. I avoided eating my allergens, but my housemates ate them, cooked with their flours, and I wasn’t at all careful about cross-contamination. If you’ve had allergies for a long time, you know how reckless that was… but being at-risk for anaphylaxis was all so new to me… and it’s hard to change old habits. That said, I wish I’d at least tried to change those habits before I was visiting the ER every 2-3 days in January 2016… I felt so stupid, coming in and explaining that my housemates had cooked with almond flour, and that I hadn’t washed the counter before preparing and eating my food. I have now learned to prepare my defensive strategy before using the kitchen. I have a placemat I use, I wash counters before I cook with them, and I always wash my hands immediately before eating. If I visit a friend, I re-wash dishes before I use them. I don’t trust dishwashers, as some leave caked-on food. My housemates take great care in washing dishes, so at least I can trust the dishes at home. They know that when they don’t wash things carefully… they might get woken up late at night with a surprise trip to the hospital!

2) Epinephrine auto-injectors aren’t painful!

So, I learned this a few years back during my first ever reaction… but I was sufficiently surprised that it bears repeating. Remember the best vaccine you’ve ever been given? Like where you asked if the nurse was going to give it to you and then they told you it was already done? That’s my experience with epinephrine auto-injectors. I freaked out SO MUCH the first time, I sobbed to the 911 operator “I know how to do this, but I can’t do this!!!” You see, I’d taken a decade of first aid courses, and they had told me that auto-injectors can work through jeans… and so I was imagining this giant needle that would hurt a LOT. What I have since realized is that thinking of an auto-injector as big isn’t quite right. It’s actually a very thin gauge of needle. Honestly, none of the 16 or so auto-injectors I’ve had to use have hurt. Blood pressure cuffs inflating, on the other hand, are very painful, especially if you’re texting with the same hand, so make sure to drop your phone and relax if someone’s taking your pressure!

3) Keep your epinephrine auto-injector where you can reach it, and let others know where it is!

In April 2016 I had the scariest reaction of my life. It started mild, as all my reactions do, and the serious symptoms were delayed, as many of my reactions are. Because I have chronic idiopathic hives as well as being at-risk for anaphylaxis, my allergist has given me permission to take over the counter antihistamines when I have specific mild symptoms. My hives went away, but I ignored the fact that I felt weird, and started getting ready for bed. I should have taken the epinephrine then. I took my regular night time medications instead, but as I went to swallow them they got stuck in my throat and I started coughing. Suddenly I couldn’t stop coughing, and all my symptoms came back. Dizziness, nausea, hives, redness, asthma, and I was coughing so hard I had to sit down. Coughing so hard I couldn’t get up to go get my EpiPen® in the belt that was a few meters away. Coughing so hard I couldn’t catch my breath or turn around to get the EpiPen® in the drawer about 2 inches behind me.

Thankfully, I was coughing so hard that I woke my housemates… who came downstairs, called 911, and handed me the EpiPen®. After that, I started keeping 4 epinephrine auto-injectors in the house: there is an EpiPen® next to my pillow, reachable from bed. There’s one in the belt around my waist. There’s one in my purse… and because all three of those are hard to access and easy to move, there is also one that doesn’t ever move, installed on a broom holder next to my door. Every person in the house knows where it is, so that if I react they can run and grab it. I’ve deliberately chosen not to live alone. My allergist and I are also working very hard to try and treat the chronic hives, because of course it is not recommended to take an over the counter antihistamine during a serious reaction!

4) Trust yourself, but don’t let others trust you during a reaction

One common thread during all of my serious reactions thus far? I don’t think straight. I don’t make rational decisions. I routinely ignore that nagging feeling that something is VERY wrong. I start behaving abnormally, illogically, and my answer to questions like “Are you ok? You look like you’re reacting to something” is consistently “I don’t know.” My family, and colleagues have mostly seen my reactions in person now… but it’s still one of the first things I go over if someone new joins our team at work, or if I’m eating out with friends. To give a few examples from 2016:

Near the beginning of January, I actually talked myself, my sister, and the paramedics out of giving me epinephrine… in spite of the fact that I knew something major was going on. To be fair, I was stable, and they were monitoring me… but when I was later triaged through urgent care and started re-reacting more severely, it was difficult to get the nurses’ attention. I did, and things moved very quickly, with epinephrine being administered there. Had I trusted myself in the first place, though, I could have saved myself 4 hours of misery.

