Stephen Jardine: Food allergy is serious, fussiness is plain silly

Fussiness must be deeply frustrating for people who endure real problems because of certain food. Picture: John Devlin
Fussiness must be deeply frustrating for people who endure real problems because of certain food. Picture: John Devlin
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The other day I overheard two people who were engaged in a loud discussion regarding all the things they couldn’t have in a sandwich.

The list was extensive, ranging from avocados to egg, soft cheese and mayonnaise. How much of this was medical necessity and how much mere fussiness is hard to say because they didn’t seem to make the distinction.

Similarly, at a charity function recently, I inadvertently ended up with a list of the dietary requirements for the kitchen. My sympathies went to the chef because nearly 50 per cent of those who had responded had a problem.

Some were lactose or gluten intolerant or suffered from nut allergies but others were off the scale when it comes to creating a problem where there isn’t one. They included “can’t eat raspberries”, “chicken, pork or fish OK but allergic to lamb” and my favourite “no marmalade”.

All this must be deeply frustrating for people who endure real problems because of certain foods. It’s estimated 2 per cent of the UK population suffer from a genuine food allergy which is caused by the immune system’s reaction to things. Food allergies are serious and can be life threatening.

Then we have food intolerances which are less serious but can cause symptoms such as skin and stomach problems.

And then we have the “no marmalade” brigade, taking us to where we are today with 20 per cent of the UK population reporting they have some kind of issue with certain foods.

Scientific research suggests there has been an increase in allergies and intolerances caused by genetic, environmental and dietary changes. Some scientists are convinced the answer lies within the “hygiene hypothesis” with our immune systems turning to fight foods because of the lack of infections to challenge in our hyper clean environment.

But preferring not to eat something is one thing; being unable to eat a certain food because your throat swells and you cannot breathe is vitally different.

For chefs involved in catering for large events, spotting the genuine food allergies is a hard enough job without having to pick through all the problem eaters who wear their particular peccadillo as a badge of eating honour.

Nowadays we are obsessed with choice and that has coincided with growing awareness of food allergies and intolerances in society. The end result is people using that as a cloak to hide the fact that they are just fussy.

The key to all this is people taking responsibility for themselves rather than making it a problem for the chef or whoever else is organising the catered event.

One chef shared online the challenge of trying to make a Caesar Salad for a couple who couldn’t have anchovies, garlic or egg in the dressing. That ceases to be a Caesar Salad so why not just choose something else and avoid all the hassle in the kitchen?

The bottom line is that a very small percentage of people face health problems as a result of foods they eat. They deserve our help, support and understanding and they should not have their very real issues undermined by attention seeking picky eaters. After all, marmalade never killed anyone.