/ Food & Drink, Health

What it’s like to live with a nut and dairy allergy

Nuts crossed out on chalk board

Any parent knows how tricky it is to come up with a varied and nutritious packed lunch for a six-year old. When that child has a severe allergy to eggs, nuts and dairy products, as my own daughter does, it’s even harder.

Luckily in this country we are generally well-served with products such as non-dairy cheese, margarine, ice-cream and chocolate (including Easter eggs and advent calendars) – as long as you search them out, and don’t mind paying a premium. You can even buy dairy-free mayonnaise.

We’re also lucky in the UK that we have a high standard of labelling food allergens in products. But you’d be surprised at how many products do contain warnings of cross contamination – I’ve found that even some brands of baked beans can contain traces of nuts.

An added complication is that recipes constantly change. So just because it was OK last time, it doesn’t mean it still is. Our monthly trip to the supermarket takes twice as long as everyone else as we have to stop and read every label.

One area of confusion is the wide array of warnings on packaging. As well as ‘may contain traces of…’, there’s varying warnings that indicate when nuts or dairy products are handled elsewhere in the factory, or were previously handled on the production line. There are even messages saying that although the recipe and factory are nut-free, the product may still contain them.

I often find we’re not sure about a certain product so we end up not taking the risk.

Food allergies and eating out

Having a family meal out is another test for us. Luckily most child-friendly chains, such as Pizza Express, will make pizzas etc using soya cheese supplied by ourselves. And these kinds of chains are generally very good at supplying breakdowns of ingredients. Fish and chips are usually off-limits for us unless we can be sure groundnut oil hasn’t been used – unfortunately my local chippy does fry in it.

Later this year, we’re taking our children on their first ever holiday abroad, to the Italian Lakes. The hope is that we can take soya-based butter and cheese with us on the plane, so that my daughter can enjoy the local specialities.

Most of these situations we can control, but going to children’s parties is often a worry for us. If we’re not confident that the organiser can supply appropriate food, then we’ll send some food along for my daughter. It’s hard though when she can’t eat the usual party biscuits, cakes and crisps with her friends. She’s a sensible girl and she handles it well, but it can still be upsetting as a parent.

Do you or anyone you know have a food allergy? Do you have any experiences or advice you can share with me and my six-year-old daughter?

Kate says:
26 March 2014

I have a daughter with dairy, nut and egg allergy, and my experience as a mother has been that with the best will in the world you cannot trust anyone else with the preparation or serving of the food she eats. Everything she comes into contact with is checked, and mistakes are still made.
We never ate out as a family when she was young, we tried a few times, at infant school, I checked with the school every item that would go on the plate for Christmas dinner, I even provided the turkey as I was unsure what the basting was on the school turkey, I checked what the potatoes were roasted in and that the veg was plain boiled, when hers was being dished up a dinner lady without thinking put a dollop of mash potato onto her plate by mistake, she became unwell, she said that she thought she would be allowed it as everyone was making a special effort to include her. Holidays were spent in this country, self-catering, with my usual repertoire of tried and tested meals. I used to carry snack foods around with me, a ham sandwich, crisps, in case were hungry while out as we were never able to pop into a bakery, or a takeaway. Although there was always Mcdonalds chips an a coke! Weddings – I used to meet with the chef, find out what they were cooking and create my own similar dish and nip into the kitchen put it on one of their plates and microwave it and then take it out to her, I never liked handing it to a waiter in case he would have any reason to touch the dish with contaminated hands! We did the same for her prom. We went abroad a couple of times when she was a teenager, but only ever self catering. As an older teenager when she was invited to weddings or dinner dances she would choose to eat a portion of chips before arriving and sit at the table without eating and just join in the conversation, the meal was only one part of the evening, the dancing was always the best bit, and her friends knew and understood that. The thought of taking a mouthful that had been contaminated, the tell-tale tingle that she had started on a journey of no return, taking the epi-pen, calling the ambulance, spending the next 6 hours in hospital with the horrible feeling that her body has been taken over by some horrible being, was jus a risk that she wasn’t prepared to take.
She is now 21, has moved into a flat with her boyfriend, a completely allergen free flat, they eat out only when it is a friends party and there are more places now that do food she can eat, she researches them well, if she is unsure she will refuse to eat and just sit and socialise, her boyfriend will also not eat so he doesn’t pose any risk. She has a fridge full of fresh meat, veg and fruit, when I used to bring home a new dairy free yoghurt or pudding, quite often she would refuse to even try it, she is now in complete control of what she eats and has a much larger repertoire of dishes than I ever had. I think the thing we must remember is that the allergic person may not be so interested in new foods, new tastes etc as they may be a bit wary, and see eating more as a means of necessity, they may gain pleasure from general socialising, where as those of us that can eat anything enjoy eating out. My daughter never understood why she had to have dairy alternatives such as soya cream and cheese, her argument was that she never had it in the first place so why did she need to replace it, we may enjoy those tastes but why would she. I am very proud of her, she has been allergic since she was born, and is likely to remain so, but she is healthy and in control,

