This guide for hosts and hostesses has been prepared to help you welcome people living with food allergies into your home, without worry or anxiety. Of course, entertaining people with allergies may mean putting certain foods or dishes aside. Yet, the pleasure of sharing a beautiful moment together will more than compensate for it, and your guests will feel pampered by the attention you give them. Taking into account a person’s food allergies may seem intimidating at first; however, mastering these two key rules will set you up for success. First, know how to identify the allergen in question in consumer products and second, avoid cross-contamination.
Knowing how to identify the presence of allergens in consumer products so you can avoid them
Although theoretically any food can cause a severe allergic reaction, experts have identified 9 foods or food groups that cause the majority of allergic reactions: milk, eggs, soy, peanuts, sesame, tree nuts (including almonds), fish, crustaceans (crab, lobster, shrimp, langoustines, etc.) and molluscs (scallops, mussels, clams, oysters, etc.), mustard, wheat and triticale. However, many other foods can also trigger severe reactions.
The Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act
stipulates that the presence of these 9 priority allergens, along with sulphites and gluten sources, must be indicated on nutrition labels using the food’s common name. If you need to avoid another allergen, your guest could provide you with a list of synonyms that may indicate its presence in a commercial product.
Note that the amount of an allergen required to cause an allergic reaction is sometimes so small that it may not be visible to the naked eye, so avoid products that are labelled “may contain…”.
See the Food Labelling
, page if you have any doubts on how to interpret the labelling of a product.
What is cross-contact (cross-contamination)
Contamination occurs every time a food touches another food or a surface with which the allergen has been in contact. It can occur before, during, or after its preparation. Here are some examples:
- using the same utensil to stir food in different pots
- cutting food on the same board that was used for preparing an allergen, after
- wiping it with a damp cloth rather than washing it in hot, soapy water
- using oil that has been previously used to fry allergenic food
- using the same knife to spread jam after having used it to spread peanut butter (or another allergenic food) without carefully cleaning it.
- Prepare your allergen-free dishes before preparing your other dishes to reduce the risk of contamination.
- Work as cleanly as possible, throughout the entire preparation process.
- Wash your hands properly with warm water and soap before handling food and kitchen tools (cleaning wipes may also work, but antibacterial hand gels are ineffective).
- Use a new sponge or cloth, and wear clean cloths and a clean apron.
- Wash counters with a household degreasing cleaner.
- Wash dishes with hot water, making sure the dish soap is well dissolved.
- Be aware that heat does not destroy allergens.
- If a microwave oven is used, it must be properly washed before heating allergen-free dishes.
- For BBQ cooking, wrap the allergen-free portion in aluminum foil or cook it en papillote.
- Do not reuse the oil from your fryer if it was used to cook an allergen.
- The toaster can also be a source of contamination. Use reusable toaster bags if necessary.
- Use a clean utensil for every ingredient (condiments, flour, butter, etc.). The same goes for serving different dishes.
- Make sure that the serving plates, utensils, placemat, napkin, and chair that are to be used by your guest with allergies are also clean.
- Be vigilant at the grocery store.
- Avoid buying food in bulk as the risk of contamination is too high.
- Avoid using coffee grinders at the grocery store (they may have previously been used for grinding hazelnut-flavoured varieties, for example).
- Check to see if unpackaged meat and fish are near each other in the same display counter.
Simply removing the allergen from an allergic person’s plate does not make its contents safe. Since the intensity of allergic reactions can never be predicted, each reaction must be considered as potentially severe. Therefore, never try to hide a small particle of food that may cause an allergic reaction.
Avoiding certain pitfalls
- Generally, a large number of cakes, pastries, and other delicacies sold in grocery stores and pastry shops have “may contain nuts and/or peanuts…” on the label. If the list of ingredients does not mention it, check with the staff or the manufacturer to avoid any risks. Also, don’t forget that eggs and dairy products are often used in these types of products.
- Eggs can be found in stuffing, appetizers, soups, custard, breaded or fried foods, mayonnaise or salad dressings, hollandaise sauce, and many other foods.
- Milk and bovine protein can be found in sauces, puddings, gelatin (both Jell-O® and unflavoured), marshmallows, jelly beans, frozen desserts, butter, and most margarines.
- Soy is found in tamari sauce, tofu, carob, and a host of other foods.
- For fish allergies, Worcestershire sauce is not recommended, as some brands use anchovy paste.
- Some salad dressings and Cheez-Whiz® products contain Worcestershire sauce.
Start with this checklist:
First and foremost:
- I have received a list of synonyms corresponding to my guests’ allergens (this is relevant when they are not priority allergens).
- I feel equipped and ready to prepare a meal for my special guests.
- Do I need help cooking or with grocery shopping?
- Do I need to contact Allergy Quebec for more information?
Before the guests have arrived:
- I have checked the ingredient lists of all the products I will be using.
- I have carefully placed the packaging of all the foods I am using aside, in case my guests want to do a final check. I can also ask them to read the packages beforehand, so when the time comes, all they’ll have to do is savour the dishes I have prepared especially for them.
- I am preparing the allergen-free dishes first.
- I have clearly identified the dishes/desserts/sweets that contain allergens, as a reminder for when the time comes to serve them.
During food service
- I have set aside allergen-free treats in order to offer them to allergic guests first, so they are not contaminated by those who have touched allergenic foods.
- If there are children with allergies present, I have placed all allergenic foods out of their reach.
- I serve those with allergies first, or ask their parents to do so.
- I avoid consuming too much alcohol or insisting that others do so, so that everyone remains alert and able to make responsible decisions as well as being able to react should the need arise.
Once this information has sunken in you will start to gain confidence. Keep in mind the importance of collaboration and clear communication. And as far as finding substitutes for certain ingredients, look at it as a creative project. For substitution ideas, take a consult: Replacing allergenic foods in your recipes
Enjoy your meal!