Near our home in Colorado Springs is a Mexican restaurant called Carlos Miguel’s that people rave about. So last Friday evening, when the streets were icy and my husband and I didn’t want to venture too far from home, I called the restaurant to discuss my food restrictions.
“What type of vegetable oil do you cook with?” I asked the man who answered the phone.
“What type? Soy? Corn? Canola?” I asked.
“Just vegetable.” He seemed a little perturbed.
I told the man I couldn’t eat at his restaurant without knowing exactly what was in the vegetable oil because I was allergic to soy and corn. He didn’t offer to check the ingredients label so I said goodbye.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time a restaurant couldn’t tell me what was in their cooking oil. And I’m sure it won’t be the last. How absurd it is for restaurants not to know what they are serving their guests!
I also have a hard time with processed foods containing soy and corn. In the United States, corn isn’t one of the top eight allergens required by law to be identified on labeling. While soy is one of the top eight, the FDA exempts soybean oil and soy lecithin from being labeled. The FDA and medical experts, such as Dr. Scott H. Sicherer, MD, author of Food Allergies: A Complete Guide for Eating When Your Life Depends On It ( Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), say most soy oil is highly refined so there is little proteins left to trigger an allergic reaction. Cold pressed and expeller pressed soybean oil are not highly refined and may contain soy proteins. The experts also say soy lecithin, a derivative of soy used as a nonstick agent in baking, has minimal proteins and those with a soy allergy need not worry.
My body does not agree with these experts. I’ve learned the hard way that soy oil, soy lecithin and corn oil will all cause a severe reaction, including eosinophilic esophagitis. Blend them together–use soy/corn oil in my salad dressing and spray the grill with cooking spray containing soy lecithin–and I’ll be in really bad shape. Talking with the other soy-allergic folks at food allergy conferences and through social media, I know I am not alone. Of course, if you react to soy (so far 15 allergenic proteins have been found in soy) but can tolerate soy oil and/or soy lecithin, I’m happy for you! And a bit jealous! But do watch and discuss any changes in your health with your doctor.
Soy oil, or a blend of oils including soy oil, is used in restaurants because it’s inexpensive. Soybean meal and vegetable oil consume around 85% of the world’s soybean crop. By the way, the soybean is not a vegetable–soybean is a legume–but soy oil is still referred to as vegetable oil. Other plant-based oils include:
- Canola (rapeseed)
- Peanut (a legume, not a nut)
Unless the label says the oil is 100 percent, it may a blend of other oils. Read my post The Olive Oil Controversy. People can be allergic to any of these plant-based oils.
So here’s what I do to avoid an allergic reaction because of a vegetable oil mishap:
- I read the ingredients labels of all oils before I buy them, and I stick to companies I trust. For a cooking spray, I use Winona Pure which does not contain soy lecithin.
- I avoid all restaurants that cook only with soy oil and offer no other options (even if I’m ordering a food that doesn’t require oil–it’s just too risky). If they cannot identify what is in their “vegetable oil,” I leave. In my experience, most Mexican restaurants and many Asian restaurants use soybean oil.
- If it’s a questionable restaurant, I ask if the olive oil or other oil is 100 percent. This doesn’t usually go over well, but it’s been a lifesaver on several occasions.
- I read allergen menus with a magnifying glass. Because of the FDA exemption for soybean oil and soy lecithin, restaurants do not have to list them under “soy allergy.” Some allergen menus note this exemption with an asterisk, but not all do.
- I ask a lot of questions before I order. What oil do you use to cook with? Does your vegetable oil contain soy? Do any other foods contain soy lecithin? Do you use cooking spray?
- If possible, I call the chef in advance and discuss my dietary needs. I have celiac disease and allergies to dairy, eggs and corn, but I always stress the soy allergy because it’s the one that gets missed by waitstaff the most. Untrained waitstaff think tofu and soy sauce.
- When I make reservations on OpenTable, which I do a lot, I note I have a soy allergy including soy oil and soy lecithin. I also check out what people say on Urban Spoon and Food Allergy/Celiac Disease apps.
- When I travel, I try to stick to chain restaurants that never use soy oil (these are usually higher-end chains).
- When eating out in my hometown, I’m a regular at restaurants that don’t use any soy at all. I let them know how grateful I am to have a safe place to eat.