As the public becomes more informed and more empowered to take control of their own health, there is increased recognition about the types of foods causing sensitivity and intolerance. The EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (No 1169/2011) came into force on 13th December 2014 and is creating a massive shift in both awareness and ease of consumers navigating menus with regard to allergens. However, there is still little recognition of the range of foods to which people may be sensitive or intolerant, which creates frustration in sufferers and curtails many social activities. A situation which Nathalie Christmann-Cooper knows only too well and the reason why she’s created an exciting new web-based app called TreatOut. She hopes the app is going to transform the social lives of many and help educate and support food business operators. Here’s what she told us.
ANH: What is TreatOut and How does it work?
Nathalie: TreatOut is a ‘Dish Discovery’ app. It’s about finding out what dishes on a menu you can eat based on foodstuffs you don’t eat. It’s not about finding a particular type of cuisine or restaurant, rather it’s about finding a restaurant has a dish that suits an individual’s dietary requirements.
We describe the app in this way “You tell us the ingredients you can’t have and we’ll show you the dishes you can have”.
ANH: What inspired you to create TreatOut?
Nathalie: The idea came about through my own frustration at not being able to eat out due to my dietary needs. I was contacting restaurants before I visited them to check they could cope with my dietary requirements, often telling them what ingredients I had problems with and they either couldn’t adapt any dishes or I was served after everyone else had nearly finished their meal or on one occasion the restaurant forgot about me completely and I didn’t get a meal!
ANH: How difficult have you found it as person with food allergies and intolerances to eat out?
Nathalie: Extremely difficult. Restaurants can’t/won’t adapt dishes to suit my requirements. It’s very frustrating.
ANH: How will TreatOut help people with food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities?
Nathalie: The app will help people by letting them identify any ingredient in a restaurant dish that causes them problems. It moves outside of the EU Law that requires restaurants to disclose allergens in meals and looks at all ingredients used.
ANH: It’s now compulsory under EU law for restaurants to disclose allergens in meals, how much easier will your App make it?
Nathalie: Much easier. The App is about finding out what dishes you can eat, based on the ingredients that are safe for you, rather than having to spend ages questioning restaurants about what ingredients are in their dishes or wading through lists of allergens provided by the restaurant in question.
ANH: What is your Vision for TreatOut?
Nathalie: For this to be adopted by restaurants across the UK and the world. To raise awareness with food retailers that there are a lot of people who eat in a different way due to food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities. We need to get food retailers to understand the difference between food allergies and intolerances/sensitivities as often they take away the ‘offending’ ingredients and leave very little behind.
Longterm we want to help chefs to learn from each other and understand how different dishes can be adapted by taking away and swapping different ingredients. We will also work with restaurants to improve communication methods, looking at the possibility of users of the app being able to send a message direct to their chosen restaurant/food retailer to request their required dish so they don’t turn up only to be disappointed. We’d like to inspire and encourage chefs to be more creative in designing low allergen/intolerance dishes, experiment with flavours and be bolder with their menu items.
We also would like to see the App being used by hospitals, schools and staff canteens and we are looking to work with food retailers outside of the UK, including translating ingredients into different languages.
Long term we will be developing the ability for users to review food retailers.
We will be working directly with restaurants and food retailers to ensure that their ingredients data is reviewed regularly and stays up to date.
ANH: How can people get involved?
Nathalie: We are still beta testing with a small group, but hope to make the App available to early users within the next 3–4 months. If you are interested in becoming an early user, you can register your interest on the TreatOut website. We will be concentrating on the London area initially, but hope to be able to take this UK wide in a very short period of time.
ANH: Have you experienced any difficulties getting the concept accepted?
Nathalie: No, surprisingly. We thought we would, but as soon as the demo version of the App was available we had a huge amount of interest. We are talking to a large restaurant chain currently and are excited at the prospect of such large coverage at an early stage.
We are working closely with App users during the development phase to ensure that it meets the individual’s needs rather than us mandating how it works. We are also working with the restaurants and food retailers to ensure that the App meets their needs too.
ANH: What have been the biggest challenges so far?
Nathalie: Our biggest fear was that the restaurants and food retailers would not want to share their ingredients, but so far this hasn’t been an issue. App users will only see the names of ingredients contained in each of the dishes suited to their individual requirements. They won’t see for example if garlic is a paste, or powder, or indeed in what quantity it’s been added, so we won’t be giving away any secret recipe mixes.
ANH: What motivates you?
Nathalie: Getting the App up and running and being used by people who like to eat out, but find it incredibly difficult. I was unwell for a long time, being told that my symptoms were in my head, being treated with unsuitable medications. Having made significant changes to my diet and finding out what does (and doesn’t) work for me I’ve come to realise just how powerful food is in affecting our health, both positively and negatively. Since changing my diet I not longer rely on any medications, have lots of energy, rarely suffer from the muscle spasms that used to cripple me and have a clear head. I want to help other people who suffer in a similar way to me to be able to eat well outside of the home and enjoy food again. Food plays such a central role in our lives that we should all be able to enjoy food that energises us rather than makes us unwell.
We want restaurants and food retailers to realise that just because there are ingredients that don’t like us it doesn’t mean we aren’t still foodies and that we want to eat and enjoy good food. People with food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities want to be able to eat out and celebrate special occasions in the same way as their friends and relatives, but we don’t want to be seen as weird, that it’s just a fad or that it’s all in our head.
ANH: What’s the best meal out you’ve ever had?
Nathalie: I can’t remember the last good meal out that I had, however I’m really looking forward to eating at La Polenteria in Soho, an Italian restaurant that is certified 100% gluten free by the Coeliac Society UK.
ANH: Apart from the 14 ‘legal allergens’ (as set out by the EU), what other ingredients are considered as problematic by TreatOut?
Nathalie: Garlic and onions are at the top of the list of ingredients that commonly cause issues, particularly in individuals experiencing IBS.
ANH: What publicity has TreatOut received so far?
Nathalie: Very little. The main focus of publicity so far has been around the three people working in the business and myself as a role model for women in Technology. I have been featured in The Guardian and Forbes in regards to being a women only start up in the Technology field and how we are 3 Mums working from home to make the App available to everyone.
ANH: Will the App cater for other dietary preferences such as Vegans?
Nathalie: Yes, we would like to be able to cater for vegan, halal, kosher, vegetarians etc as well.
ANH: Any last thoughts?
Nathalie: We want to encourage chefs and food retailers to think outside the box when it comes to what they offer to people who suffer with food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities. We want to challenge them to create tasty dishes using restricted ingredients, so people like me can eat out and enjoy the food they are served.
At the moment TreatOut is being developed as a web application, but mobile responsive so it will be fully accessible from your smartphone via the browser, regardless of whether you are android or apple. Plans are for it to be developed as an apple and android app once initial build and testing has been completed.
This is an exciting new tool for those of us who have to deal with food allergies, intolerances or sensitivities on a daily basis, whether it be for ourselves or members of our family. Rather than being the ‘awkward one’ when going out to eat, you will know, in advance, that there is a dish you can eat and enjoy, that’s suits your particular dietary needs without having to play a game of 20 questions with the restaurant staff!