If you have a food allergy, eating out can be hard – and the hardest thing is often dessert. Having your cake isn’t necessarily the same as eating it when you could die thanks to a hidden ingredient.

Eight foods account for 90 percent of all reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish.

Of those, all bar fish and shellfish are regularly used in desserts, particularly baked goods.

‘Eggs do not come from cows’

As I have an anaphylactic egg allergy myself, this is a subject close to my heart. Anaphylaxis is a severe allergic reaction to a food, medicine or other ‘foreign’ substance where the body reacts violently and rapidly to what it sees as poison – and can result in death. I have found it to be twice as hard to find safe options in the UAE as in the West.

There seems to be a lot less food training, you are more likely to be dealing with someone who does not speak English well, and there is generally less understanding of allergies here (the number of times I’ve had to explain that eggs are NOT dairy and do NOT come from a cow – and no, I’m fine with butter, milk and cream). And egg is tough – once cooked up in a dessert, it’s tasteless, colorless and invisible.

On the flipside, the Middle Eastern culture is great for my allergy as most Arabic desserts – baklawa, konafah, qatayef, gazl el-banet (but not Umm Ali, which is an eggy bread and butter pudding) – are so sticky with honey they have no need for eggs. Unfortunately they’re not so good for nut allergies or gluten intolerance. Even a small sesame seed, so common to Arabic baking, could spell disaster for someone with a nut allergy.

Deadly anaphylaxis

Why are allergies such a big deal? Fifteen million Americans – that’s four percent of all adults and eight percent of children, or one in 13 kids – have a food allergy, according to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE).

So the chances are that, even if you nor your close family members suffer, one of your friends or children’s friends will. A reaction to food can be as little a response as an itchy mouth or throat – or as deadly as anaphylaxis.

And it’s rising fast – food allergies in children doubled between 1997 and 2011, according to a study by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency department in the US.

Eating away from home can pose a significant risk to people with food allergies.

Take-out dessert stores culprit

Research suggests that nearly half of fatal food allergy reactions are triggered by food consumed outside the home – and take-out dessert stores are often the culprits.

Diana Wilde, a Dubai resident who is allergic to nuts, says: “I don’t often eat baked goods as it’s too risky. I learnt the hard way at a recent hotel brunch that it’s too easy to make mistakes – a cookie was labelled as being nut-free when it contained almond powder. Packaged sweets, chocolate and ice cream are the best bet for me.”

Kim Gregory, who has learnt to bake without eggs, nuts and gluten due to her children’s allergies, adds: “Going out to buy dessert in the UAE is like playing Russian roulette. Nuts, egg, gluten allergies – it’s difficult to find a place that labels their desserts well.

Her advice is to talk directly to the pastry or dessert chef at the hotel or restaurant you’re visiting. “They can tell you if there are nuts, egg etc in the dish but, in my experience, it’s worth stressing that you could end up in hospital if you eat the food. It shows it’s not just you being fussy – and you’ll get a reply that will save a lot of unnecessary discomfort and potentially your life.”

Safe desserts for a food allergy

Here are a few safe options for food allergy sufferers that I’ve discovered in the UAE…

  • Skinny Genie – gluten-free cookies, biscuits, muffins and cakes
  • Krispy Kreme – have nut-free options – will give more information on request at a stand
  • Tim Horton’s – excited me by offering the first eggless doughnuts in the UAE
  • Kitsch Cupcakes – Chick-Friendly (no egg), Cow-Friendly (no dairy) and gluten-free cupcakes available
  • Sugar Daddy – list which cupcakes contain nuts, and have a chocolate flourless torte which is gluten-free
  • Marble Slab – do some sugar-free and egg-free ice creams and you can have an ice cream ‘cake’
  • Lime Tree Cafe – have recently started labeling their cakes and desserts as nut-free (NF), wheat-free (WF) and egg-free (EF). Sadly not a single EF option for me when I looked!
  • Il Donaccino – a JLT, Dubai-based cafe that prides itself on its eggless donuts.
  • 77 Veggies – another JLT foodery that is eggless and mostly vegan (so no dairy).

It’s also worth shopping around at the various supermarkets – Organic Foods and Café is well known for gluten-free options but you can find all kinds at the various supermarkets that carry American, European, British, South African and Australian or New Zealand products. I recently found a ‘shake and bake’ pancake mix, that doesn’t need egg, at a random supermarket in the Dubai Marina, having been unable to find it anywhere for years!

Do let us know, via the comments below, if you have any other places you’d recommend and we will add them to our list.