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food allergies.....ask or tell?

you're hosting a dinner party.

1. when, if at all, do you request information about food allergies or dislikes?
2. do you expect the guess to tell you without you asking?
3. does your response vary with the number of guests to be served?
4. on a buffet, do you label ingredients for major allergies, like "contains peanut butter"?
5. have you ever said you were "allergic" just because you didn't want something?

6. finally, have you ever had a guest with an allergic reaction to something you cooked?

edit based on linguafood's post: when you all were growing up, were there so many allergies? not in my neck of the woods. i'd never heard of them until i was pretty much an adult in the larger world.

were they just undiagnosed? geez, peanuts? gluten? a cross-look? you name it...

actually, literally, name it (if you care to list your allergies, do so).

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  1. While, for some odd reason, food allergies aren't *nearly* as widespread in Germany as they are in the US (and I'm not even going to attempt an explanation without getting snarky), I do ask my *American* guests about allergies --

    I can't remember this topic ever coming up in an exclusively German outing, don't recall having to ask anyone beyond whether they're vegetarian (yea, I know that's not an allergy, but it certainly has an effect on what I can or can't serve), and don't recall anyone informing me of a laundry list of allergies to consider.

    19 Replies
    1. re: linguafood

      as a transplanted Brit in the USA I totally agree with you lingafood. I have never heard so many people loudly tell me at restaurants, at work etc what they are allergic to since I moved here three years ago. I used to do dinner parties often in England and never once heard of any food allergies. On a diet or vegetarian or kosher but never allergies or what they do or don't like to eat.

      1. re: linguafood

        As an American I agree with you. I think the vast majority of "allergies" are really about preferences.

        I ask guests (new guests, our regulars I know their preferences) about their likes and dislikes. Fortunately we don't have any vegetarians, or people who are counting calories, carbs, etc. in our peer group.

        1. re: Janet from Richmond

          Allergies to nuts can be fatal. And allergy to shell fish can cause skin swelling. They are definitely not "preferences".

          1. re: PeterL

            I am fully aware of that as my own mother had the shellfish allergy. But I believe that many "allerigies" are preferences. Suffering from allergies seems to be the latest greatest thing "to have" in order to make one special.

            1. re: Janet from Richmond

              hmmm.... If you know of any way to throw the allergies off to become unspecial, for god's sake, tell me...!!!

              1. re: Caroline1

                Let's see if jfood can help Janet with what he thinks she is trying to convey:

                - ""allergies" are really about preferences" - She, hopefully, is not stating that having an llergy is the preferred path, but that many people in the US are hiding behind the term "allergy" when it is merely a preference.
                - "Suffering from allergies seems to be the latest greatest thing "to have" in order to make one special." - Many people will use the allergy reason to be given special treatment.

                JR - please weigh in if jfood has characterized injcorrectly. He hopes that you are not saying that allergies are preferred. Thx

                1. re: jfood

                  You characterized it perfectly jfood. Of course there are those who have true allergies, but there are many who use the guise of having an allergy for preferencial treatment.

                  1. re: Janet from Richmond

                    Maybe it;s a "thing' in the bay area, but in my experience there are more people who don't tell about their allergies (and get into trouble because of it) than there are people who claim to have them so no one will make them eat their string beans. Pollution, highly processed foods, too frequent exposure to allergen containing foods and, yes, even blood transfusions are all valid reasons why more and more people are developing allergies. Because allergies can be so very very serious -- sometimes deadly serious -- if someone want to tell me they're allergic to string beans because they don't like them, I'm comfortable with that. I just think people who do that are in the minority, and I'm unwilling to judge for fear of being wrong.

                    1. re: Caroline1

                      And that is what the attention seekers are counting on (no insult to you....my response is directed at those who fake it to get their way or for attention or for whatever reason). And those who state an allergy when it's an actual preference are the one who are minimalizing the seriousness of true allergies IMO.

                      My Mom lived when allergies were rampant and I believe that is one reason why it was taken more seriously. She was hospitalized twice before the culprit (the iodine in shellfish) was determined.

