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Food Allergies: Tips for Eating Out

Whether you're trying to avoid peanuts or dairy products, experts offer strategies for dining safely at restaurants.

Food Allergies: Know What to Avoid continued...

The FDA considered this step so important it instituted the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act in 2004, which mandated that all food manufacturers clearly label product ingredients as they relate to eight major food allergies by 2006. Before the law, people with a dairy allergy, for instance, may not have realized that the ingredient labeled "casein" was really a protein from milk. Now the product must say "milk."

Still, experts caution this law only pertains to the eight most common food allergens: milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, and regular fish. These are responsible for more than 90% of all U.S. food allergies.

Food Allergy Surprises: Hidden Sources

Here are the most likely places key food allergens may be lurking, according to the experts WebMD interviewed.

Allergy: Milk/Dairy

Hidden sources: hot dogs, canned tuna, some chewing gum, margarine made from corn oil (skim milk powder), granola bars, chocolate chips, desserts containing caramel coloring, brown-sugar flavoring, coconut-cream flavoring, natural chocolate flavoring, grilled steak (many restaurants rub steaks with butter after grilling).

Allergy: Eggs

Hidden sources: Milky Way or Snickers bars (nougat contains eggs); any baked good with a shiny surface, including bagels and pretzels; the foam on some coffee drinks; the pasta in prepared foods such as soups.

Allergy: Nuts

Hidden sources: Barbecue sauce, bouillon, chili (nuts are used sometimes as thickener).

Allergy: Wheat/Gluten

Hidden sources: Hydrolyzed wheat protein is sometimes listed only as a flavor enhancer or binder in prepared foods and sauces, alcoholic beverages, hot dogs, ice cream cones, licorice,  soup mixes, coffee creamer substitutes (grain based), butter flavoring, caramel coloring, some brands of butter, couscous.

Allergy: Seafood

Hidden sources: Caesar salad (anchovies); caponata (Italian relish/anchovies); foods fortified with omega-3 fatty acids (fish source), including some orange juice, baby cereals, and soymilk.

Choosing a Restaurant

While what you order is important, where you order it matters, too. That's because some restaurants are more likely to not only accommodate your food allergy, but also be better educated on how best to do that. 

Not surprisingly, Fischer says that the larger and more established a restaurant is, the more likely it has dealt with food allergies in the past. So the staff is less likely to be surprised or thrown by your requests. 

Other good alternatives are corporate chain restaurants -- places like Olive Garden, Applebee's, or Ruby Tuesday. Fischer says chains often have tighter controls on their menus and ingredients than independently owned restaurants, so the staff is more likely to know exactly what's in each dish.

Field agrees. "While a local mom-and-pop restaurant may be more likely to veer from the norm in an effort to please you, there is also more variability in these places, so the dish may not be cooked the same way twice, and that can be a problem," he says.

And while not every restaurant staff can tell you exactly what's in every dish (many chain establishments use precooked foods that are only heated on site), most of their corporate web sites provide either a menu listing major ingredients or an email address where you can access specific recipe information. Some, like Olive Garden, provide recipes online so you can find out exactly what is in the food on the menu.

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