Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Hannah Fearn

Eating out with a food allergy is stressful enough – but with a rare one, it’s a nightmare

Person holding three ice cream cones
‘In the last five years, foods as varied as sausages, frozen chips, ice-cream, sliced ham and bread have started to include a new ingredient: pea protein.’ Photograph: Sally Anscombe/Getty Images

My last brush with mortality came in April, at a branch of Starbucks. Finding myself running early for a meeting, I took the chance to pop in for my usual: a latte and a ham-and-cheese croissant. As I waited for the barista to pour my coffee, I took a nibble of the pastry. Within a minute, my lower lip was swollen and blistering.

I checked the ingredients list. Though I’d ordered this very same item about once a month for years, I knew what was coming: this croissant now contained peas.

Does that sound weird to you? Have a rummage through your kitchen. In the last five years foods as varied as sausages, frozen chips, ice-cream, sliced ham and bread have started to include a new ingredient: pea protein. Peas are now everywhere – and for people like me, with an allergy to legumes, it’s a hidden nightmare.

Peas and legumes used to be easy to avoid. If I stayed away from food from north Africa and the Middle East, I was mostly fine. No longer. Who could guess that a bowl of pasta might hide lentil flour, or that sausages can be stocked full of powdered peas? McDonald’s, once a safe option for many, has recently added pea protein to every single bun on its menu. What was a minor inconvenience for the first three and a half decades of my life is now a huge drain on my time, a limit on my enjoyment of life and a constant source of risk: even the smallest touch on my lips can lead to lip and tongue swelling, and if I eat a significant portion without realising it, I suffer drooling and severe stomach pain.

As gluten-free diets have become common, pea protein has begun to replace wheat flour as a filler in a whole range of products, and forms a key component of many vegan meat alternatives. It is both rich in vitamins and minerals and extremely cheap, which makes it attractive to food manufacturers who want to boost their bottom line and eco credentials, and highlight the health benefits of their products.

Because I’ve never (yet) suffered from anaphylaxis, I haven’t been prescribed an EpiPen. They have to be replaced every year and cost the NHS a lot of money, so you only get the chance to carry one once you’ve had a life-threatening attack.

According to figures published by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) last week, one in 20 adults – 2.4 million of us, almost 6% – have a clinically confirmed food allergy. And while that figure includes well understood allergies such as peanut, hazelnut and almond, there is also a rising prevalence of allergies to other foods, including fresh fruit and plants. There are no definitive studies confirming the number of people with pea allergy in the UK, but paediatric allergists have warned that prevalence is rising fast among children in their clinics.

All of this is no surprise to the thousands of members of the legume allergy Facebook group I’m in, which supports adults and the parents of children with these allergies. Almost every day someone posts an update about another product we can’t eat, or a very near miss. The stories people share, of their lives narrowing by a very real fear of making a mistake, are all too familiar. Many have multiple allergies – there appears to be a huge crossover between peanut and pea allergy, for instance – and so the rise of pea fibre, gram flour and other legumes has meant old failsafes are now out of reach.

While it’s true that staff in restaurants are much better at asking customers about allergies, that’s no use at all when the law only demands that they provide accurate information about the 14 legally notifiable allergens. That law is now out of date with the facts around allergies and modern diets. The latest research suggests that pea protein is the fastest-rising allergen for both children and adults, and is actually more common than sesame allergy – which is notifiable. And the FSA confirmed this week that milk and fish allergy, both on the list, are now on the decline among adults (cow’s milk is still the most common childhood allergy).

The parents of allergy sufferer Noah Awadalla, who has seven allergies, including peas, say it’s the hardest one for them to manage as a family. They’ve set up a petition calling on the government to pass new legislation demanding restaurants make full ingredients lists available to customers so allergy sufferers can make safe choices.

Sadly, in the current political turmoil, I see very little chance of this issue getting the attention it deserves. Until then, sufferers like me band together online to help keep each other safe.

  • Hannah Fearn is a freelancer writer and reporter specialising in social affairs

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.