                      1. re: Janet from Richmond

                        It won't let me edit but that should be "were not rampant"

                        1. re: Janet from Richmond

                          What I'm really wondering here is whether it's a regional thing, or maybe something that's far more common among people who eat out or entertain a lot. I do eat out a fair amount of the time, but I don't hear what other diners say to the wait staff. There's also an age difference between the two of us, which means I'm leaning toward too damn lazy for big parties any more, so I don't have casual acquaintances over for a big do who tell me they're allergic to stuff they're not.

                          Your statement about your mother having allergies when allergies were rampant makes me wonder why you think there are fewer allergies now?

                          On the other hand, if you're basing your observations on your experiences with restaurant diners, well... Not to defend them too strongly, but I have had wait staff and/or chefs/cooks ignore the hell out of my special requests for food omissions or substitutions to the point that I have a certain degree of empathy for anyone who is so frustrated by this kind of thing enough that they tell a waiter that they're allergic to something they just don't like in desperate hope that it will get the desired result. And if that's the reason people are falsely claiming to have allergies, then I think there should be more blame lain at the feet of restaurants than of diners.

                          1. re: Caroline1

                            The "were rampant" was a typo and should have been "were not rampant".

                            I find it less when eating out and more as a part of general conversation and for home parties.

                            I have no allergies and two BIG things I hate...boiled eggs and mayo (non-flavored). When I order a sandwich without mayo I try to be very lighthearted and give the waiter/waitress the heads up that any other thing I can take, but please don't bring any mayo near my place (hard to convey the tone I use here on the forum) and it works well.

                            1. re: Janet from Richmond

                              "Not rampant." That makes sense. If I had a dollar for each of my typos.... '-) God, I'd love to buy that Lamborghini I've been lusting after for years!

                          2. re: Janet from Richmond

                            dh is also very allergic to the iodine in shellfish. it is a big handicap for a chef to have, so he rues his allergy every day. doesn't help that he recalls thinking that crab was the most wonderful food in the universe at age 6. . . just before he discovered he was allergic to the most wonderful food in the universe. his skin reacts to iodine solutions also, and when he was hospitalized there was a large colored flag on his hospital bracelet. the doctors & nurses ignored it repeatedly and went to grab this same arm and paint it w iodine to draw blood & start i.v.s. i was like "hello huge allergy alert, health care professionals, maybe if we put it in larger print around his forehead, instead of his wrist, you might look at it!" doesn't give you much hope for medical care.

                            ime many/most chefs are much more attentive to allergy concerns, especially considering how many fakers there are out there-- i.e. the lady the other day who refused three different vegetable offerings due to so-called allergies and ran the staff around, then we overheard her talking to her dc and she was worried about farting and/or her breath smelling funny. despite chefs doing their best to accommodate, considering how busy kitchens get, how many people they serve, and how miscommunications can happen esp in multilingual kitchens, i think it's easy to see how occasional mistakes happen with food. i think that anybody who has a serious allergy should carry an epipen. sure it's the kitchen's job to accommodate the allergy, but the diner owes it to her/his own health to be vigilant as well.

                            1. re: soupkitten

                              I just want to clarify this mention of iodine and shellfish allergy. That is complete bunk. People that have had previous reactions to contrast media do not have cross reactions with "iodine" in shellfish. This is an old belief that has been disproven. That is not to say that you can't have allergic reactions to both but it is different mechanisms involved. The major allergen in the majority of shellfish is tropomyosin. Despite disproving this long-held belief of the iodine reaction with shellfish, most radiology forms still ask patients about shellfish allergy. The allergy community has not done a good of educating the radiologists.

                      2. re: jfood

                        Jay, you seem to have trouble believing it but, honest to god, I CAN read!

                        1. re: Caroline1

                          "I'm unwilling to judge for fear of being wrong."