The other experience where I was learning to tell others not to trust me during reactions came later. I was at work, and had a major asthma attack to some dry erase spray I was using. I collapsed, but decided against calling for help on my radio. I caught my breath, but when I told one of my colleagues what had just happened I again insisted that I was completely fine. Meanwhile I had developed hives and swelling and nausea but kept ignoring the symptoms and telling my colleagues that I didn’t know whether I was having a mild or severe reaction. Eventually the reaction progressed until I was physically unable to lift my auto-injector. Thankfully a different colleague noticed that I was about to pass out, and took action on my behalf.

My hope and prayer is that you’ll never have to go through those moments, where your logical brain is saying “I’m having a reaction, with the following symptoms, and need immediate medical assistance” but the anxiety added by the reaction results in you hiding the truth from others. You matter. Your reaction will be much more inconvenient the more it progresses. If you are experiencing an anaphylactic reaction, you are not wasting anyone’s time by getting their help. 

5) Cooking from scratch is not impossible

Two years ago, I met with a dietician to talk about how I could improve my diet. Back then I had 13 allergens. I insisted there was no way I could cut out anything further. She gave me some recipes, but I didn’t take a lot of time to try them. I had resigned myself to a fate of relying heavily on other companies to be able to cook for me at the time.

Then came 2016, and suddenly I was hit hard by the new reality of having to make everything from scratch, and even having to call every company about every possible ingredient. There’s a point, while you are waiting for re-testing, where you stop looking at what is unsafe, and you start making a list of safe foods. That was the most positive shift I made. I started making incredibly simple meals from scratch, so that it was easier to list all the ingredients of what I’d eaten that day. It wasn’t an easy shift, as I grieved the things I couldn’t eat and exhausted myself trying to find safe recipes. But it was incredibly encouraging, as each successful meal became a reason to celebrate. Each new safe ingredient source has me jumping with excitement, and I’ve really learned to enjoy cooking.

Cooking from scratch was a huge learning curve, and at first it took 24 hours a week to cook meals… but now my record stands at 5 meals made in 20 minutes (plus I ate one in that time too, and washed dishes). With only 43 things that I can eat, I have become much more willing to try eating things I might not otherwise have tried. That willingness has led to some accidental successes (like roasted kiwi, and candied organic banana peel), and some really epic failures (like grapefruit toffee). I’ve learned not to give up in the kitchen, and I wish I’d learned some of these skills before I had no choice but to use them.

If I can learn these things, however, I’m pretty confident anyone can. I’ve gone from being unable to cook eggs… and regularly “burning” water… to someone who’s made candy, soup, jams, and even some puff pastry. I still have a lot to learn, but YouTube© is an excellent resource… and the benefits of studying how to make your own food far outweigh the inconveniences at times.

All in all, I learned a lot in 2016, and I’m still learning. I suspect I will always be learning more about cooking from scratch, but I hope I can stop learning so much firsthand about reactions! I’m also hoping that by sharing this with you, you’ll save yourself the time of learning them on your own!

Here’s to fewer reactions in 2017!
-Janice H.

May Contain the Following: Stress

This product may have come into contact with the following: How many times have you been in a grocery store aisle reading an ingredient list of a new product with excitement only to find these words at the very bottom like a disappointing end to a great story. It can hit you like a ton of bricks, or knock the wind right out of you. For lack of a better term, it’s a real bummer.

As you put the item back, it’s easy to get discouraged, angry, or upset. You may curse the product or the company but, in my opinion, I think we should feel the exact opposite. Every time I see this or similar wording I’m happy I live in a time and a place where information is readily available for allergen safety. After all, precautionary labelling is completely voluntary in Canada.

