Northern Ireland people share what it’s like living with food allergies
The inquest into the death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse who died after eating a Pret a Manger sandwich containing an ingredient she was allergic to brought home the risks many people live with. Two students tell Karen Ireland how it’s vital they avoid eating certain food stuffs.
'The Pret a Manger case was a wake-up call... you can't be too careful'
Like many 19-year-olds, Francis Doole is adapting to a new life as a student. The young man, from Antrim, is getting used to his new environment at St Mary's University College in Belfast and says the transition from A-levels to college life is a huge one.
However, unlike many of his peers, Francis has the added complication of living with a severe food allergy.
He is allergic to nuts and cannot even be in close proximity to them. But he is determined not to let this hold him back and wants to live student life to the full.
"When I was younger and first diagnosed, I used to worry about my condition all the time and let it take over. Now I try to manage it instead of it managing me," he says.
Francis recalls how he was first diagnosed at just 14, following two separate incidents with nuts.
"The first time happened on New Year's Eve, when I lifted a nut and put it to my lips, but then for some reason, I threw it away and didn't eat it," he remembers.
"Very quickly my lip started to tingle and then it began to swell up. Thankfully, my mum, Frances, is first-aid trained and she knew I was developing an allergic reaction, so she got me some antihistamines and then took me to the emergency out-of-hours doctors.
"They said it looked like a food allergy, but they wouldn't be able to tell for sure until it happened again."
Following the first incident, Francis says he became very cautious and tried to steer away from all nuts. However, a few months later, he had a reaction to eating some banana bread.
"This time, my lip was really swollen up and my throat started to get constricted. It was my mum who realised the bread had been cooked in hazelnut oil and she took me straight away to A&E.
"They gave me anti-allergy drugs and I was later sent for testing to the Royal," he reveals.
Tests showed that Francis was allergic to most nuts and he was given an EpiPen and trained in how to use it.
"When I was younger, it was more difficult, as I hated making a fuss when I was out for a meal or having dinner with friends, but I always had to be careful of what I ate," he says.
"It does restrict you, as you always have to think about it, but as I've got older, I have got more confident and now I wouldn't hesitate to ask if food contained nuts or had been cooked anywhere near anything containing nuts. You can't be too careful.
"The hardest things are going out grocery shopping and having to look at all the labels to check there are no traces of nuts. When we go out for Sunday dinner and it comes to ordering dessert, I will always have to check if the cake or dessert has nuts."
Francis believes there is still a long way to go in terms of raising awareness around food allergies.
"Sometimes I will be told there are no nuts in a product and then a chocolate cake or something will be brought to me and it will be sprinkled on the top with nuts," he says.
"I think there needs to be more awareness in restaurants, hotels and fast food chains and more training for staff. The Pret a Manger case (in which 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died on a plane after eating a sandwich containing sesame, to which she was allergic) shows just how serious food allergies can be and I think this was a real wake-up call.
"Checking everything is a pain and asking all the time, but it could be lifesaving. Thankfully, my mum is very clued in. I still live at home with her. It is just the two of us, so she does most of the cooking and is always careful about the ingredients she uses.
"It is difficult starting university and developing new friendship groups and having to tell people all the time about my allergy, but it is really important that the people around you are educated and know what to do should anything happen.
"My friends all know they can't eat nuts around me and they have all been very good and supportive. At school, they were aware of my condition and someone was trained in how to use the EpiPen. It's the same at university."
Despite his allergy, Francis says he loves food, especially chocolate and Italian food.
"I don't let it put me off eating out, but there are certain places I will avoid, as I know it might be more dangerous," he says. "I do not want my allergy to rule my life - I just need to ensure I am always in a safe and secure environment.
"I work part-time for an events company and the welfare teams there know about my condition and know what to do if I get into trouble. I just need to stay away from people eating nuts at events or gigs.
"I wanted to speak out and share my story, as I wanted other people to know it is okay to have to live with an allergy.
"You need to speak out and get advice and guidance on what you can and what you can't eat. People are genuinely very good and accommodating.
