Opinion: Being in Toronto has made me more aware of my allergies

By Nuha Khan

When I first heard I was heading to Ryerson University for my undergrad, I couldn’t have been happier. For someone who lives more than an hour away from downtown Toronto, I don’t get many opportunities to familiarize myself with the city. I finally got the chance to immerse myself in everything Toronto had to offer: the people, vintage stores, art galleries, but most importantly, the food.

I’ve accepted the fact that Toronto is not the most ideal city for a person living with allergies. Like many members of my immediate family, I’m allergic to many things - sesame seeds, nuts, oats, just to name a few. I know that these items may not seem like common ingredients used in most meals, however, coming to school in a food-centric city has made me so much more aware of my allergies.

Constantly being in Toronto, it’s almost impossible not to want to eat out at least once a week. At every corner and intersection, I see a food stand or restaurant popping up out of the blue and it’s always something I could never find anywhere else.

There’s been instances within the past year or so where I’ve ordered food that I would never assume to have items containing the things I’m allergic to, but once I’ve eaten it, I get a reaction.

Just last month, I went to a restaurant which shall remain anonymous. I browsed through the menu thoroughly, looking for what to order and came upon a meal I thought I would enjoy. Due to my many allergies, I always tend to be precautious about what I’m getting. Since my meal contained bread, I needed to ask the waiter if it contained sesame seeds, as breads do in some cases.

Now, here comes the most annoying part of my day. Whenever you ask a sever about the ingredients in your meal, they always seem to assume that you’re asking about it because you have an allergy. They tend to make it a bigger deal than it actually is and put you in an awkward situation which almost makes you feel like an outcast. Socially, it’s hard to be that one person who takes too long to order or can’t go to many restaurants because of cross-contamination issues.

The waiter did ask about my allergies that day and offered to prepare a meal that would be allergy-friendly, meaning they would use fresh utensils, pots and stay away from all things I couldn’t eat. This sounded all too good to be true and unfortunately, it was. On the way home, I felt very nauseous and ended up vomiting most of what I had.

In this situation, I was lucky. Everyone who has an allergy experiences different reactions, some of which can be more severe than others. Another person may have had a harsher experience, ultimately placing their lives at risk.

It was indeed a scary experience, but something that does happen often. According to Food Allergy Canada, over 2.6 million Canadians have at least one food allergy and more than 40 per cent of Canadians have to read food labels searching for allergy information.

Since so many Canadians are affected by allergies, it should become a priority for Toronto’s food vendors to be more allergy-safe, as well as more aware of the ingredients they are using to prepare food. When restaurants become more transparent with their ingredients and meal preparation, it will become safer for people like myself and others who also have food restrictions.

It only takes a simple fix. Toronto restaurants should have all employees learn more about allergies themselves and not make it a bigger deal than it is.

Toronto’s allergy safe food spaces

Although some restaurants may be tough to eat at when you have a lot of allergies, there are thankfully a couple of local places that are devoted to being an allergy-safe space.

Toronto’s Hype Food Co. has a ‘make your own’ meal option, all of which is gluten-free, dairy-free and nut-free. (Courtesy hype.food.co via Instagram)

Hype Food Co. is a bakery and restaurant located in Leslieville on 1060 Gerrard Street East. It is known to be Toronto’s most known allergy-free fast casual restaurant. Owner Pauline Osena wanted to open this business due to her children having many allergies.

Hype Food Co.’s kitchen is free of ingredients such as peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, sesame seeds and seafood. In terms of their restaurant menu, they offer many “build your own” meals options, including a selection of items like brown rice, zucchini, noodles, beans, Canadian brisket and much more. Giving customers the opportunity to create their own meal allows them to have full control of what they’re eating.

Sorelle and Co.’s berry smoothie bowl contains raspberry, strawberry, blueberry, lemon zest, pumpkin seeds, coconut yogurt and goji berry. (Courtesy nu.nectar via sorelleandco on Instagram)

Another spot Torontonians can go to for allergy-friendly food is Sorelle and Co.This is a vegan-centered café which is free of all tree nuts, gluten, dairy, egg, soy, mustard, sesame seeds, and poppy seeds.

The name Sorelle translates to “sister” in Italian, as the café was inspired by a mother struggling with five daughters who have many allergies. Their main store can be found on 161 Yorkville Avenue, but they have other spots in Vaughan, Saks Food Hall, and Etobicoke. They serve many unique dishes, from berry smoothie bowls to mushroom grilled cheeses to coconut macaroons.

As someone living with allergies, places like Hype Food Co. and Sorelle and Co. are helpful but rare. Toronto should work towards finding a middle ground, making sure that one by one, each food place will have a transparent ingredient list for every meal and understand ways in which cross contamination can be eliminated.