Is Chipotle Safe For Food Allergies?
Do Food Allergy Friendly Restaurants Exist?
Who wants to live with the restrictions of living with food allergies? I sure don't. But the 15 million people with true food allergies don't have a choice. And this doesn't account for the one percent of the population with diagnosed Celiac disease or the many more with severe gluten intolerance (the correct terminology since 'gluten allergy' doesn't exist).
I fall into both of those categories. I've gone into anaphylactic shock from tofu (soy protein) in salad dressing at a Japanese restaurant once and cannot tolerate soybean oil, natural flavors (GMO soy) or any kind of soy derivative. Along with multiple food allergies, I also deal with severe gluten intolerance which I believe to be undiagnosed Celiac disease.
We want to be able to take-out and eat at restaurants but our choices here in the United States are few and far between. As of December 2014, the EU mandated all restaurants to include food allergen labeling for not just the Top 8, but the Top 12!
I sure wish the United States would be so vigilant.
Yes, many people with food allergy anaphylaxis don't want to risk the possibility of a tiny barely visible crumb or touch of a deadly allergen touching anything they eat. Frankly, I don't blame them. I had airborne particle allergic reactions from peanuts on planes growing up and have gone to the ER for peanut allergy about 15-20 too many times in my life so far. I don't go to Five Guys, the place that I hear puts peanuts and peanut shells all over the floor. I never will. I know this is too risky for a severe peanut allergy IgE number which tops my soy allergy IgE number even though both are deadly. I believe this all comes down to your own body's response in the past as well as your comfort level. If you have a bad feeling about the way your food was handled or whether your allergies were taken seriously, then cancel your order and leave! Simple as that.
Even in an allergy-friendly restaurant, you have to take steps to ensure your safety. The steps will be different in each restaurant, so scan down this article to read what you must do if you decide to eat at Chipotle with food allergies or gluten intolerance!
How Do You Know You Have a Food Allergy?
For those with soy allergy, fast food is out of the question. The only way to avoid an allergic reaction is to avoid the allergen culprit. And the only way to know what you're allergic to is from an allergic reaction or anaphylaxis from the food which cannot be attributed to anything else, such as environmental allergen triggers. Once you notify your doctor, you may be referred to an allergist or can choose an allergy specialist on your own. The allergist will order an allergy blood test to check IgE levels in the blood for specific foods, such as the Top 8 or any other foods you think you might be reacting to. The doctor will then specifically list those food codes on the testing sheet. Just because you get a negative result, does not mean you are not allergic, so if you have no history of anaphylaxis (if you are wondering, "What is anaphylaxis?" click here), you might be asked to do a scratch test for your allergens, which can be more accurate than blood.
Gluten-Free and Allergy-Friendly Mexican Food
Luckily, we have Chipotle. My idea of the 'happiest place on earth'...within a 15 minute radius.
It's the only fast food I can eat. In fact, it's the only allergy-friendly restaurant within a thirty mile radius where I know I also won't get a gluten reaction, as long as I stick with the chicken and avoid the cheese or sour cream (since I get reactions to dairy from grain-fed cows).
Luckily, Chipotle has made me feel comfortable not only with eating there with anaphylactic tofu allergy to soy protein, but with a severe gluten intolerance. So many times I've eaten at other restaurants who claimed to have gluten-free menu items which I carefully order, only to have the usual Celiac disease symptoms of nausea, depression, diarrhea and constipation for the next two to three days. Who wants to deal with that? So of course, I cook everything at home. Except when I'm craving Chipotle.
Every time I go there, the people seem happier than most places. Sure, frazzled is another good description, but nonetheless, the vibe just feels more lively and free-spirited. Maybe because Chipotle franchise locations are LEED Certified and environmentally friendly with sustainable design. Or maybe it's the cute prose written all over all of their recyclable materials. Or maybe it's the fact that they only use meat and dairy without antibiotics or hormones. Whatever it is, it's working. For those with allergies, here is the allergy info, but for further specifics, definitely speak to the manager at your particular location.
Remember, Each Chipotle Franchise Restaurant is Unique
Each restaurant manager will be different but from my experience, the managers at Chipotle do their best to accommodate disability and this includes severe food allergies and Celiac disease. Although the Chipotle company does not claim to be gluten-free, you can easily watch the ingredients as they are added to your food to ensure no cross-contamination takes place.
Out of the 20-25 times I've gone to different Chipotle franchises over the past year and a half, I had one minor but scary allergic reaction (which was my own fault from not being more proactive) which I luckily felt after the first bite. The inside of my mouth started itching and I knew the chicken probably had tofu particles that may have dripped or dropped in. The girl at the counter had even asked if I wanted to wait for the new container of the chicken since the old one was almost empty except for about an inch and a half from the bottom. Stupidly not wanting to bother her I said no. I knew the next time I should most definitely say, yes!. Lesson learned and luckily, I had only taken one bite. I was fine after a dose of hydroxyzine and my mom switching dinners with me since her chicken was taken from new container.
Can You Eat Safely At Chipotle With Food Allergies or Gluten Sensitivity?
Here are the steps I take to safely eat Chipotle food with severe food allergies. I have gone into anaphylaxis from tofu and unfortunately, Chipotle sofritas made with tofu is very popular for the vegan and vegetarian crowd. Years ago, I couldn't eat Chipotle food because they used soybean oil however they have since changed their main oil to rice brain oil and the chips are fried in sunflower oil, but always be sure to double-check to ensure nothing changed! The only product that has soybean oil are the soft tortilla wraps which I never order due to gluten.