Claire James says:
26 March 2014

So good to read your experiences and we are very very similar. My son is 7 so I will learn from your daughter now being 21. We do the exact same at weddings and the odd occasion we do eat out with our son, I take his pre cooked at home dinner with me. He has a support worker at school who sits with him at lunchtime to make sure no yoghurts or cows milk comes near him and he only eats his packed lunch. I take in baking supplies to the school and at kids parties he arrives with his own party box of food and I stay to make sure he ok. Our holidays too have all been self catering in the uk. I was wondering how you got on with general socialising? We find that now we have unintentionally withdrawn a bit from friends get togethers. Reason being they all evolve around food and we feel incompatible at times. Did you experience this? Kind regards, claire

kate says:
28 March 2014

You need to do what is right for you and your family, good friends will understand and make allowances, we always asked that there would be no dishes of nuts, if there were we wouldn’t go, generally we would take our own food for our daughter, and we would not really eat, we would always play down the food. We used to host more parties, than we were invited to, and I would make all the food ‘Ruth friendly’

Food labelling and the awareness of restaurants have moved on so much over the 17 years I have been shopping for my daughter who is allergic to nuts, milk and eggs. It’s so much easier now, thank goodness. Just last week we found a coffee shop with nut-free and vegan cakes so she could have a cake and a soya latte – she was nervous and overjoyed at the same time to be able to be ‘normal’. The translation cards are a good tip – I used to make my own. Good news is that after 17 attempts I can make a pretty good birthday cake for her. As for the idiot that says we’re imagining it, you should have been in the back of the ambulance any of the 3 times my daughter was rushed to hospital while having a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction!

Nigel Soames says:
27 March 2014

Me again, the “embodiment of satan”, as far as most of you are concerned…

In 1975 I collapsed and nearly died of asphyxiation while walking to school 20 minutes after being given a “hayfever jab”…my lungs had filled with liquid in response to the jab.

In 1984 I was hospitalised in North Africa due to a critical asthma attack…

In 1995 we rushed our 4 year-old daughter to hospital, her body over 50% red and bloated with urticaria (potentally fatal if it reaches the throat) after playing on grass sprayed with chemicals.

So I am not an idiot and I do know what I am talking about.

So why am I so opposed to the prevailing “wisdom” about food “allergies” (intolerance, call it what you will)?

By the age of 30 I was on the maximum dosage of asthma inhalers – becotide twice daily and 4 – 5 doses of ventolin. My asthma was getting worse and the next step was powerful oral medication.
I simply could not accept that doctors regarded this cocktail of toxins as “treatment”, and could not offer me anything else.

I spent five years trying various things with varying results (acupuncture, herbs, soya diet etc.). In desperation I signed up for a breathing course (Buteyko, ask your GP, works for other allergies too.).

The result was striking because I came off the ventolin within 3 days. The becotide I stopped after a month. What this proved to me that although not exactly “in my head”, asthma was deeply rooted in my psycho-emotional system and was not an irreversible medical condition. Since then I have always tried to look beyond the symptoms of health problems and to identify the real causes.

