- The Washington Times - Monday, September 25, 2006

Potomac Falls resident Rey Banks says she drives her husband and children crazy when she eats dinner at home before they go out to eat.

Ms. Banks is allergic to nuts and is afraid she might encounter them in her entree and have an anaphylactic reaction — so, she takes the safe route.

“Dining out for me is traumatic. Most of the time, I don’t want to bother,” says the 41-year-old, who adds that if she does try, she orders a salad or something simple. “If I’m going to a chain restaurant, I order the most innocent thing on the menu and cross my fingers,” she says.

Dining out, however, does not have to be trying or traumatic for those with food allergies and intolerances as long as they know where to eat and how to order.

More and more national chains and locally owned restaurants are offering menu items free of allergens and problem foods and are willing to cook requested items to order.

Restaurants that prepare food in-house can cater to guests’ specific dietary needs, unlike restaurants that depend on frozen, processed or packaged foods, says Mary Schluckebier, executive director of the Celiac Sprue Association (CSA), a nonprofit organization in Omaha, Neb., that focuses on education, research and support for those with celiac disease or related problems or those with gluten intolerances.

“There are a growing number of restaurants that are striving to meet the needs of all customers,” Mrs. Schluckebier says.

An estimated 1 percent to 2 percent of the nation’s population have food allergies, and 3 percent to 8 percent have a reaction to food, such as an intolerance to lactose or gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, says Angel Waldron, spokeswoman for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, an education, research and advocacy organization in Northwest. Milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat and soy cause 90 percent of allergic reactions, she says.

“[Restaurants] are trying to protect those with food allergies, so there aren’t any secrets in the ingredients,” Ms. Waldron says.

An allergic reaction occurs when a person’s immune system attacks a protein in a food mistakenly identified as a foreign invader, releasing histamines that cause tissue swelling, says Sara Ducey, associate professor of nutrition at Montgomery College in Rockville.

“Allergies are a specific response to protein. Intolerances may be a response to protein or other components of the food,” Ms. Ducey says. “A true allergy is an immediate response. A person with a food intolerance shouldn’t eat that food, but if they do, it’s a long enough time between eating it and feeling badly.”

Restaurant chains such as PF Chang’s China Bistro, Coastal Flats, Mike’s American Grill, Uno Chicago Grill, Outback Steakhouse, Legal Sea Foods and Carrabba’s Italian Grill offer gluten-free menus in addition to their regular menus.

PF Chang’s introduced its gluten-free menu in 2003 after noticing an increase in requests for wheat- and gluten-free items, says Laura Cherry, spokeswoman for PF Chang’s China Bistro Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The restaurant chain, which has four locations in the metro area, has a reputation for preparing food made to order and removing unwanted or problem ingredients such as peanuts or shellfish, Ms. Cherry says.

“We suggest that anyone with an intolerance or allergy ask to speak to the chef or manager to make sure they get what they need,” she says.

Even if an entree is on a special menu, guests with food concerns should make sure the cook making the entree understands their needs, says Bob Levy, owner of Bob & Ruth’s Gluten-Free Dining and Travel Club in Baltimore.

“You need to go to the source who will prepare the food or has the authority to go back to the kitchen,” Mr. Levy says.

If guests want an item from the regular menu to be free of a problem food, they can ask for it to be prepared differently by learning about other ingredients that could be used instead, Mr. Levy says.

“If I tell then how to do it, it’s like, ‘Sure I can do that,’” he says. “You can’t expect them to know how to accommodate you. You need to be the teacher.”

Diners with food allergies or intolerances need to be assertive and ask detailed questions, says Cynthia Kupper, executive director of the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America, a nonprofit organization in Seattle that supports celiacs to help them lead healthy lives.

For celiacs, the question not to ask is whether a menu item has gluten, Ms. Kupper says. Instead, they should be specific and say they cannot eat anything with wheat, rye and barley, along with oats, which can be cross-contaminated during the milling process, she says.

Ms. Kupper suggests picking an off-time to dine out to provide more time for asking questions.

Or call ahead to make sure something on the menu can be served without the problem food, says Sheila Weiss, registered dietitian and director of nutrition policy at the National Restaurant Association.

“We’re a hospitality industry. Our purpose is to serve our guests and to accommodate them so they want to come back,” Ms. Weiss says.

Ms. Ducey suggests carrying a business-card-size list of the problem foods.

“Have a sense of what foods work for you,” she says. “Simpler foods are always better.”

Some dishes cannot be made without gluten or allergens, says Kim Koeller, president of GlutenFree Passport, a health education company in Chicago that produces books and guides, including “Let’s Eat Out! Your Passport to Living Gluten and Allergy Free.”

“You need to educate yourself on what you can and cannot eat and what you can modify,” Ms. Koeller says.

The rule of thumb, according to Winnie Feldman-Lindauer, a member of the Bethesda chapter of CSA, is the more expensive the restaurant, the easier it is to eat gluten- or allergen-free.

“They’ll try to work with you because they want you to come back,” Mrs. Feldman-Lindauer says. “Most of the restaurants I found are very accommodating.”

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