A little precaution goes a long way when it comes to food allergies, but that's not always easy when it comes to eating food prepared by others. With food allergies on the rise — affecting 5% of children and 4% of adults — that's big business for restaurants, web merchants and purveyors of information about food allergy safety.
A restaurant that takes the initiative and makes itself allergy-friendly, attracting the grateful and loyal business of food-allergy sufferers, can actually make additional profit, according to Paul Antico, the CEO and founder of AllergyEats.com, which rates restaurants according to that friendliness. "A restaurant that goes from allergy unfriendly to allergy friendly can make an additional $50,000 per year," he says. That's based on his calculations of additional business and subtracting out additional costs for special supplies and staff training.
Several businesses have made the switch already, and the ones that rate highest on his list, and with his users, are Disney World and P.F. Chang's. Hoping to join this list is T.G.I. Fridays, which just released a new allergen supplement menu. This special card features easy-to-read icons that break down what food groups and categories are found in each menu item, including eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts and shellfish.
The move by T.G.I. Fridays and other restaurants is in response to a heightened awareness to food allergens — and especially how they impact children. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infections at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), food allergies are three to four times more prevalent among children than adults and are a leading cause of anaphylactic reactions, resulting in an estimated 30,000 emergency room visits and 150 deaths annually. In the United States, 12 million people suffer from food allergies while an additional two million suffer from Celiac Disease (gluten intolerance).
But Antico cautions that just having a menu that lists what are referred to as the "Big 8" allergies isn't quite enough, since there are actually 25 allergens that affect more than 2% of the U.S. population. And knowing what's supposed to be in a dish doesn't mean that's what's actually in a dish. "If a server is carrying a plate for my son, who has dairy allergies, and a plate for someone else with shredded cheese on it, and some falls onto my son's plate, there's no menu that can solve for that," he says. He says that restaurants that are truly allergy-friendly train the staff to avoid cross-contamination, sometimes even using color-coded plates.
With so much to risk eating out, many people with food allergies (and their families) eat at home most of the time. That, then, leads to the problem of buying groceries. Online buying doesn't offer the same sort of label-reading detail that you can achieve in stores. Antico says that his family gets past this by ordering things they know are safe online and going to the store for everything they need to check out. "But there's a danger in that, too," he says. "Manufacturers can change ingredients at any time, and they don't need to give any notice."
Because of this, many food allergy sufferers turn to websites that offer specifically allergy-free products. One such company, Indie Candy, specializes in school treats, which is a particularly challenging category for kids with food allergies and their concerned parents (and for those who have to bring snack to allergy-free classrooms). Indie Candy has special party boxes for classrooms with candies free of the Big 8 allergens. Two sizes are available — Party Box for $25 and Extreme Party Box for $50. The boxes are decorative pencil boxes personalized with the child's name for easy storage and identification. Parents need to just log on to the Indie Candy site and list their child's allergies or sensitivities, so Indie Candy can build a custom box for that child's specific needs. Each box contains "rewards" size treats, party treats, and several seasonal treats like Halloween and Christmas.
And, of course, there's an app for that. There are many, actually, and a forthcoming one from AllergyEats. You can look up information about restaurant menus, find info about food additives, find recipes and even scan barcodes at the supermarket to find more information.
Alan Robinson is a freelance writer based in New York who writes about the food and beverage industries.You can also sign up for an email alert for all dealnews features.
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