There are two things that emerge from several of the comments above:

ANXIETY – parents projecting anxiety onto their children and vice versa about their “food allergies”.

Think about this: as I said before, it is simply absurd, and unacceptable, that the current generation of human beings should be unable to eat two of the foods that have nourished us for thousands of years – nuts and milk. Did hunter-gatherers keel over with nut and berry allergies? I doubt it.

That is why parents of these children, rather than encouraging mutual hand wringing, must refuse to accept the glib medical diagnosis of “food allergies” and look for the real cause of these problems (the severity of which is not in question).

I don’t have the answer, but I do know this:

All the coeliac sufferers I know are, to put it politely, rather highly strung women (in one case mother and daughter) from rather chaotic and tense dysfunctional families where “the next meal” was an uncertain prospect, if at all, and probably came out of a packet. Anxiety again.

Which leads me to my second point (and back to the original topic of this article):


If your children suffer from “food allergies”, then why in heaven’s name are you BUYING FOOD IN PACKETS AND JARS???

I consider myself the luckiest man alive, because (having been raised on the UK post-war diet of Smash, Nesquik, and Angel Delight) my wife grew up in North Africa; her family (and everybody else) simply bought fresh meat, fish and vegetables and bread from the markets and made their own food. We still do. It takes some organisation but there is no reason why you cannot do this in the UK, the supermarkets are excellent.

In my personal experience, in countries where people eat real food that hasn’t seen the inside of a factory, and children are raised to eat the same food as their parents in a regular, structured, environment, food intolerance/allergies are simply unheard of.

I suspect that the answer lies somewhere therein…


Allergies are specific to the individual and I don’t believe that you can generalise. A relatively small number of people have serious allergies that could be life threatening, and I am not surprised that you have attracted criticism.

To suggest that serious asthma will disappear if you pay attention to how you breathe is questionable. Like many others I have found this helpful when coping with asthma attacks but I don’t think you will find many who have had your experience. May I suggest that the reason that you have been able to give up taking medication is because of you have unknowingly avoided allergens or for psycho-emotional reasons as you suggest. I don’t know why I suddenly had a serious problem with blue cheeses and muesli, but the problem gradually disappeared. Maybe the same happened with your asthma.

There are plenty of good reasons for cutting down the amount of processed food in the typical diet. That is not going to happen tomorrow, nor are we going to live our lives without stress.

Nigel Soames says:
27 March 2014

p.s. we live in South west France now. My daughter, like her French friends, eats anything and everything on offer here (to the horror of her pals at uni in Newcastle, her favourite treats are foie gras and oysters washed down with a glass of champagne (or the affordable Spanish equivalent, Cava). I have to thank my wife and her ruthless culinary approach for this.

Nigel Soames says:
27 March 2014

@wavechange – I didn’t get rid of asthma by “changing the way I breathe”, I paid out of my own pocket to go on a week-long course to completely re-educate my breathing. This treatment is now promoted by many GPs. My wife still forces me to do the exercises in the evening because it stops me snoring too!

As for cutting down the amount of processed food in our diets. I am saying you need to ELIMINATE processed food, not cut it down. Why isn’t it going to happen?

Seriously, are you saying parents are happy to hammer on about their kids having to go around in fear of death, armed to the teeth with epi pens, inhalers and antihistamines, but are not prepared to radically change their family diets and eating habits??

If that is the case, then there is little hope for them, and I feel sorry for the children that are the innocent victims of this.


Some people make a point of avoiding processed food, and one of the problems is that it may contain ingredients that cause them problems. I don’t see much chance that the majority of population of the UK is going to eliminate processed foods from their diet any time soon.

A lot depends on what you regard as processed food. For example, there are various ways that we treat food to make it last longer or remain available out of season. Potatoes are treated to prevent them sprouting, apples and citrus fruit are often sprayed to keep them ‘fresh’ for longer, and the fruit industry makes extensive use of ways of both delaying and accelerating ripening. We also have irradiation of soft fruit to delay fungal attack. Sulphur dioxide has been used for many years to preserve dried fruit and wines. Bread, which is not often regarded as a processed food, can contain a variety of additives.

