Joanne’s story: living in Belgium with a nut allergy

I live in Brussels, Belgium with my husband and 2 children, Amber aged 4 and George 5.  We have been here 3 years and have another year to go. George had an egg allergy as a baby which he subsequently grew out of, but then went on to develop a mild allergy to sesame which was being managed by the NHS in the UK. We avoided all seeds and nuts as a precaution….he accidentally ate a breadstick containing peanuts where he went into anaphylactic shock nearly 2 yrs ago here in Belgium. We saw an allergy specialist in both UK and Belgium and prick tests show he is allergic to sesame, most tree nuts, pine nuts and sunflower seeds…

If I was to be honest, I just wanted to come home to England, but here we still are!

We have had a range of experiences living here in Brussels and travelling to other European countries which I thought other parents may find interesting/useful if they are planning a trip away.

French and Flemish (type of Dutch) is spoken here (Flemish in the North and French in the south and Brussels). English is understood and spoken to varying degrees across the country especially in Flanders and Brussels. All products have ingredients in both languages and occasionally English. I do not speak French or Flemish and have managed to get by with English and poor Spanish!

As Belgium is the land of praline chocolates; I do not trust any such product (either as chocolate on its own or chocolate biscuits, hot chocolate, ice-cream etc), labelled as containing nuts or otherwise. As with the UK, I do not buy any products made on the premises such as in bakeries or supermarkets (including sausages etc) due to cross contamination issues. Almond croissants are common here and sesame is everywhere.  I have yet to find a processed bread product that does not refer to sesame or nuts, the only products I do buy are processed tortilla wraps and pita bread. I have invested in my own bread-maker although it is difficult to find quality bread flour that is free from nuts and sesame.  All European countries need to comply with the European food labelling law but I tend to choose products that have a “may contain milk” or other allergen (not including nuts of course!) as I feel more confident that cross contamination issues with all allergens have been considered. As with the UK I don’t purchase any “artisan” products.

Fortunately as we live close to the UK, our car is fit to bursting on return trips from the Ashford Sainsbury’s. We are also fortunate to have a couple of stores in and around Brussels which stock British products such as Stone Manor and Homes Shop Abroad.

I have also learnt not to presume that a “safe” product in the UK is safe abroad. I bought some Quorn pieces the other day and noticed that the factory it’s produced in contains nuts, which is different from UK Quorn pieces. This was particularly annoying! It is also a surprise to see that some general cooking oils may contain nuts. For us, eating out is off the menu and likewise to treating the kids with ice-cream from ice-cream parlours. I tend to buy a box of ice lollies from the supermarket and treat the kids this way and when we return to the UK we feast in Pizza Express as  many times as we can!

My most anxious moments are leaving my son at school. He started his new English/French school a month after his allergic episode and it has been a constant uphill struggle to educate his teachers. I was finally invited to give a presentation this week to 50 teachers at the school and it was well received. There doesn’t appear to be nay national “every child matters” policy as there is in the UK. To be fair, it seems nut allergies amongst Belgian kids are not as common as the UK. I have been told that mustard and celery are common allergens in France and I find it fascinating that such differences exist in neighbouring countries. Epi pens are 50 euros each here, we have 2 at school and 2 at home,  but our health insurance (no national insurance here) covers about 70% of the cost. Piriton equivalent is about 10 euros a bottle.

I go through phases of whether I want to travel to other countries with my son due to my anxiety regarding his allergies, but we have been to Slovenia, Spain, and Portugal so far. We have found it easier to choose self-catering accommodation so we can prepare my son’s food although this means its not much of a holiday for me! Bread is the main issue and I have even taken frozen bread in my suitcase! We always take plenty of safe snacks to last the holiday and have discussed with my son that if he wants to experience travelling to new places he has accept that the food may not be very exciting. One day we couldn’t find any safe food, so resorted to my emergency tin of baked beans which he had to eat cold. We also take an emergency packet of freeze-dried “mountaineering” food just in-case. I then cook him everything he wants on our return home.

We have had issues with Mark Warner in Portugal where despite informing them at every opportunity about my son’s allergy (including talking to the chef), he prepared some rice crispy chocolate treats using unsuitable chocolate. It was only from my knowledge of living on the continent that made me question the chocolate and wanted to see the packaging. On inspection of the Belgian chocolate used, we noted it contained nuts. We have also purchased mini bread sticks in Spain which stated the ingredients on the packet, only to find them filled with sesame. I was also surprised to find that processed/packaged ice-lollies sold everywhere in Andalucia often stated that they may contain nuts.

Despite the extra challenges that living abroad creates, we are trying to live life to the full and are in the process of organising a 3 week camping trip through Germany and Switzerland this summer. I have decided that I am going to learn how to make unleven bread as fresh safe bread is always my biggest headache when travelling. My advice would be to take cereal, bread and plenty of snacks for the holiday, self-catering eases the eating out anxiety and to stay vigilant with all unknown foods and ice lollies.

French translation:

Groundnuts – l’arachide
Peanuts – cacahuetes
Nuts –  noix
Almonds – amandes
Sunflower – tournesol
Walnut – noyer
General nuts  – fruites de coque

4 comments

  1. Hi we are also in Brussels with my two sons ages 11 and 16 who have a life threatening allergy to all tree nuts and peanuts. We have had 2 anaphylactic episodes while traveling to Prague and Amsterdam. Amsterdam was great in containing it, Prague was not as good. The ambulance took forever, got lost on the way to the hospital and I was super stressed. Have you found a safe chocolate here? We are managing… thanks for your post. Ludmila

  2. Hello Ludmila…. Thanks for your message – 2 kids with anaphylaxis..that’s tough…thankfully my daughter doesn’t have any allergies…. Sorry to hear that you had 2 episodes whilst away – what triggered them? I haven’t found any safe chocolate here although I do allow my son to have mini smarties but I’m not 100% confident. I struggle to find chocolate in the UK too but go with Cadburys chocolate buttons although they are no good for melting or cooking with. I have just found Dr Oetker’s chocolate in the UK and is safe as emailed the Co. Can’t vouch for buying the same brand if made here. Stone Manor sells it and Carburys choc button…at a premium. Where do live in Brussels….I can always buy a stash of it when I am back in the UK – usually every few months. I am going back for a super-shop in Sainsburys at end of October… I’ll have to pick your brains on how you deal with the lack of understanding in schools here and how you relinquish control as they head into the teen years.. best wishes and have a good week…Joanne

  3. Joanne –

    Thank you for posting your story. My family is going to be vacationing in Brussels in a month or so, and our oldest daughter is allergic to nuts and peanuts. Though we are prepared to make most of our food before going anywhere, do you have any experience with eating out in Brussels or just Belgium in general? Should we be concerned about having her eat frites or other local foods(your mentioning of nuts in oils is particularly scary)? She doesn’t like chocolate, so we’re safe on that one. We will be visiting family living there, so we are feeling pretty safe overall, but our biggest concern in traveling is her allergy, and only those who live this lifestyle truly know about the challenges. Any local knowledge would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks again!!

    Ry

  4. wow, thank you for your translations in french. I was only looking for noix and not all the other translations for different nut products.

    I really appreciate (you might have saved my life)

    Best,
    Alicia

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