Who else feels all sorts of frustration when ordering a coffee nowadays? I never gave ordering a latte a second thought until I had a reaction three years ago because they didn’t clean the wand in between steaming my milk and soy milk. Before that I ordered hot chocolates, lattes, cappuccinos, you name the milky beverage I ordered it. I did always specify for whole milk to make sure they knew not to mess it up with soy, however, I never really took my allergy chat to the level it should have been until my reaction.
Then almond milk started showing up as an alternative and I got properly nervous about warmed milk. It’s funny now because I was worried about almonds and not soy, which I passed in an oral challenge, it should have been the other way around. Anyhow all of a sudden ordering my favourite macchiato felt too risky. If I do go ahead and order something with steamed milk, I make sure there aren’t a lot of people waiting for their coffee. I go over cross-contact with the barista and seriously hover as they make my coffee using a clean jug. (It’s always funny when you tell the barista that milk isn’t the problem all the other alternatives are).
When I posted something about this on Instagram the other week, I got a lot of responses from others feeling the same way. So I reached out to barista Steph Colbourn, who just so happens to be anaphylactic to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, and allergic to eggs, to clarify whether my steamed milk nerves are justified.
What to know about ordering coffee when you’ve got food allergies
What protocols are in place for ensuring kinds of milk aren’t cross-contaminated?
It differs across cafés and baristas, but at all cafés if you’re willing to wait a bit for your drink, the milk pitcher can be cleaned and rinsed so that there are no allergens present there. Similarly, the steam wand (that’s used to heat and froth the milk) is wiped down after each use, and periodically soaked in boiling water and then wiped again throughout the shift.
I’ve found at larger chains there is usually a milk pitcher for dairy and a separate pitcher for non-dairy (almond, soy, oat, coconut, etc.). So if you have a dairy allergy, you’ll be better there.
Other than the pitchers is there anything else that could contribute to cross-contamination when it comes to steaming the milk/mylk?
There’s definitely some stuff to watch out for. Milk splatters, drinks get spilled, and for me, there is a potential for cross-contamination by virtue of just being in the same space as almond milk.
More specifically, the steam wands that are used to heat up the milks are pretty difficult to clean entirely. After a few drinks, milk or dairy-alternatives will start to create a film around the wand (even if you’re super adamant about wiping them down after each use).
Usually, they are cleaned during a non-rush by soaking them in water and then scraping off the milk residue with the back of a spoon or a clean edge. Then they are wiped down again with a cloth.
The clothes are also a bit of a problem. As a barista, you use the cloth that’s in your station (one for the espresso basket, one for the steam wand, one for the counter, etc), so that means your steam wand has been wiped by a cloth that’s been in contact with multiple milks and multiple allergens.
How about the espresso part of the machine?
This part is pretty safe! There is a potential for milk to be splashed from the milk pitcher onto the espresso basket, but that is pretty rare. At the shop I work at, the baskets are often rinsed with hot water between uses and always wiped down with a dry cloth that’s used solely for this purpose.
What about cold drinks like iced lattes?
These are your safest bet! Cold brew is brewed outside of the espresso machine in a large vat. Iced lattes do use espresso, so there’s a small chance that there could be some cross-contamination from a splatter of milk or a barista accidentally using the wrong cloth.
What’s the safest drink to have?
Any drink that is pre-prepared is very safe (iced tea or cold brew). The next safest would be a plain espresso, americano or iced beverage. I don’t drink steamed drinks ever, but if you really want to, definitely explain your allergen and its severity to your barista. They can wipe down their station with a new cloth and use a new milk pitcher.
What is your coffee shop order?
Depends on the café. If their cold brew is good, it’s my go-to. Otherwise, I have a short espresso or a honey-lemon-ginger.
Check out Steph’s In the Kitchen where she shows us into her freezer and more!
Kortney is your typical atopic triad! She manages asthma, eczema, environmental and food allergies. Kortney is a co-creator of the online community Allergy Travels and co-host of The Itch Podcast. She wants to spread joy in a community that can easily see the hard side of life with atopic disease and believes that you can have a full life with food allergies, it may just be lived a little differently!