Whenever I register for an event at which food will be served, I carefully note that I am allergic to sesame and tree nuts. At one meeting, I was handed a sandwich made specially for me. I was pleased that I didn’t have to interrogate the catering staff about everything that was on the buffet table. On the other hand, it appeared to be turkey. I eat a mostly plant-based diet, but I am OK with poultry once in a while, so I accepted the offering.

When I bit into the sandwich, I tasted some kind of pork, which I have not eaten in more than 30 years. I handed it to a staffer.

“I can’t eat this,” I said. “It’s ham.”

She took it into the kitchen and then returned with it. “It’s turkey.”

I returned to my seat and opened the sandwich. It was turkey all right — with bacon.

Welcome to my world, where eating is the kind of adventure you’d rather not have.

If I eat sesame or tree nuts, I go into anaphylactic shock. I have to stab myself with an EpiPen, take some Benadryl and get myself to the emergency room. Aside from my initial experience four years ago, I’ve been diligent since then, and have only had one other incident. I had bought a particular brand of frozen rolls for many years. One night, I ate part of one. My throat started closing up and I spent several hours in the ER. The manufacturer had suddenly started adding sesame flour to the rolls. It was the last ingredient in the list.

That was bad enough. Then I read this story on the CNN website. A young woman bought a sandwich at Heathrow Airport in London. She began eating it on the plane, and started going into anaphylactic shock. Her father gave her two doses of epinephrine, to no avail. She died.

The baguette contained sesame flour, but that wasn’t included in the list of ingredients.

I wish I hadn’t seen this. I know my allergies are serious. I know this from experience. When I was in college, I was allergic to tomatoes and citrus. I reacted by developing hives. This could be disruptive and, sometimes, embarrassing, but not life-threatening.

I have found that given the choice between eating and dying, I quickly lose my appetite. In fact, I have lost weight because it is sometimes just too difficult for me to figure out if something is safe for me to eat. I feel I’m putting my life into the hands of people who don’t understand that I’m not fretting about getting a rash or an upset stomach. As incredible as it sounds in our litigious age, I’ve been treated dismissively when I’ve asked about the ingredients in a dish, or told by the waitstaff that they didn’t have a clue.

I was, on another occasion, offered a sandwich that I would not have chosen for myself. The regular chicken salad had pecans in it, I was told, but mine didn’t. I took this to mean that the nuts had been taken out of my portion. Honestly, I stared at the sandwich for a long minute.

“I can’t eat it if there’s a chance there are any nuts left.”

I was then told that my portion had been made separately. By the time this interaction ended, I was barely able to eat. Scrutinizing my food to this extent exhausts me.

I know I’m not alone. I refused the offer of a granola bar sample in a supermarket, citing my allergies. The woman who was handing them out then went into a litany of all of her food issues. Parents who have highly allergic children live in terror. Kids can’t always fathom the danger and sometimes want to fit in with their peers so badly they will eat food they know will make them sick.

Stricter labeling laws would make life easier and safer for people with allergies. Nuts — along with other allergens, such as wheat and milk — are required to be listed on packaged goods. This is helpful, as the information appears separately at the end of the ingredient list. Manufacturers don’t have to list sesame, though, and it sometimes hides in places where I don’t expect to see it. Some brands of candy corn, for example, include sesame oil.

I am so relieved when, before going to a restaurant, I can look online and see what ingredients are in the various dishes. With all the people who have allergies, plus those who are gluten-free or lactose-intolerant, shouldn’t all prepared food come with a complete ingredient list?

Until it does, I will continue to tread carefully. Plain fruit and vegetables are always safe, but not any dips or dressings. Water. And looking at the bright side, coffee. Meanwhile, I’ve gotten used to being hungry. It makes me feel alive.

Liz Soares welcomes e-mail at [email protected].


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