Are you planning a trip to London with food allergies? Travelling with allergies can seem daunting, but some research and preparation before you go helps enormously. We recently spent a week in London with multiple food allergies and were pleasantly surprised with food allergy awareness in the UK. Find out more about our experiences with allergy labelling, dining out and delicious allergy-friendly food options.
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Planning for London with food allergies
Coming from Australia to London, we had done some research before we travelled. We already knew that London has good food allergy labelling (for 14 allergens, rather than the 10 we have here in Australia). We’ve also heard about the amazing advocacy by UK charities for allergy-awareness. Speaking English was also a bonus, as we knew we would have fewer language barriers.
As we do every time we plan a holiday, we arranged to stay in an apartment in London with its own kitchen. This meant that we could cook meals at the apartment, including some big English breakfasts. (Needing to avoid egg makes a big breakfast fry up a risky option for eating out.) We also had multiple EpiPens and our food allergy cards ready to go. However were were hopeful that we could enjoy some tasty meals whilst travelling around London and taking in the sights. And London didn’t disappoint.
UK food allergy labelling laws
UK food law requires food providers in retail and catering to provide allergen information and follow labelling requirements. They must provide customers with food allergy information for both pre-packaged and non-pre-packaged foods and take appropriate steps to safely manage allergens in food preparation. Food businesses must also provide their staff with allergen training.
Top 14 allergens
In the UK, the following 14 allergens must be included in allergen information for food ingredients:
- cereals containing gluten (such as wheat, barley and oats);
- crustaceans (such as prawns, crabs and lobsters);
- molluscs (such as mussels and oysters);
- sulphur dioxide and sulphites (if the sulphur dioxide and sulphites are at a concentration of more than ten parts per million); and
- tree nuts (such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts).
This labelling is also required for food additives or processing aids that are present in the final product.
There are also strict requirements for labelling food as “free from”, “vegan” or “gluten free”. More information about UK food allergen laws is available from the Food Standards Agency.
In October 2021 a new law came into affect requiring ingredients and allergy labelling on all pre-packaged for direct sale foods (Natasha’s Law). This new legal obligation was implemented after strong advocacy from the parents of a teenager who sadly passed away from an anaphylactic reaction to sesame in a pre-packaged baguette. Food outlets selling pre-packed food items for sale (like sandwiches, baguettes, salads and so on) must now include full allergy labelling on the packaging. You can read more about Natasha’s Law at the Natasha Allergy Research Foundation.
Food allergy awareness in restaurants
Here in Australia, eating out with food allergies can be challenging to say the least. It’s uncommon for restaurants to list allergens on menus. The most common notes on menus are for vegetarian, vegan or gluten free options available on request. Some restaurants will label certain dishes as dairy free, or very occasionally nut free. More often than not there isn’t much of guide for people with allergies. An “allergen menu” is a rare occurrence, unless eating at a franchise like McDonalds or KFC.
We usually have to look at the menu and decide on something that sounds safe from the description. We’ll then go through the process of speaking to a server to disclose our allergies and ask about ingredients in the dishes. Often they may have no idea what the ingredients are. The server then has to speak to the kitchen and ask about the ingredients and risk of cross contact (such as whether it’s possible to cook something in a separate pan). Whether we decide to order the dish often depends on how confident we feel after speaking to the staff. We often feel like an inconvenience or that servers don’t really understand the seriousness of food allergies.
Ordering food in London with allergies was a breath of fresh air. Most of the restaurants we went to had clear signage asking customers to advise if they had any allergies, not just on the menus. Staff generally seemed to take allergies very seriously and went out of their way to help find something appropriate on the menu. At one of our lunch venues (All Bar One), a staff member even came and sat with us at the table, asked what we felt like eating, and proceeded to go through the menu making suggestions that didn’t contain our allergens.
When disclosing allergies in London, we’d more often than not be directed straight away to the comprehensive allergen menu. This could be a binder containing listing every dish and whether it contained any of the top 14 allergens, an easy to navigate app available to download, or both.