Many claim that food used to be safer, but what about the use of nitrites and nitrates that have been used in curing meat for many years. I’m not sure if these feature in food intolerance but they produce carcinogenic nitrosamines when heated.

I’m all for cutting down on processed food and it is certainly best not to trust them if you have a serious allergy.

Nigel Soames says:
27 March 2014

I have to tell you this – not allergy-related, but it’s at the root of the allergy/intolerance problems:

When my daughter was about 10 we lived in Edinburgh and she brought a pal home for supper. We were aware that in this girl’s house the parents/nanny had to cook 4 different meals each time because each child would only eat one thing – one ate only sausages, one ate fish fingers and so on.

Anyway, we serve up fish (cod or haddock, nothing exotic) baked with mash and vegetables.

The little girl looks at her plate and bursts into tears. “I… can’t… eat.. this!”

THAT is how bad things are in the UK and THAT is why people have food-related problems. The parents tolerate and even encourage this ludicrous behaviour from their offspring. It’s time to get a grip, folks!!!

Paul says:
27 March 2014

Hmm. That is eating disorders, This topic is not about that.. It is not the “root” of the allergy problem or cause of their increasing prevalence.

What should I have done with my child at 3 months who had her first anaphylactic reaction when she was fed something other than breast-milk for the first time?

Tell her off, hypnotize her? lol.

Thank you for bringing Buteyko to my attention!

Nigel Soames says:
27 March 2014

I disagree. It IS at the root of food allergy problems because it is the beginning of the unbalancing/disruption process. That girl may never suffer from allergies in her lifetime, but I suspect her children probably will.

When very young children have severe reactions to food, in the absence of other exogonous factors, I suspect it relates to what their parents were brought up on and/or eat now. That is where the research should be focusing to get to the root of this problem.

We weaned our daughter off breast milk on to pureed vegetables (including garlic!) and then started adding in fish and meat – what we were eating ourselves, basically.

When she was 6 months old we tried to feed her a jar of some Heinz baby crap because we were out on a picnic. She swallowed one spoonful and then vomited it up straight away. Clearly her stomach was able to identify it as “not real food” and rejected it!

Paul says:
27 March 2014

Processed food intake,and historical processed food intake by the parents, atleast our case is not a factor. We’re 60s and 70s kids, brought up on good produce – fish/meat/fruit/veg, avoiding processed food – which we continue to do.

We don’t have any food hang-ups, allergies, intolerences.

Lou says:
29 March 2014

Nigel, I hear what you are saying about processed foods! I weaned my son just like you on vegetables then meats and baked my own bread etc etc. However he has ended up with allergies and intolerances. He is lucky to be alive as he survuved a diaphragmatic hernia (50 per cent survive it). I have eaten nothing but freshly prepared food for years and felt aggrieved people who smoke, drink and eat mc ds bang out seemingly healthy children while I, eating nothing processed and having never had a mc ds in my life had the child with the lifethreatning defect. So as this involves his bowel and his lung I felt I owed it to him to feed him a clean healthy diet. Yet he suffers from gastric reflux (since before he was weaned as a consequence of the hernia and repair when he drank breastmilk, he has developed asthma and latterly intolerances. He could take milk and wheat at first but I started to observe issues with these later on. I don’t know why. But I have my suspicions it is somethiing to do with the flu jab and of course as a baby undergoing two surgeries (as his diapjragm reherniated, he had loads of antiobitoics and meds to sedate him whilst vnetiliated. I give him the best diet I can and always have but yet it didn’t stop him developing allergies to cashews, pinenut and sesame. It can’t just be down to processed food or hiughly strung mothers. Vaccines, antibiotics, and other things I think play their part. I am interested in trying to change breatjing for my own asthma and my son’s. Thank you for alerting me to that.

