I recently went out for lunch and ran into this sign:Vegan menu

Which I think is about the best thing in the history of time. It is a breakdown of the ingredients in each of the restaurant’s dishes, indicating which contain dairy, fish, nuts, and so on.

Unfortunately I’d already eaten lunch, or I would have eaten there out of sheer appreciation. As I’ve mentioned before, I have food allergies and am dating a vegan, both of which can make eating out difficult. Everywhere I go, I need to check if meals contain hidden dairy, which is the case more often than you’d think. I always have to request its removal, sometimes in very explicit terms. I have on more than one occasion requested a salad not be served with feta cheese, only to have it arrive covered in parmesan or the like. I appreciate the attempt at providing me with an alternative, but in my case, it’s not actually helpful.

Then there’s the number of places that genuinely seem to have no idea what’s in their food. I’ve been assured many a time that there is definitely no dairy in a product, only to come home with my tongue swelling. And these are just the ingredients I can definitely detect; I have no doubts that my vegan girlfriend has been lied to about the presence of fish or oyster sauce in a stir-fry.

The odd thing is, it’s only a problem when eating out. I’m sure you’ve noticed the food labelling that comes on pretty much everything we get now, excluding fresh foods. All food sold is required to come labelled, with the exception of foods that have almost no nutritional value – which means up to and including my last packet of gum. They also universally have allergen information, which is very useful when unexpected ingredients arise. For example, the last packet of bread crumbs I bought contained not only milk solids but also fish meal. This is my fault, at least in part, for not checking before I bought the packet, but who on earth expected dairy and fish in breadcrumbs? I’m a little concerned about that, frankly.

I realise it would be immensely difficult to have food labelling on every menu and every item at every restaurant in Australia. But I do wish there was some kind of balance between the total lack of information available now, and the total calorific and nutritional breakdown of every piece of toast. Baker’s Delight now has the capability, when asked about a product, to print off a list of every ingredient in the given product – delightful. For those wondering, coffee and date rolls, and apple and walnut scrolls are both dairy free.

Maybe it would just be a good idea if people preparing and serving food had some idea what was in it. My allergies won’t kill me, but my friend K has a fish allergy that has ended with her in anaphylactic shock. I think that’s the kind of thing we ought to be careful with.

Georgia Claire

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Cheers, Georgia. I agree – it is the kind of thing we ought to be careful with.

    I must say, though, that reading this post, I began to feel like one of those old codgers who say ‘You think you’ve got it hard, in MY day … ‘ and go on to list how much worse things were say … in the 80s. I became a vegetarian in 1981 and it was not a popular “fad” in my neck of the woods. The vegetarian ‘option’ at the pub, for example, was soggy veg with the meat taken off the plate, served with good dollop of resentment. And lots of people considered ‘vegetarian eating’ to include chicken and fish (go figure?). Once I got kicked out of a hamburger joint for ordering a hamburger without the meat. Yes, asked to leave!

    So it seems to me that the range and availability of vegetarian (and to some degree, vegan, dairy or gluten-free) options is fantastically awesome these days. Maybe hospitality staff might think you’re being a bit precious, or not quite be well informed enough – but it’s pretty standard for people to want and need to know what’s in the food prepared for them to eat.

    I am not allergic, but I have a life-threatened-by-peanuts nephew, so get how important it is to know what’s in your food – and we’ve come a long way.

    It seems more and more people are sensitive and allergic … but that’s another story.

  2. Having worked across the whole spectrum of the hospitality industry, I wish I could say something reassuring, but I can’t. I’ve seen wait staff lie, and heard chefs advise them to. Not regularly, but it shouldn’t happen at all.

    In those cases, I always stepped in and took over the table or pressured the chef to actually answer the question and give me some options. Lazy is not good enough. It is the wait staff’s job to be able to answer, and if they aren’t sure, to check with the source. And it is irrelevant whether the customer has a dangerous allergy, a vegan diet, or just doesn’t like pepper.

    Obviously you’re right about it being unfeasible to label everything, and I agree with Clare that what is available now is much better (more cafes/restaurants with little Vs next to menu items, for example), but the answers are right there and it is unfortunate that sometimes staff only do their job begrudgingly, or don’t do it at all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *