Stephen Jardine: Food allergy is a serious business

Peanuts are a common food allergy. Picture: Contributed
Peanuts are a common food allergy. Picture: Contributed
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Growing up in the 1970s meant trying to dodge sadistic PE teachers and headmasters wielding the tawse. Remarkably, all that was accepted at the time. What wasn’t acceptable was fussing over food.

Sadly, fussy eaters now seem to be taking over the world.

Growing up, I would eat anything. I didn’t much like cabbage but it would still disappear, bathed in gravy. Then I went away to university and found people who didn’t share my love affair with food. I remember viewing a room in a flat owned by a vegan. It was lovely but when she set out her endless rules for fridge sharing, I turned and fled.

I ended up in a damp basement but that was fine because my three flatmates shared my greedy appetite for all things food. Do such students still exist? Nowadays it seems you’d be hard pressed to find one without a nut, shellfish or yeast allergy.

There are people who have a genuine medical reaction to some foods and they need our sympathy and support. What they don’t deserve are people who use food as the mechanism for attention-seeking behaviour. They are the bane of the restaurant business.

Last week a waiter told me about someone who wanted a stack of smoked salmon with horseradish, salad and lemon dressing. However, the person didn’t like lemon, couldn’t eat rocket in a salad and thought they might be allergic to horseradish. The poor waiter pointed out, it’s hard to stack smoked salmon without any other ingredients on the plate.

People with real allergies and issues know what to order and how to manage their condition. But there are those who are just fussy and hard to please and seem to enjoy putting restaurant staff under the cosh.

In a study in the United States, 20 per cent of the population claim to have some form of food allergy but, according to the Washington Post, scientists estimate the actual verifiable figure is less than 3 per cent.

Twenty years ago a plate of mussels made me really ill and I’ve only rarely eaten them since. I’m not allergic to them. I was just unlucky and got a bad batch, but you have to keep these things in perspective.

Even the NHS website admits the sharp rise in food allergies in the past 20 years is down to “reasons that are unclear”. Changing environmental factors have probably contributed to this but so has a culture where people love to claim allergies because it makes them feel special.

As someone who loves all food, I feel really sorry for anyone denied that pleasure due to medical reasons. Any restaurant worth the name will go out of its way to accommodate that and keep people safe. Food allergies need to be taken seriously but, like naughty children, those who are fussy are simply best ignored.