Lou – As far as I know, diaphragmatic hernia (unless caused by injury) is generally a genetic problem, so it relates to our genes rather than diet and medication. Gastric reflux is a very common condition and is often caused by hiatus hernia. Surgery is complicated, so the problem is best treated with the minimum quantity of drugs needed to relieve discomfort.

Antibiotics have been greatly overused in the past few decades but vaccines have come in for a lot of unjustified criticism. Before we had vaccines there were many fatalities at an early age. Flu (rather than a severe cold) can be very serious particularly for those with respiratory problems. I have not seen any evidence that the flu vaccine could cause allergies or intolerances.

Hi everyone – I’m glad that Mark’s post has generated a healthy debate! And I’m glad this has become a place for those who have been affected by food allergies to make a comment.

Nigel – I appreciate that you’d like to share your thoughts about whether food allergies exist or not. However, I think you have now made that point and I’m worried that people who would like to share their stories and tips with Mark are being discouraged. Please can I ask that we move away from this particular discussion and back to the subject that Mark hoped to get feedback on. Thanks.

Nigel Soames says:
27 March 2014

@Patrick Steen at Ground Control – I did not say that food allergies do not exist. I am saying that they are often mis/overdiagnosed and that that while the medical profession has come up with emergency measures to prevent the worst happening, little effort is being made to get to the root of the problem, and that parents are – and I will get shot down for this too – actually conniving in the process by writing purportedly “helpful” but actually very unhelpful articles like this one, which encourage the status quo rather than challenging the food and medical industries to do something about it.

For example, according to Harvard Dr Nicholas Christakis writing in the British Medical Journal:

“We don’t see this problem much in African American or poor communities. So there’s something going on here. We don’t see them in Ecuador and Guatemala,”

Also, a study of Jewish children of similar demographics and genetics in Britain and Israel found that the British kids were 10 times more likely to have peanut allergies than the Israelis.

This is what needs to be investigated to ensure that what is looking increasingly like an epidemic is reduced back to what it used to be, a rare medical incident about as likely as getting struck by lightning. And kids can have normal birthday parties again….

kate says:
28 March 2014

Good debate and some interesting reading, but to get back to the point, I assume you are self catering and you have checked their are adequate cooking facilities, many hotels that offer self catering as well only provide a kettle and one hob! Check with the airline what you can carry in the cabin and what you can take in the hold and take as may of the staple luxurys you can like dairy free spread, milk, we used to take dried super noodles etc, take your translation cards and research all associated words on the internet, along with pre translated phrases that you may need if a reaction occurs. When abroad and also in this country try not to make such a big deal of eating out, and if unsure – don’t, as a parent as my daughter got older I found the quest to intergrate her into what we wanted to do a fruitless exercise that caused anxiety all round, try to focus your holiday on activities that don’t involve food, family holidays always caused me a lot of stress, being away from my own kitchen and familiar shops and the heightened level of alert we were on, trying not to deprive our other children of tasting the local gauge made holidays my own personal nightmare. We have come out the other side now, my other children enjoy holidays with their friends, my daughter enjoys her holidays as she feels no need to eat out and can cook to suit herself, and my husband and I can go on cruise and have all the food provided and cooked for us, I still feel guilty when I eat foods that I wouldn’t have eaten before, I always ate the same as she did, while my husband would try new foods with our other children. So to conclude, do as much research as you can, but if unsure don’t eat out and try to focus your holiday on being together and other activities, rather than on dining out, dining out and putting your trust in someone else is not a pleasurable experience for a highly allergic child.

kate says:
28 March 2014

…or a parent!

