Sarah Elliott has had it with people faking food allergies in restaurants. She has life-threatening allergies to eggs, dairy and nuts and fears the impostors are hurting her chances of safely dining out.
“It teaches the waiter to not take it seriously,” says Elliott, who lives in Windsor, Ont. “It’s selfish and kind of rude. It’s also dangerous and irresponsible.”
Some restaurant-goers are tempted to invent allergies to get a dish their way — often motivated by a much less serious food intolerance or the growing number of fad diets like the gluten-free craze. They may see their lie as a harmless fib, but others worry it could lead to restaurants becoming numb to all allergy claims.
“Faux food allergies are all the rage,” griped California chef David Mau in a recent column. “People covet and collect theirs like Gucci handbags.”
And the consequences? “It’s like pulling that fire alarm handle in junior high ALL THE TIME. At some point, everyone is just gonna stop paying attention,” he wrote.
Elliott believes the fakers may already be sullying her restaurant experience. She barely dines out now because of a recent string of serious reactions when eating supposedly safe restaurant dishes.
She says one time she wound up in the emergency room and was sick for two days. Although she had clearly stated her allergies, someone still had put butter in her mashed potatoes.
“I got about halfway through it and started with the cramps,” she recalls. “I was like basically collapsed in the bathroom.”
Elliott wonders if some restaurants aren’t taking her allergies seriously.
“Are they just thinking I’m another one of these people who just basically has a frivolous request?”
How to spot a faker
So how could fakers muddle the message about the severity of food allergies? Apparently, it can involve what they actually wind up eating.
Elliott says she has twice dined out with people who feigned food allergies and then ate food that should have made them sick — in front of bewildered servers. In one incident, a friend complained about a dessert containing bananas.
“She makes a huge production about how she’s allergic to bananas, but then she eats it,” Elliott said.
Hannah Lank had a similar experience.
She has a life-threatening allergy to peanuts and tree nuts, so she was both surprised and upset when earlier this year her friend faked a gluten allergy when they were out for brunch.
“She made a big deal about ordering a dish that would be safe for her to eat with her made-up food allergy,” says Lank, a student at the University of Toronto.
The friend then decided she didn’t like her options and ordered a dish containing gluten anyway, confusing the waitress.
“It’s definitely not good for educating the public about how serious food allergies are,” says Lank.
Restaurant general manager Anna Mammoliti says she’s well aware some customers fake it.
“I’ve had people claim they’re allergic to gluten and then you walk by the table and they’re eating a piece of pizza from the person they were sitting next to,” says Mammoliti, with Terroni restaurants, located in Toronto and L.A.
She says she can see how made-up claims could lead to restaurants becoming less sensitive to the issue. But she adds that Terroni takes every single allergy claim seriously — and with good reason.
“I don’t want to be calling an ambulance,” says Mammoliti.
Faking it diet advice
So what’s inspiring people to fake food allergies? Some may be getting the idea from diet advice that promotes it as a witty trick.
A website touting the Paleo diet — one free of processed foods — recommends people tell servers they have a gluten allergy. “Restaurants are very keen to avoid making anyone sick and becoming liable for it,” the site states.
The website of the TV show The Doctors explains that restaurants typically add lots of butter to vegetables. “Avoid this fat trap by telling a little white lie in the name of health: ‘I’m allergic to butter!'”
Besides sending the wrong message to restaurant staff, Elliott has another concern about the faking trend: that overwhelmed restaurants will simply turn allergy sufferers away.
“The chef’s going to get pretty pissed off,” she says. “I’ve had it where I’ll go and the chef says they’re not willing to cook for me.”
Terroni restaurants have a strict protocol for accommodating people with food allergies that includes servers informing the manager and sending an allergy alert to the kitchen along with the order.
Mammoliti says dealing with food allergies slows down the kitchen, and that those faking it need to understand the unnecessary stress they’re putting on staff.
“Stop doing it,” she says. “You are taking up the time that we need for customers who have serious allergies.”
As for Elliott, she wants the impostors to know the price she pays for being afraid to dine in restaurants.
“You’re missing out on birthdays and anniversaries and reunions, and you’re just feeling like you can’t be a part of society,” she says. “But at the same time, you don’t want to die.”