Sunday, 20 May 2012

Life in Britain: Living with Food Allergies

As a follow up to yesterday's post on grocery shopping and grocery stores in Oxford, I thought I would write a little bit about living with food allergies here.

Specifically, my food allergies:
  1. Peanuts and tree nuts (life-threatening)
  2. Eggs
  3. Wheat and barley
Since I had been to the UK twice on vacation, I was pretty familiar with how food labelling works in this country.  The first thing you learn about food labelling here is that it is sometimes quite a bit more specific than it is in Canada, where you often just get a standard "May contain: ____" warning.  Here they will tell you if nuts, for instance, are present in the factory or used to be used on a particular line.  Tesco brand products usually have statements like this: "Factory does not use nuts.  Recipe does not use nuts.  Ingredients: Cannot guarantee nut free."  In that case, I'll take my chances.  Sainbury's products, on the other hand, just out and out say "This product is not suitable for nut allergy sufferers."  Fair enough.

My favourite, though, is my Quaker oats, which states that the product "May contain wheat and barley due to farming practices."  If a bit of wheat is getting mixed in in the fields or something, I'm not overly concerned.

I've also discovered, that there are special "Free From" lines of food available in many grocery stores.  I have yet to find bread I can eat, because it almost always contains eggs, even if it happens to be wheat free.  On the other hand, I've noticed some soups use corn starch or flour in place of wheat flour, which is nice.  At home, wheat flour is used as a thickener in many soups.  Also, the Co-op's house brand of sausages has recently become gluten-free, which is lovely for me.  Who knew there were so many different kinds of excellent sausage: Lincolnshire, Cumberland, roasted red onion, and, my personal favourite, Bonfire Bangers (with apple and treacle - it's like eating dessert!).

On the negative side of things, dairy products, which were never an issue at home, have suddenly become a bit of a minefield.  A lot of yogurt has "May contain nuts" warnings and sour cream from the Co-op and Tesco has nut warnings too.  Consequently, rather than running over to M&S every time we want sour cream, we've just started using the Co-op's creme fraiche, which doesn't have any allergy warnings.

I always knew ice cream might be troublesome too, since there is only one nut-free brand at home (the fabulous Chapman's Ice Cream).  However, google led me quite quickly to a nut-free brand of ice cream here too: Kelly's Cornish Clotted Cream Ice Cream.  Oh my goodness.  So good, so fattening.  It's also rather pricey, unfortunately, but it is fantastically good stuff.

I've discovered I can purchase the same egg replacer (Ener-G) I used at home through a UK website.  I can also purchase a good wheat-free flour mix from Dove's Farm's site.  They also make wheat-free pasta (their tri-colour rice, tomato, and spinach spirals are the best, I think) and wheat-free baking powder.  Yes, baking powder is almost always bulked out with wheat flour here.  Sigh.

I've also found one of the few brands of cocoa that doesn't have a nut warning: Cadbury Bournville Cocoa.  It only contains cocoa.  I became a bit worried in the shop one day that my hot chocolate drinking days had come to an end when I saw a notice on the front of the canister saying that a new allergy warning had been added.  (It really was very nice of them to signal the new warning, unlike my favourite caramel rice cakes, which silently updated their allergy warnings, making them a no-go for me.  However, inveterate label-checker that I am, I spotted it).  Luckily for me, it was only a "May contain milk".  On the other hand, there goes a product milk allergy sufferers may have been counting on.

Thanks to proper food-labelling, it's very easy to get by with my allergies in the UK.  I'm just a bit saddened that good wheat-free cooking mixes (like Celimix) don't seem to be available in the stores.

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