I have vivid memories from when I was young of my mom calling company after company attempting to get information about production lines, products in the vicinity, and other foods that the company made. She spent hours with a house phone (on a cord I might add) pressed against her ear with boxes of food, paper, and permanent markers sprawled out in front of her. Each time she got a complete answer she’d mark a or X on the box and then feverishly write down any other information they would give her. She did this for hours on end just to find out if certain products were safe for me to eat, or because I mentioned I wanted try, for instance, Fruit Roll-Up© (which I couldn’t) or PopTarts© (which I could). She scoured this new frontier called the Internet for any information she could find, from website FAQ’s to small forums made up of other parents. She, just like many others, was desperate for some clarity or visibility to make sure our cupboards and grocery store aisle didn’t become a scary place. She spent hours on hold, getting half-truths, rude comments, or no answers at all just to ensure my childhood was a little bit better. She was a brave explorer in in a time where precautionary labelling was in its infancy – just trying to make sense of it all.

30's woman on a serious phone call.Today, that amount of effort seems daunting and overwhelming. I can only image the anxiety and fear she had each time a new food came into our house. Now, with food allergies being more prevalent, and manufacturers taking more precautions with their products and labelling, more information is at my finger tips from a variety of sources. If I have questions, I can contact a company by email, hotline, or check out reviews from thousands of others in various online media sources like websites, social media, articles, etc. If all that doesn’t satisfy my craving for knowledge I can reach out and read the many online publications dedicated to food allergy safety (and I can do that through social media as well). But my first step will always be reading an ingredient list.

I encourage you to read Health Canada’s interview with Food Allergy Canada where they detail the most recent food allergy labelling guidelines:  http://foodallergycanada.ca/2016/10/5-questions-for-health-canada

The “may contain” label was introduced to warn people about potential allergens not listed in the ingredient list. This was done in case another food product during the production process could have come into contact, fallen into, been on the same production line, or any other incident that could have contaminated your product with an allergen. Although more and more companies are disclosing this information and becoming transparent on the true risks of their products, it is still important to do your research if you are unsure about a new food.

– Arianne K

For more information about food labelling, check out Food Allergy Canada’s website.

My Dream for a Standardized Allergy-Friendly Menu

Cheerful couple with menu in a restaurant making order
Dining out with friends and family is always something I look forward to. Having to worry about my food allergy, however, takes some fun out of it, but it’s something I’ve become accustomed to. I always get a sense of relief when I find a restaurant that is allergy-friendly and has a detailed spreadsheet listing allergen information for their menu items across the board. I often dream about what it would be like if there was a standardized allergy-friendly menu at every restaurant I went to.  Here are a few reasons why a standardized allergy-friendly menu would benefit those of us with food allergies:

It would reduce the anxious feelings that often come with dining out. Having a standardized allergy-friendly menu would eliminate the burden I sometimes feel when discussing and planning a night out with friends. For example, I often find myself saying to them, “sorry, we can’t check out that restaurant because I think there are nuts in many dishes” or “I didn’t feel comfortable there last time.” Also, it would eliminate the constant back-and-forth of asking about ingredient info with the wait and kitchen staff. I would still notify them about my allergies so they know it’s severe, and to be cautious of cross-contamination.

It would make the planning process quicker and easier. Knowing a restaurant has a standardized allergy-friendly menu would eliminate the amount of time I spend researching restaurants before choosing or agreeing to dine there.

menuIt would make me feel more comfortable and safe when dining out. It would show me that the restaurant’s dishes have been dissected to highlight what allergens are within. My hope would be that these recipes would never change, which is another reason why it’s important to still mention your allergies. An allergy-friendly menu doesn’t necessarily mean that the food service staff are completely allergy aware, which is why I would still double check that they have strict kitchen protocols for accommodating allergic diners beyond providing ingredient information.

It would highlight safe options on the menu for my allergies. Having a detailed outline of potential allergens and ingredients for each dish served would not only give me a clear list of safe items, but it would also provide me with options I would have never thought I could have. Knowing I would find a standardized allergy-friendly menu at any restaurant I went to would also allow me to discover restaurants that I never thought I could eat at before.

Fortunately, the restaurant industry in Canada is well aware of the seriousness of food allergies, but there is much room to improve. There are a fair number of food chains that have a standardized menu and provide an allergen information sheet, but it isn’t required across restaurants nation-wide. It would be a dream to be able to check out a new restaurant knowing that when I get there, they would provide me with a menu of safe dining options to leave me worry-free.

– Michelle D.