The allergy menu apps were so helpful. It was such a refreshing change to be able to search an entire menu by allergen. We only had to select the allergens we wanted to avoid (in our case, milk, egg, peanuts, tree nuts and sesame) and the app would show a list of safe options. It was even possible to search by individual tree nuts for those who are only allergic to some and not others. The menus are searchable in the same way for vegetarian, vegan or gluten free options too.
Despite being able to choose ‘safe’ options from the menu, we still disclosed each allergy to staff, who would note them on the order and convey to the kitchen. We also had our Equal Eats chef card with us to provide to the kitchen in venues that didn’t use electronic ordering. This clearly lists our allergies and reminds the kitchen about the need to take care with cross contact when preparing the meal.
Where we ate in London with food allergies
Eating out in London for us, as tourists, was largely in the city itself. Places that we enjoyed really good service and allergy friendly meals were often pubs or chains, with standardised menus. Other smaller venues were also able to provide meals but again we needed to spend more time with staff discussing safe options, as we do at home.
Some of the many places we enjoyed eating safely in London with allergies included:
- The Zetland Arms in South Kensington (a Greene King pub), where we ordered a beautifully cooked steak with roasted truss cherry tomatoes, salad and onion rings using the allergen menu provided by the staff;
- Horniman at Hays (a Nicholson’s pub), which had an allergen menu available on the website or the Glass Onion app;
- All Bar One, which had amazing customer service and an online allergen app, and tasty sweet potato fries which were free from top allergens;
- Anchor Bankside in Southwark, another Greene King venue;
- Famous Three Kings, a craft pub where we stopped for a late pub lunch and ordered delicious dairy free nachos;
- Cafe Piazza near London Bridge, where we enjoyed a cooked English breakfast (without the egg).
Outside of the city, we noticed that venues were less likely to have the detailed allergen menu, but they were still able to provide details of ingredients when requested. We had a wonderful alfresco Italian meal at a lovely restaurant in a small town in Buckinghamshire.
What about fine dining?
We were travelling as a family in London, so tended to eat at family friendly restaurants rather than fine dining establishments. However, the approach we would take in eating out at more upmarket restaurants would be the same as we do at home. We call in advance to make a reservation and ask at the time of booking if our allergies can be accommodated. With advance notice, most are able to prepare something suitable. We did stop to read the menu at a Michelin Star restaurant which sounded amazing, with 7 different small courses all featuring artichoke. However, that wasn’t the sort of place to just show up and expect allergen-free menu options to be available without notice.
Shopping for food
Staying in an apartment meant we could cook some of our meals without having to go out to a pub or restaurant. We were lucky to be staying very close to a Tesco supermarket and a Sainsbury’s, so we could easily stock up on fresh ingredients and groceries to cook ourselves. There were plenty of allergy-friendly options available and the clear allergy labelling on packaged foods was very helpful.
Thanks to Natasha’s Law, we also felt comfortable buying pre-packaged food and snacks while out and about.
We love the London approach to food allergies
The Australian food industry could certainly learn some lessons from the UK. We were genuinely surprised by the level of allergy awareness and the number of places where we felt food allergies were taken very seriously. Allergy labelling was clear and the frequent availability of allergen menus was something we had never experienced at home in Australia.
If you have food allergies and are looking for a travel destination, definitely include London in your itinerary!
More tips for travelling with allergies
If you are planning a holiday, don’t underestimate the importance of ensuring you have travel insurance that actually covers your allergies. You can read more about travel insurance for allergies in our post – Travel Insurance for Allergies: What You Need to Check.
We never travel without our amazing allergy travel cards from Equal Eats. You can read more about them in our review, or head over to Equal Eats and use our discount code ALLERGYSPOT for 10% off your order. You can read about how helpful our travel cards with French and English translations were for us in Paris.
And for more of our tips for planning your holiday, flights and staying safe while you are away, make sure to read our top tips for safe travel with allergies.
*Disclaimer: Allergy Spot does not provide medical advice. You should always consult a suitably qualified medical practitioner in respect of your own medical conditions, symptoms or concerns. See our Website Terms for more details.