This is what it’s like to be a student with a nut allergy at the Uni of York

Let’s talk about the bane of my existence


My name is Lauren, I'm 18 years old, and I have a nut allergy. I'm allergic to peanuts and tree nuts (fun fact, peanuts grow out of the ground), and because of this I have to carry around antihistamines and an Epipen wherever I go. If I don't, I can't eat – it's just too risky.

I'm nowhere near the only one going through this. Between 0.6 to one per cent of the population have peanut allergies and four per cent of people have some form of food intolerance. If you look at any food item, the ingredients will have certain items in bold – these are the common allergens, such as milk, eggs, soya, and almost everything has the note "may contain nuts". This isn't half annoying because I have to decide where to draw the line on taking a risk. I know Mars bars say "may contain", but I've been eating them all my life, I know they're safe. Then there are other foods that I could never judge safely, like curry sauces from a jar. If I haven't eaten them before, I usually don't buy them purely for safety reasons.

Over the last couple of months, there have been a few stories in the news where people have actually died as a result of their allergy and carelessness on a massive, corporate scale. Natasha Ednan-Laperouse was only 15 when she bought a sandwich from Pret a Manger which hadn't correctly labelled the allergens, and passed away. Weeks after the trial on her death, two men were jailed for manslaughter after sending a teenage girl a meal made with peanuts after she had specified the severity of her allergy. It's scary for someone like me to hear these stories, because all I can think is how I put my life into someone else's hands every time I buy food.

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There are other horror stories: baristas ignoring requests for soy milk because they think the customer is just being pedantic, bread labelled as gluten-free that sets off someone's coeliac disease, cold meats on a buffet sprinkled with walnuts that were later scraped off. My own mum was hospitalised recently when a chef had decided there was something missing from the pasta and stirred pesto through it without updating the allergy information. Even if we're really careful, things can go wrong.

Lots of places are really accommodating. Waiters will go back into the kitchen after you've ordered specifically to ask the chef if it's safe and will come back straight away if not. My housemates are genuinely careful as well, making sure to wipe down any surfaces and wash up straight away if they've used nuts in their cooking. However, some places are less so: I was once given a frozen apple and banana on a flight because they "couldn't guarantee" the sausage and mash meal was nut free, and another restaurant tried to give me baby food at age six.

Navigating uni with a nut allergy is a whole new challenge. Now I'm responsible for feeding myself every day, more of the responsibility of managing my allergy falls onto me. I have to make sure all the ingredients of my meals are nut free, any snacks I buy are safe, and takeaways? That's another level. At home I have certain places I go to that I know I'm okay with. There are two Indians and a few Chinese places that I go to, and I don't tend to try anywhere else because I know what I can have. Here, I have no idea if a chef will have a different interpretation of the same curry, or decide to cook with peanut or almond oil, and if I'm ordering in it's because I'm too lazy to cook for myself, and I don't want to have to use that energy calling up a takeaway instead to make sure they know how serious it is.

At my college winter formal this year, I'd ordered myself some new foods that I wouldn't normally try – I was splashing out, so why not? After I put my order in, I received an email telling me I couldn't have any of what I'd ordered. I could have caprese salad for starter (I wanted bruschetta), pizza or pasta for main, and ice cream for dessert. I was essentially given a meal I could make myself for a fiver, that I paid more than £40 for.

Allergies aren't fun, anyone who has one can tell you that. Reactions are even worse. This means that whenever we get really good service from a careful waiter, or special adaptations of meals made, or simply someone double checks that you're okay with them eating pesto in the same room as you, it makes everything a little easier.

PS. Don't tell me how nice Nutella is. It makes me sad 🙁