According the FSA and other sources, teenagers and young adults seem to be at particular risk of severe food allergy reactions. How so? This trend can largely be attributed to the new freedoms that this age group have. Teenagers who are starting to go out more and eating out with friends or university students who leave home, may have to start catering for themselves and in an environment where catering outlets maybe restricted on campus.
There are some behavioural triggers which may impact this. Image and friendship are particularly important at this stage in life and the desire to fit in is prevalent. There is a view that the need to fit in and to be seen as ‘normal’ can cause individuals to play down or try and hide their dietary needs to avoid bullying and therefore put themselves at risk. Whether this is going to a party where there won’t be any ‘safe food’, eating at venues which aren’t necessarily able to cater for their specific needs or simply not telling a server of their needs.
Another behavioural factor is risk taking. Away from parents or guardians and starting to experiment, or just doing what students do, it is quite easy for judgement to be impaired through drug or alcohol which can lead to poor food decisions as well as impaired sense of becoming unwell.
College years may be the first time that young adults are away from parental supervision and fully responsible for self-management of their allergy. This will include a knowledge of structure around them of what foods or venues are safe, previously this would have included school caterers which had stricter policies in place. Instead, now there is the joy of the shared student kitchen, various college catering outlets, young adults learning to cook and having a significantly smaller budget!
Having to navigate a supermarket to identify what can be eaten can be tricky, especially when FreeFrom food substitutes are often significantly more expensive. Not only do students have to navigate their way around a frying pan and a wok, but they also have to learn to use a dishcloth! The importance of a clean kitchen is vital in the prevention of cross contamination of allergens.
So what can the catering and food services industry do to help?
Don’t charge a premium for FreeFrom substitutes such as gluten free bread, make sure you are using social media to communicate your offerings as this will be one of the first places teenagers and young adults will go to and offer student discounts. To help avoid confusion or embarrassment about asking, make clear and overt statements about what meals contain and what can be offered, making sure staff are confident about your allergen policy and what can be offered. Maybe the most important things is to have staff trained in knowing what to look for in case of anaphylaxis or other allergic reaction and what to do in a medical emergency.