Food is not just a means of nourishment for many. It is treated like a social vehicle; the act of eating is used as a medium – to meet up with family or friends, to discuss business, to celebrate an occasion. People seem to bond over food, making it a powerful social tool. Now imagine having this tool taken away from you, being unable to enjoy a bite to eat at a restaurant without fearing for your life. Welcome to the life of an allergy sufferer.
Many people nowadays throw the word ‘allergy’ around without really knowing what it means. There is often a confusion between the words ‘allergy’ and ‘intolerance’. Someone who suffers from an intolerance – be it lactose intolerance, gluten and wheat intolerance, yeast intolerance – will feel ill after ingesting these products. Intolerance is a sign that the body is not capable of digesting the food eaten or that the food being eaten irritates the digestive system. A person who suffers from an allergy however, is prone to feel ill when an allergen is ingested too, yet there is also an impending life-threatening reaction connected to the allergen. This is caused when the body’s immune system, which usually wards off infections, sees the food being ingested as an invader. This leads to an allergic reaction in the body – which reaction can cause symptoms such as breathing problems, throat tightness, coughing, vomiting, abdominal pain, swelling and a drop in blood pressure. Allergic reactions are not always consistent; someone who has had a mild allergic reaction before may have a life threatening reaction the next time. Even contamination of utensils and equipment may lead to a grave allergic reaction, and thus precautions must be taken. Yet, living in a world where eating is a social activity, someone suffering from a food allergy may often feel left out, his/her (very serious) needs neglected.
We spoke to Dr. Mario Aquilina, a Lecturer at the University of Malta and father of a 5 year-old boy who has been suffering from a food allergy since he was just a year old. His young son had to be admitted to hospital as a toddler when he had an allergic reaction to a particular ingredient, which at the time could not be isolated. This caused the family to undergo a huge overhaul in their lives, removing all traces of food which might trigger a reaction.
What changes have you made in your everyday life to make sure your son can eat healthily and safely?
M.A.: You have to be prepared to read and understand ingredients on products, as sometimes a different jargon is used in labelling. We had to eliminate certain products produced in Malta unfortunately, since the labelling on these products is not always thorough, and thus not always safe. We have had to be more careful about cross-contamination of kitchen utensils and pots and pans, making sure to clean everything well before reusing it to prepare something else. It is important to read and to be informed about the issue as much as possible and to hand-pick restaurants before eating out. Travelling has become complicated; however we usually opt for self-catering apartments when going abroad, so that we are 100% safe in regards to food, which we prepare ourselves.
What might help to increase awareness about food allergies and their serious consequences especially in Malta?
M.A.: Awareness is increasing from when my son was first diagnosed with his allergy, almost 5 years ago. Many restaurants now write on their menus that allergy sufferers need to speak to the waiter or the chef; however they are often not willing to take the risk and advertise themselves as ‘allergy-friendly’ as it then puts a lot of responsibility on the restaurateurs, who would obviously not want to be held accountable should someone have an allergic reaction. I myself have spoken with various hotel and restaurant managers regarding this issue, as, if viewed in the long-run, catering for allergy sufferers benefits their business rather than hinders it. If, for example, there is a family of 5 persons, including a person suffering from an allergy who cannot eat at a particular restaurant because it does not cater for allergy sufferers, then this restaurant would have lost a potential table of 5 clients. Investing in different pans and separate cooking oil may seem burdensome and wasteful for many restaurant owners; however this proves to be beneficial in the long run, as instead of shunning people away by not catering for everyone’s needs, you then actually draw people in. Awareness is increasing in Malta, but the Government has to implement changes on the labelling of Maltese products, providing an allergen sheet as in the UK. The Facebook page I set up, ‘Eating Out with Special Dietary Requirements’ mentions places which have offered a pleasant experience when eating out with my son. A lot of restaurants are not yet fully willing to advertise themselves that they do indeed cater for allergy sufferers, but people on social media can share their experiences, good or bad, so that more people are informed about which restaurants they can choose.
What do allergy sufferers, especially foreigners, have to look for when choosing a restaurant?
M.A.: In my opinion, you cannot enjoy eating somewhere unless you fully trust that your needs are going to be catered for as you require, without cross-contamination of utensils and equipment, and with proper care in the selection of ingredients. A restaurant must be researched before, and it is best to call before making the reservation, so that you can state clearly that there will be someone who is allergic to some ingredients in your party, to see if the restaurant will be able to cope with these demands. Once at the restaurant, it is imperative to ask again, and to state again which ingredients cannot be ingested by said person. It is best to talk both to the person in charge – be it a head waiter or chef – as well as to the waiter serving you, to make sure that there is more than one person who is aware of the situation. This way the allergy sufferer can put his/her mind at rest and truly enjoy the experience of dining, and the whole party can enjoy the meal together. Unfortunately sometimes there is miscommunication between the waiter and the chef, especially if the waiter is not yet trained enough. Allergy sufferers are sometimes mistaken for fussy or picky eaters, and the staff thinks that they are merely complaining or being a nuisance. Having an allergy is a far-cry from being fussy. It is important that you explain what the situation is, and how serious the reaction might be should the allergen be ingested in some way, or if some equipment is cross-contaminated. It is your right to feel comfortable with what you are eating and it is the establishment’s duty to offer food which is safe to eat.
Which restaurants have you found to provide the best service when catering for allergy sufferers?
M.A.: There are a number of restaurants which have been indeed very welcoming and very considerate when dealing with people with special dietary requirements, most of which I mention in my Facebook Page ‘Eating Out with Special Dietary Requirements’ https://www.facebook.com/HappyRestaurants/?fref=ts. Here I list my experiences in restaurants across Malta and Gozo which have provided excellent service and a good choice of food catering for different dietary requirements. A quick mention – Amorino, the ice-cream shop in Republic Street, Valletta, is very helpful as it has an allergen sheet where one can see each different ingredient in the various ice-creams they offer.