At a restaurant years ago, my son started clearing his throat after eating a french fry. He said something felt funny and stopped eating. We double-checked with the waiter, who assured us there were no nuts or seeds (my son’s allergies) in the fries. Despite assurances the fries were safe, we set them aside, just in case.
After returning home, my son broke out into full-body hives and started wheezing. We knew there must have been something he was allergic to hidden in the fries. Upon calling the restaurant to triple-check the ingredients, we discovered that sesame powder had been sprinkled on top.
Who would have thought that sesame would be an ingredient in fries?! Clearly, we didn’t, nor did the waiter serving us—he didn’t think to ask the kitchen, as there were no visible seeds present.
A similar situation occurred when my other son started first grade. Despite calling the lunch supplier to confirm no soy was in the school’s chicken nuggets, he had an allergic reaction. When I arrived in person and read the label, I was not surprised to find soy protein listed. The supplier had been under the impression that because the nuggets were labeled “nut-free,” that meant they were safe to be served at school and for all kids with food allergies.
These stories highlight the challenges that accompany living with the less common and less understood food allergies.
While today many restaurants and food establishments are more aware of how to handle food allergies in their kitchens, the lesser-known allergens like sesame and the hard-to-spot culprits like soy often still present issues.
Both of my sons have food allergies. Between them we manage allergies to peanuts, most tree nuts, sesame, flax seeds, soy, and other legumes. Far and away, soy has been the hardest to avoid in recent years. Thirteen years ago, when I started reading food labels regularly, very few packaged foods included soy as an ingredient (excluding soybean oil and soy lecithin, which my son tolerates). Today, it is difficult to find a packaged bread that does not contain soy flour or chicken nuggets without soy protein. In fact, restaurants are often shocked to discover that soy flour is sometimes used to coat their fries. An increased focus on protein intake has led manufacturers to add supplemental protein to many products, often in the form of soy flour or other legume-based protein. Even some pasta brands are enriching certain lines with soy flour, making a plate of plain pasta—which used to be my sons’ “always safe” meal at a restaurant—a dish that now has to be double-checked for soy.
Knowing what words to look for on a label for soy allergies can also be challenging. There are many forms of soy, and many variations in how it’s listed. Sometimes products just list “contains soy” without differentiating what form of soy. Sesame is another one that presents a challenge to identify. Historically, food manufacturers have not been required to treat sesame as an allergen on food labels, allowing it to hide as an ingredient in “spices” or “natural flavors.” In April this year, Congress signed the FASTER Act into legislation, declaring sesame as the 9th major allergen, and requiring that sesame be labeled on food labels starting January 1, 2023.
Asking about allergens and ingredients in the foods we eat is an extra step we all take in the food allergy community. While some restaurants go the extra mile and provide detailed information about specific ingredients and allergens, most do not. This makes each request for allergen information unique and creates great opportunity for error. We’ve found the best way for determining if a food is safe, particularly for soy, is by taking the responsibility on ourselves—this can mean asking the server or chef to take photos of ingredient labels in the kitchen for us to review.
While reading labels and inquiring about ingredients does help reduce risk, trusting the waitstaff and kitchen is not foolproof, and many of us have unfortunately experienced what it’s like when taking that extra step was not enough to protect against an allergic reaction. For these reasons, I am thrilled to see greater innovation in the food allergy space, and look forward to soon having additional tools to help spot those hidden allergens, both for my family and for the food allergy community at large.
— Lisa Strovink
Lisa Strovink is a Managing Partner at AllerFund, the first venture capital firm dedicated to driving social impact for the food allergy community. AllerFund is one of Allergy Amulet’s venture investors. The fund’s mission is to accelerate the development and commercialization of new treatments, diagnostics, and products for children and adults with, or at risk of developing, food allergies. Lisa is the mother of two boys who both have food allergies.