              2. re: linguafood

                I adore pineapple, potatoes and corn. Unfortunately, according to my bloodwork, I am allergic to all three. I hate that so much that I eat corn and potatoes anyway and hope that I'll only have minor reactions... I also take Zyxal, Singulair and Nasonex daily, as my doctor prescribed (allergic to grasses, trees, certain animal dander). I do NOT eat pineapple though, because the last time I did, my tongue swelled, I had difficulty breathing and needed a cortisone shot immediately. Just because you're allergic to something doesn't mean you're allergic to the same degree as something else. My two nephews have had to go to the ER several times each for being exposed to peanuts... not even eating them. Allergies are real and scary.

                1. re: lisafaz

                  Just because your blood work states you have allergic antibodies (IgE) does not mean that you are allergic. Immunocap (RAST) testing is notoriously imprecise at identifying food allergies. It is a much more useful test for ruling food allergies out. In cases of positive tests, patients are able to tolerate the food in about 50% of cases. For the most common food allergens (like peanut, cow's milk, soy, fish, etc.) there have been threshold values set that identify those with a greater likelihood of reacting. With rarer food allergens who knows what a the positive value means.

                  In your case, lisafaz, I would obviously avoid pineapple given your previous reaction. If you have eaten potatoes and corn before without problems, the test most likely mean nothing. Also, how high your IgE to a specific food means nothing in terms of how severe an allergic reaction may be.

              3. 2. While you should expect guests to tell you about allergies, I don't make the assumption that they always will. So I always ask. And I never expect a guest to tell me a dislike. If they did, I would think they're rude.
                3. If I have a lot of guests (6+), I'll ask about allergies and whether or not there are vegetarians, but will not ask about dislikes. I just can't deal with that at that point. If 6 or under, I can handle dislikes and will ask.
                4. The most I've ever cooked for is about 15 people. So I knew about people's alleriges/vegetarian beliefs/dislikes and would let each person know ahead of time. If I was cooking for at least, let's say, 20 people or more, I'd probably label it as it's too much for me to keep track of.
                5. No.
                6. No, thank goodness.

                1. 1. I tend to ask a generic "Any food restrictions?" if I have never entertained the invitees before. Most common I have come across is no meat. With close personal friends, I tend to know before the invitation. I have a friend who is allergic to hazelnut (she could die), so I never prepare anything with hazelnuts when she is coming. (BTW, try traveling in Europe with an allergy to hazelnuts! They are everywhere.)
                  2. If it is a matter of life and death, I would expect the guest to speak up before hand. If it is a matter of preference, I tend to serve family style (or buffet) and would expect a grown-up to quietly avoid things they don't like without making an issue of it.
                  3. When I have a lot of people, I tend to have a lot of dishes (rather than making a huge amount of a few things), so I worry less about it, figuring that the guests can work it out. If one couple joins us, and I have only a few dishes, and one guest can't eat anything I have prepared, it is a bummer, so I tend to worry more about small dinner parties than large ones.
                  4. I never label anything on a buffet, I figure it should be caveat emptor. Once again, if someone has reached adulthood they should have enough survival skills to figure it out or ask if they have life-threatening allergies.
                  5. Never.
                  6. Never, although I came close with a friend who has severe migraines that are triggered by chocolate by serving a dense chocolate torte for dessert. She ate it knowing she would get a headache, but took total responsibility. I now serve fruit based desserts when she comes over (which I prefer anyway) to avoid tempting her!

                  When I was growing up (in the sixties) food allergies were not such a big deal. I personally went through a phase when orange juice gave me a little rash around my mouth. My mom just avoided letting me have it for a few years and I outgrew it. I have no idea now why allergies seem so much more prevalent and dangerous (I mean, kids who might die if they smell a peanut?).

                  Even though I love food, I do try to remember that Miss Manners says the point of entertaining is to entertain, and it is okay if not everybody loves every dish I serve. I am not a restaurateur, where the meal is really all about the meal, at my dinner table it is supposed to be all about the company. And I try not to obsess about what or how much my guests eat. Although, I remember one memorable meal where I managed to hit upon every food dislike one guest (extended family) had. Who would have thought a simple meal of grilled salmon, asparagus, salad, rice, and strawberry shortcake would be completely distasteful to a guest? I mean really, to strike out on every course takes a kind of genius.