"You shouldn't let it stop you from leading your life the way you want to. I have got behind the recent work of the Food Standards Agency to help raise awareness and help young people like me to ask for help."
'I cook all my meals from scratch... I need to know what's in it before I eat it'
Niamh Gorman (21), from Belfast, is a student in Liverpool. She is lactose intolerant.
"I am currently in third year at university studying law. For a long time, I had suffered from episodes of severe pain in my stomach. When it was really bad, I would have to lie down. I also found myself running to the toilet a lot," she says.
"I had a friend who was lactose intolerant and she saw what I was going through and recommended I get checked out.
"In January this year I went to my GP and explained my symptoms. They did some blood tests and eventually it came back that I was allergic to lactose.
"This means I can't have anything in my diet with dairy in it.
"So I can't have milk, yogurt, ice cream, cheese, butter and lots of different sauces which are made from dairy products."
Niamh says it has been a difficult transition learning to adjust to a new regime: "Especially living as a student, you just want to come in at the end of the day and stick something in the oven which you can cook quickly.
"I can't just do that - so I have to cook most of my meals from scratch. I will make things like chicken burgers, chicken curry and bolognese.
"I need to know all the ingredients which go into everything I eat.
"At the beginning when I was first diagnosed, I hated making a fuss so if we were out for a meal with friends, I would just eat whatever they had and suffer the consequences. This could mean hours of rolling around in severe pain, but I was too self-conscious to speak up about it. As I got more used to the idea, I started to look into it more and realise the importance of taking care of myself. That's when I started reading labels and cooking properly for myself."
Niamh admits it isn't easy, but it is manageable and better than being unwell.
"Eating out is difficult and I have to ask a lot of questions as not everywhere is good about explaining things on the menu," she says.
"I have never ended up in hospital due to my condition, but if I accidentally eat something with lactose in it, I will have to go to bed for several hours and lie down in chronic pain. It is horrible.
"Now when I am out grocery shopping, I will take my time and read all the labels properly. Some shops are good at labelling dairy-free products and I will opt for those. I have to have dairy-free chocolate which is great as I don't have to go without chocolate."
She says the worst offender before she was diagnosed was lasagne.
"I would eat it and then end up really unwell for ages. Now I steer clear from things which have a lot of sauces.
"There is no one in my family who sufferers from the allergy so it was new to us all, but talking to people, I have found it is more and more common.
"It is now just something I have to live with. I would encourage anyone who suffers from problems when they eat to go to their GP and get tested. It is better to have the knowledge than to suffer in silence.
"There are lots of different types of allergies.
"Some people get violently ill and end up in hospital - some have just a little stomach-ache. I am somewhere in between the two."
She adds: "I think restaurants in particular should do more for food allergies and highlight things on their menus. That way people would be more inclined to speak up about their allergies."
Nearly two thirds of people with a food allergy or intolerance avoid eating out
A survey among 2,599 respondents aged 16-24 years designed to ascertain the views of young people living with food allergies and intolerances found that, across the UK, 60% of young people with a food allergy or intolerance have avoided eating out in the last six months due to their condition.
The survey, released by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in partnership with Allergy UK (AUK) and the Anaphylaxis Campaign (AC), found that in Northern Ireland:
• 7% reported that they don't tell anyone about their condition, risking allergic reactions.
• When asked why, they said they felt too embarrassed to talk publicly about having a food allergy or felt their condition is too complicated to explain.
• 15% are too embarrassed or not confident enough to ask staff in eating establishments for allergen information.
• 56% said they often visit the same food outlet if they've eaten safely there before, proving that good allergen information is good for businesses.
• The FSA in Northern Ireland, working with AUK and AC, has launched Easy To ASK, a campaign designed to empower young people to ask food businesses about allergens when eating out, so they can make safe choices.
• Easy to ASK is also a reminder to businesses to be upfront about the provision of accurate allergen information, as asking a customer if they have food allergies could save a life.
It follows the simple mnemonic:
Always ask about allergies