Are allergies the new fad diet? This isn’t as easy an answer as it should be. In fact, I think the answer is both yes and no. In the 9 years that we have been innkeeping/running a restaurant, we have noticed a significant increase in the number of dietary restrictions that we get from future guests. Part of that is because we specifically advertise to those who need special diets since we know we can handle it. Part of it is that more people are observing special diets on a regular basis. Are all of these people legitimately allergic to everything they say they are? Probably not. But…let’s discuss further.
Allergies are a very real and very difficult thing to deal with. My first experience with food allergies was with my mother in law who was diagnosed with celiac disease in 1997. At that time, there wasn’t an enormous food industry out there ready to meet her special needs. Dining out was virtually impossible and nobody knew what gluten free even meant. That has most certainly changed as the gluten free food industry is now a multi-million dollar marketing empire and the government has implemented numerous changes specifically designed to help identify allergens in food labeling. But I digress.
Why the surge in so many people with food allergies? This is a two fold answer. First of all, more and more doctors are beginning to understand that food is perhaps the most important aspect of maintaining good health and probably the easiest thing to change. Doctors also have a wealth of new tools with which they can diagnose people with allergies that they didn’t used to have. All in all, many people who would have previously been undiagnosed or misdiagnosed are now getting the proper care. This is great news as I am a firm believer that food can either be the greatest weapon of mass destruction or the greatest vehicle for health on the planet.
The second half of the equation is that there is a huge marketing campaign and a ton of misinformation out there that is targeting people looking for a quick fix to whatever it is that ails them, whether it be obesity or anxiety or any number of other symptoms they are dealing with. Companies see a huge opportunity to sell products with special labels on them, especially if they can somehow insinuate that they are healthier for you. The net result is that a lot of people who don’t necessarily have to be on any kind of a special diet end up consuming products with labels like gluten free or dairy free simply because they think they will look better or feel better by doing so. They do not, however, take into consideration some very disturbing facts. Most importantly, processed and packaged convenience foods, whether they are labelled as gluten free or not are still processed and packaged. Often the allergy safe versions of these convenience foods are even worse for you than the conventional ones in terms of higher fat, salt and sugar. People won’t eat something if it doesn’t taste good or if it doesn’t have good mouth feel. There are a ton of chemicals and other additives that are used on a regular basis to fool people into thinking a gluten free or dairy free version of something is as good as the regular version of it. It’s all an illusion. The old adage of if it sounds too good to be true it is too good to be true is in full effect here. No matter how you slice it, if you are eating something with an allergy label on it because you think it’ll make you lose weight or be healthier without considering the rest of the ingredients in those foods, you are probably doing yourself a disservice.
It all comes down to cooking from scratch. Sure it takes more time that many people don’t have. But if you truly want to make sure your foods are safe and healthy, it’s really the only way to eat. You will find it doesn’t take as much time as you think and there are numerous shortcuts you can take in terms of expediting your cooking, like buying already cut veggies. However the big thing is the food just tastes better. It’s fresh and seasoned just the way you like it. That being said, because of the increasing awareness of allergies and dietary restrictions, more and more restaurants are offering options for those with restrictions, making it increasingly easy for people with restrictions to eat out safely and confidently.
From a business perspective, I don’t really care why you have the dietary restrictions you do, meaning are they diagnosed or not. All I care about is creating a dining experience for guests that is flavorful, social and above all safe. I don’t want people to have to worry about what they are eating while they are here. I just want them to eat with abandon and enjoy the experience. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, enjoying a meal with your friends and family is probably one of the greatest joys in life. So many people with dietary restrictions and allergies have lost that joy and if I can in any small way bring that joy back into their lives than I’ve done something worthwhile.