Dining out with Food Allergies – A Step by Step Guide

Those living with food allergies understand that blindly choosing a restaurant (or a dish at any given restaurant) may not be the safest option. But there are a lot of ways of enjoying a restaurant meal while still being cautious. Since allergies are becoming more common, many restaurant managers and servers know the menu like the back of their hand, and are usually quite helpful.

Group of friends enjoying an evening meal with wine at a restaurant.

I have a severe dairy allergy and still enjoy eating out. There is always a bit of anxiety over new places, but I’ve found a few methods that can make things run smoother, and make it easier on everyone.

  1. Sticking to what you know. Yes, it can get a little boring, but I’ve found a few restaurants I really like, and stick to my ‘safe’ dishes on each visit. I also remind myself to check with the manager about my food allergy every visit, even though I go there a lot. Wild food experiences will never really be a part of dining out for me, so I save my crazy ideas for cooking at home.
  2. Check the menu online if possible. Larger chain restaurants usually have an online menu, which really helps those with allergies. I like that I can browse before hand, save time finding my “potential” meals, and think of questions to ask the chef or manager.
  3. Call ahead. Small, independent bistros or restaurants may change their menu frequently. I try to speak with the manager or chef, which can be very helpful. They can provide you with ingredients and offer substitutes. When you arrive, the server will often already know how to help with your questions.
  4. Let your server know right away that you have food allergies and that you will have some questions about the menu. It’s courteous to them and gives a heads up to the kitchen that they may have to make some substitutions. I always attempt to place my order before the rest of the table. That way my order stays unique, and there’s less chance of confusion.
  5. Don’t be shy, or presume the server and kitchen understand. Always state that you need your ENTIRE meal with NO (insert your allergens). If a server isn’t used to allergies, they may not even think about what’s on the salad, if you only asked about the main course. I will often ask about every part of the meal because some things aren’t always listed in the menu. I learned this after ordering my tacos with no dairy, no cheese, and no sour cream only to have the plate show up with refried beans covered in cheddar.
  6. Check your meal very carefully. If you’re unsure about something on the plate, double check. If something is wrong, send it back, or ask for something different. I used to feel a little embarrassed about this, but now I don’t hesitate, and it doesn’t happen that often.
  7. Thank your server/ management. If all goes well let them know you appreciate everything they did. I make it a point to leave positive online reviews whenever I can.
  • If all else fails, and you really don’t feel comfortable ordering anything, just don’t. I’ve had a few experiences where I’ve just enjoyed a cocktail while everyone else eats. While it’s frustrating, it’s not a risk worth taking. Always remember to keep your allergy plan and medication with you at all times, and let people you’re dining with know as well. Hopefully these tips can become a routine to help everyone enjoy dining out and lessen the stress that goes along with it.

– Morgan G.

A Forced First Impression…Food Allergy Style

As a 26 year old, I have had to inform dozens, if not hundreds of people about my allergies thus far in my lifetime. This one story definitely stood out to me ahead of the rest.

Business Team Meeting Seminar Training ConceptI was sitting in a university lecture on the first day of class. It was an elective and there was someone in the class who I didn’t know very well from a different program. She put up her hand to inform the Professor and her fellow colleagues about her allergy to citrus including oranges and bananas. She went on to say that if these food items were brought to class and peeled it would cause her a serious migraine.

I was pretty impressed by how forward she was about her allergies. I generally inform my friends, and people sitting around me should they decide to start munching on one of my allergens. Nonetheless, there was no judgement in her proclamation, but rather I noted what she said and thought the class would carry on normally.

I had a few friends in the class with me and they began to nudge me and whispered the following in my ear, “you should say something about your allergies”, “yeah, you should speak up”. Again, as I previously said, I do try to keep my allergies on a need-to-know basis, especially since we are talking about a lecture hall full of people.

Well, obviously, my professor noticed that there was a bit of a kerfuffle and asked if everything was okay. My response was the following: “Well, I just wanted to add that I also have allergies. I am severely allergic to nuts. I don’t really see it being an issue in class unless someone eats nuts and then makes out with me. So, yeah. Let’s try and avoid that at all costs.”

There was an outbreak of nervous laughter and the professor was stunned. After a brief moment, he thanked me for sharing and carried on with the program. Can you say AWKWARD!? It was quite the way to make a first impression.

– Nicole K.