At Serve Legal we are passionate in our pursuit to support food-to-go establishments, restaurants and businesses in their compliance with allergen policy and guidance. Our aim is to encourage the implementation of safer legislation, policies, training and testing, to provide a safe space for those who suffer with allergies, to confidently enjoy food outside of the comfort of their own home.
Singer-Songwriter and Allergen Advocate, Beth McKenzie, has grown a substantial social media presence through her openness about her struggles with allergy anxiety. In this first section of the interview, Beth gives an open and honest account of her personal journey being an allergen sufferer and how her attitude to eating out has changed since struggling with allergy-anxiety and a related poor relationship with food.
What is your journey with being an allergen sufferer?
It’s been… interesting, that's for sure! I’ve had a lot of ups and downs. I was diagnosed with a peanut and tree nut allergy when I was five! I don’t remember much of how I dealt with my allergies as a child, my parents were the ones who made sure everything was safe and that I always had an EpiPen on me.
Everything was pretty smooth sailing until I hit the age of 13. I was on holiday with some family friends and we decided to go out for a curry one evening. Of course my parents and I went in and explained straight away about my allergy. The meal came, I dipped my finger in the curry and licked it to check the temperature. Within a few seconds I started having an allergic reaction. First came the itchiness of the tongue and mouth which quickly developed into one of the most unique pains I’ve ever had. The only way I can describe it was like having boiling hot sandpaper being rubbed up and down my throat and the surrounding organs. I’m honestly not too sure what happened after this, I know I violently vomited - which, believe it or not, is a good sign as it means your body is putting up a fight - and then ended up visiting the A&E which was conveniently located about a mile or so from our hotel!
I want to skip forward to age 16 or 17. The incident from years ago was still very prevalent in my mind and was starting to really cause issues. My family and I went on a trip to France and I was the most anxious I’d ever been around food – with the trauma of this allergic reaction and recovery of an eating disorder contributing to my food anxiety.
I was nervous about eating out when I was on holiday because I was in a new place and they may not understand the severity of my allergy. Because of this, I brought foods I knew I wasn’t allergic to with me to France. When we arrived I completely broke down. I wasn’t able to trust that the cutlery and crockery I was given had been properly washed, therefore may have traces of nuts on them. I became absolutely convinced that the food I’d brought from home had become contaminated with something I was allergic to. The final straw was when I refused to drink the water. At this point I was incredibly unwell, both mentally and physically, and became absolutely adamant that the pipes the water passed through before it came out the tap had been laced with peanuts. Clearly, this is an insane theory but the overwhelming anxiety I felt around my allergies quite literally drove me crazy.
My parents had to fly me home early and seek help for me. A kind of therapy was offered to me at Wythenshawe Hospital in Greater Manchester in a specialist allergy clinic – but I actually rejected this help; I really didn’t want therapy.
The next year or so went by - I couldn’t eat outside of my house & I would only eat things I prepared. I missed out on so many events and adventures in my teenage life due to allergy. The Covid restrictions were starting to lift and I really wanted to be able to go out, go on holiday and eat out without this immense anxiety. I tried to throw myself into it, but quickly realised that I needed help. I went back to the allergy clinic and reactivated my referral. I started a year-long course of therapy for allergy anxiety. This gave me my life back.
In the past year I’ve explored so much of the world! I’ve been travelling, eating out, working in completely different cities without the fear of having an allergic reaction holding me back. I still take precautions to make sure I’m safe and have the confidence in myself to walk away from a situation that is too much of a risk, but my allergy doesn’t control everything in my life anymore.
I was always worried that if I stopped being overly cautious, then I would become irresponsible and dismissive of my allergy and the risks around it. I now know this isn’t true. There is a HUGE difference between having productive worries and life-limiting anxiety.
How have your experiences eating in restaurants and food-to-go establishments been challenging due to suffering with allergies?
For me, there’s two main challenges when I’m eating out.
One is controlling the worry in my mind and keeping the anxiety at bay while still taking the necessary precautions. The other is having confidence in the restaurant staff. This is a little more tricky than the first as each restaurant has completely different allergen protocols. It’s very obvious when a staff member isn’t fully educated on this issue, and while it’s not their fault, it is very disconcerting to see their face muddled with confusion as a customer with allergies! I want to say to anyone who’s reading this that there is no shame in asking a server who seems overwhelmed to point you in the direction of a supervisor or manager that can explain their allergy guidelines to you confidently. There’s also no shame in leaving an establishment if you’re not confident in their allergy protocols either.
What is allergy anxiety and how does it affect those who suffer?
Allergy anxiety is a unique issue, it's undoubtedly productive in one way (keeps an allergen sufferer cautious when needed) however when it's too present, it becomes something completely counterproductive. For me, allergy anxiety ended up being something that controlled my life in almost every single aspect. I stopped leaving the house, I missed trips with my friends because of food and I was constantly on edge. As I mentioned, I was too scared to eat food that other people had touched, too scared to eat out and at my worst point I was convinced that products that would never in a million years be contaminated with peanuts were unsafe for me to eat.
Allergy anxiety is a real tough nut to crack (pun very much intended) which is why it is so incredibly important that anyone struggling with this issue reaches out for help. Because it’s an issue that is so intertwined with your physical health, it isn’t something you should work through by yourself!