Karsam says:
28 March 2014

Hi, I was diagnosed with ‘Lactose Intolerance’ in 1982, The first case in N.Ireland. I never heard of it untill my Consultant confirmed it. I was always unwell after eating, anaemic, tired, and I had lost alot of weight. I also can’t tollerate soya, nuts and the onion family. There is a huge differance between an ‘intollerance’ and an allergy. In my case I am missing the enzyme ‘Lactase’ which breaks down the milk sugar ‘Lactose’, which simply means I can’t digest lactose. This is found in milk, cream, whey, soft cheeses and yoghurts. Hard cheeses e.g. chedder and parmasen, and good old butter do not contain lactose, as when they are finally made the lactose has been digested and used up through the fermentation process.Whith an allergy you get an immediate and possibly a life threating reaction to the allergen e.g. nuts or a bee sting, so you must avoid these and always carry an ‘Epi Pen’.
Generally a milk allergy is caused by the milk protein ‘Caesin’ and probably the reaction is differant to an intolerance
I also have to spend ages shopping as I have to read the labels and ingredients carefully before I buy. when I go out to a restaurant either at home or in another country I choose 2 or 3 meals I like the look off and then ask the waiter/waitress to check with the chef if they contain milk/cream.I very rarely can have soup and/or a sweet. I have got so used to it now that I expect to be very limited in my choices.What disappoints me the most is that people with ‘Lactose Intolerance’ are not catered for, though people with ‘Cealiac Disease’ are. Also chefs and food manufacturers seem to put milk/cream into most things, even foods(Christmas cakes, puddings and mince pies) that never had milk/cream in their original receipe! It just makes me want to scream!

Karsam – You are right to distinguish between intolerance and allergy. Sadly the terms are often used interchangeably.

Lactose intolerance occurs where an individual does not produce sufficient lactase to break down lactose (milk sugar) in the diet. Most sufferers can tolerate a small amount of lactose, so they might be able to eat other dairy products if they avoid milk or buy lactose-free milk – which is ordinary milk that has been treated with lactase to decrease the amount of lactose present. I suspect that the producers are making a very good profit on this. 🙁

Milk allergy (to casein or other milk proteins) is quite different from lactose intolerance and a much more serious problem. Dairy products must be excluded from the diet.

Gerry says:
28 March 2014

My wife has coeliac disease and severe shellfish allergy. We have given up going to social events such as club dinner-dances because of the number of times my wife has suffered from inadvertent gluten intake in spite of the caterers being warned previously and reminded on arrival at the function that she cannot take gluten. When eating in restaurants we inform them when booking and on arrival always provide allergy cards asking for them to be handed to the chef.

Recently, when eating in a Michelin starred restaurant my wife queried whether a dish was gluten free. She was very firmly reassured it was and that the chef had been particularly careful. After she had eaten some of it another waiter caming running from the kitchen and told her not to eat it as it contained gluten!

On another occasion when eating in a Good Food Guide recommended restaurant, warned as usaul, we observed the Chef on the pass, when plating up for one guest at our table, handle fish in oyster sauce and then proceed to handle my wife’s steak without washing his hands. To make matters worse it was clear that when the Maitre’d passed on our concerns the Chef was clearly resentful at having to cook a replacement.

Our experience has been that in restaurants we have learnt to trust the chefs can adapt dishes to make them gluten free. However, my wife never eats any fish dish away from home in case there has been contamination by shellfish at the wholesaler or fishmongers. She always carries an Epipen and an antihistamine injection.

We believe food allergy is badly taught at Catering colleges and in chef training. 1% of the population suffers from sea food allergy.

Hi all, we’ve rounded up some of your comments in our latest allergies post: https://conversation.which.co.uk/energy-home/your-view-living-with-allergies-and-anaphylaxis/

Ruby Z says:
5 April 2014

What has worked for me, I printed things that my daughters friends can read n explain way is important to keep her safe. we don’t do to many b-day parties because my daughter is deadly allergic to peanuts ,milk, and dogs…I also took my daughter to the library n checked books out with allergies

Jill says:
8 April 2014

My son has a nut allergy. Luckily friends and family are really good at checking labels and making things he can eat. However (understandably) people who don’t see him as often forget. I have some ‘nut free zone’ stickers which I put on his packed lunch as a gentle reminders for his carers and he sometimes wears them to parties etc again as a reminder to the adults. At only 3 years old he loves wearing stickers anyway. Regarding labels, the ‘may contain traces of nut’ phrase drives me crazy! We wouldn’t put up with a beef burger saying ‘may contain traces of horse meat’ or a veggie meal saying ‘may contain traces of meat due to manufacturing methods’.