                  8 Replies
                  1. re: dkenworthy

                    I hear you on dkenworthy (and others) on the overabundance of allergies in the last few years. WTF happened since I was a kid that the new generation of kids are all allergic to peanuts?

                    1. re: Brogan

                      In most cases it's really an allergy to the mold, aflatoxin, which grows on peanuts so probably something to do with monocropping/processing/storage/shipping has changed.

                      1. re: lgss

                        I don't think it's the aflatoxin as not all peanuts have it. And aflatoxin can be found in other items like pecans, grains, etc.

                        1. re: Miss Needle

                          Like most toxins, alflatoxin causes liver damage, but as far as I know it's not an allergen. The allergen in peanuts is a protein. Even though they're not closely related botanically, tree nuts have similar proteins, which is why tree nut and peanut allergies often go together.

                          1. re: jlafler

                            I'd been told that tree nut and peanut allergies often go together because they're likely to be processed in the same plant.

                            1. re: littlegreenpea

                              it is probably necessary to separate the two though. Jfood is allergic to nuts, but not peanuts (as evidenced by the number of jars of peanut butter in his house). So you could be allergic to one and have a cross-contamination by the other.

                              1. re: littlegreenpea

                                As far as I know, the allergy itself doesn't have anything to do with whether foods are processed on the same machinery or in the same plant -- but it may have an impact on whether you trust foods that are likely to be processed in the same environment as the allergen. In other words, people who are allergic to peanuts may avoid tree nuts because they're not confident that the manufacturing process has excluded peanuts, not because they're actually allergic to tree nuts. Or vice versa.

                                If you look at almost any food label now, it will say something like "processed in a plant that also processes X, Y, and Z allergens." This is useless information -- it doesn't tell you anything about what's really in the food. It's mainly done for leagal reasons. It's completely infuriating.

                          2. re: lgss

                            The majority of peanut reactions are not to mold or anything else on the surface of the peanuts. The reactions are due to proteins within the peanuts. The major allergens have been identified (usually go by nomenclature ara h 1-7).

                      2. 1. I ask when I invite, so I can plan a meal that everyone will eat. I don't think I've ever cooked for more than 6 people outside my immediate family though.

                        2. As one poster said, if it is a severe allergy, they should let you know. Otherwise I think they would feel impolite mentioning it without being asked.

                        4. I do this for large pot-lucks (I usually disclose commonly disliked foods as well, like cilantro or anchovy, or just list the ingredients), but I've never hosted a buffet.

                        5. Yes. I am lactose intolerant, which is not the same as an allergy (and not the same as a dislike either). If I feel like the server/host(ess) is not going to take me seriously when I ask if something has dairy in it, I tell them I am allergic. It's important and I've been burned before by people who didn't want to look at the ingredients or bother the chef or figured I was just being picky. I also have a friend who is terrified of oranges (afraid enough that if she was served dinner with a small wedge of orange as a garnish she wouldn't be able to eat it, even if someone else removed it-- I know!!!) and she has often told restaurants she is allergic to citrus to avoid this.

                        6. No, but I mainly entertain friends whose allergies (life-threatening allergies to nuts, herbs, tomatoes, canteloupe, and a few other things in one case; wheat and soy in the other) I am well aware of.

                        1. Those with allergies should notify you but wouldn't hurt to ask. I'm a gluten-free vegan. I have a niece with galactosemia (rare genetic disorder causing/resulting in inability to digest dairy (significantly worse than lactose intolerance or milk allergy)) . My cousin's kid and my stepnephew-in-law have severe peanut allergy. My stepmother-in-law has anaphylactic reaction to kiwi and has been advised to avoid papaya, and pineapple. My uncle is allergic to seafood. We don't host dinner parties for multiple reasons. Those we have over for a meal are people whose allergies/special diets, etc. we already know. We label all ingredients on any food we take to any gathering and greatly appreciate it when others do the same.