I also have no soy allergy reaction from the chicken, which means the chickens are not soy-fed. I usually get full-body hives from soy-fed chicken by companies like Perdue or eggs by Eggland's Best. Luckily, Chipotle's chicken is safe for me!
I am so grateful for Joe, Hoover and the pretty girl with the eyebrow ring at the Hauppauge, NY Chipotle who always changes gloves with a smile and accommodates my food allergies so well by ensuring I get what I ask for to avoid any reaction! Of course, not everyone is this friendly, but remember, if you encounter attitude or a sigh of annoyance (which is rare in Chipotle) it's usually because they don't understand. If you encounter this, remember, not everyone's the same; simply ask for a different server or speak to a manager.
Rules For Eating at Chipotle With Food Allergies or Celiac Disease
- Carry two Epinephrine auto-injectors and antihistamines with you along with wipes in case of possible cross-contamination, since eating at any restaurant poses a risk. The wipes are important to clean the table tops and edges to remove any allergen proteins which could cause a contact dermatitis reaction. As with any restaurant I go to, I make sure there is a hospital within a 20-30 minute driving radius in case of an emergency.
- To really minimize the risk of cross-contamination issues, be one of the first people in line when they open for lunch! Also, avoid crowded lunchtimes and dinnertime miscommunications and accidental cross-contamination by leaving when it's overcrowded and going back when the line isn't winding around the entire room (which it usually is).
- Ask to speak to the manager about your allergy before you even get on line. Introduce yourself and ask about the oils. As far as I know within the past two years, they use sunflower oil in the chips and rice bran oil for any food. It's important to double-check since companies can change ingredients without notice. Introducing yourself and having this conversation will also ensure the manager will keep an eye out for you and his or her team while they serve you. Also remember, just because you don't see your allergen (such as citrus, which might be in some sides) doesn't mean it's not there, so if in doubt, ask.
- At this point, you will decipher whether you feel safe. If you do, get on line and once it's your turn, tell the server you have a severe or deadly allergy to _______ and request them to change their gloves. This is when you will have to watch carefully; if another person around them asks for something or they missed something for the customer in front of you and have to touch your allergen or gluten, do not be shy about asking them to change the gloves again. You know the risks and consequences of cross-contamination so be vigilant, friendly and gracious. Also, I have noticed by observation that it is protocol in most Chipotle franchises that once the person is notified of an allergy, they tell other servers nearby they are working on an allergy order. This helps them to get the space they need and break the assembly line for a moment to avoid cross-contaminating your food. If the person doesn't tell anyone, speak up to the next person who might inadvertently handle your food without knowing you are a food allergy customer.
- Remember, eating at any restaurant with a severe allergy is a risk and is never 100% safe. At Chipotle, all of the food is served in separate containers with hot foods like rice and sauteed peppers in one section, proteins in one section and all the add-on toppings in the last section. All of these containers are in very close proximity to each other, which does increase the possibility of cross-contamination, so if you have anaphylaxis to something like dairy, Chipotle might not be a safe option for you. Also, if your soy allergy is anaphylactic to even the oil or an IgE number within level three or above (any IgE over 3.50. Mine is 2.18) I wouldn't recommend risking cross-contamination, however I'm a bit stubborn and would rather not cook every single meal of every single day for every day each week. Look for your allergen or ask the server where it is. For me, the sofritas (made from tofu or concentrated soy protein) are usually right next to the beef but can easily get in the chicken while they are quickly spooning protein into dishes. I can eat the chicken here with no allergic reaction because I don't think it's soy-fed because I know right away from hives and mood change. I do not know if the beef is soy-fed so ask a manager if you really want the beef. If you have a soy allergy, look at the chicken container and if it is half empty, ask the server if they can take your chicken from a new container due to a severe allergy to soy.
- Repeat your allergen several times during your requests, with descriptives like 'deadly soy allergy', 'anaphylaxis to tofu', 'severe gluten intolerance' and repeat them even if you think the person heard you.
- As far as Celiac disease, I can say from my own experience that I have never been glutened at Chipotle. I simply order the bowl with brown rice, chicken, black beans, tomatoes, corn, green sauce and guacamole. I also get chips on the side (I avoid most dairy because most dairy is grain-fed and/or soy-fed and I usually get a delayed rash from most dairy). I do not know if the beef is grain-fed so if in doubt, check with the manager!
- If you want cheese or lettuce, there are no utensils for these! Many gloved hands reach in and out of these containers and cross-contamination risk is VERY HIGH. You can either ask your server to take new lettuce from bag or cheese from the back for you, although your wait will be a bit longer for this since they have to go into an entirely new batch for each. I just avoid both the cheese and the lettuce.
- Watch very carefully that your server is moving your bowl or platter down the line and nobody else is touching your bowl. As long as you keep your eye on your food as it moves down the line, your dish won't get confused with others. Always ask for it to go, that way it is immediately covered to avoid any fall-ins of any kind, but make sure you know which dish is yours!
- Make sure to write to corporate if any servers are particularly helpful or always friendly and careful with your requests. By telling Chipotle corporation how grateful we are about how they handle our food allergies or gluten sensitivity, we are also making them aware of how important these special provisions are in order for us to patronize the establishment and stay a regular customer.
© 2015 Maya Marcotte