Every time her teenage daughter Jordyn leaves the house, Nancy Geller worries about the food her daughter might choose to eat. Jordyn has a severe peanut allergy, and exposure to even a small amount of a peanut-containing food could cause a life-threatening allergic reaction.
"It's a big worry, especially now that she's a teenager and is eating out with her friends," said Geller, who lives in Croton on Hudson, N.Y.
Geller isn't alone with her concerns. According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), as many as 12 million Americans have a food allergy. Milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, soy and wheat are responsible for most food allergies, according to FAAN.
While it's easy to control your environment at home to be sure you or your allergic children aren't exposed to the offending food, many people choose to eat food prepared in restaurants, where the risk of being exposed to a food allergen is much greater.
Still, many feel if they let the waitstaff know about the allergy, they can be assured a safe meal. But new research indicates that that's not always the case.
In a study that included managers, waiters and chefs at 90 restaurants in Brighton, a popular British resort town, researchers found that just a third said they'd had specific food allergy training. However, 81 percent said they still felt confident they could provide a safe meal to a customer with food allergies.
When the researchers pressed for more specific information, they found that 38 percent of restaurant workers erroneously believed that people with food allergies could drink water to dilute the allergen and lessen the severity of the allergic reaction. Another 23 percent mistakenly thought that eating a small amount of a food allergen would be safe.
About one in eight restaurant workers didn't realize that food allergies could cause death. Sixteen percent believed that cooking food could prevent food allergies, and 21 percent mistakenly thought they could simply remove the food allergen from the finished meal and it would be safe.
Results of the study were published in the May issue of the journal Clinical and Experimental Allergy.
Christopher Weiss, vice president of advocacy and government relations for FAAN, said the U.K.'s study results are similar to those of a study done in the United States.
"I wasn't overly surprised by the results. But, if you look at today versus five years ago, we've made significant advancements. Overall though, we've still got a way to go before the vast majority of restaurant workers understand food allergy," he said.
There was some good news from the U.K. study: Almost half of those surveyed expressed an interest in learning more about food allergies. In the U.S. study, Weiss said that figure was 60 percent.
"So, we developed a training guide with the National Restaurant Association along with a video that's easy to watch. The more restaurants that take advantage of these tools, the better," said Weiss.
Sue Hensley, a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association, echoed Weiss' sentiments, and said her organization "is working diligently to address the issue of food allergic customers in restaurants by educating our restaurants and their employees on food allergens."
Geller said that there has been a noticeable difference in food allergy awareness where she lives -- the New York metro area -- in the past few years. "In the past, many restaurants just wouldn't take any responsibility. It was very tough to feel comfortable in a restaurant. Now, we definitely see more understanding," she said.
For others dealing with food allergies, Geller advised talking to the waitstaff and letting them know what your specific needs are.
Weiss added that a lot of people with food allergies also call restaurants in advance, or go in and visit before they go to eat so that they can "gauge whether or not that facility would be able to serve them a safe meal."