Stop putting onions in everything

Allergens are a concern


(Collegian File Photo)

By James Mazarakis, Collegian Columnist

If you want a challenge, take a tour of the food selection at any University of Massachusetts dining commons and find a meal that lacks onions or garlic. Factor in apparent cross-contamination risks and you might be stuck with a waffle or perhaps a sandwich, if the onion slices at the deli counter aren’t spilled across the rest of the array of vegetables.

For most people, this isn’t a problem — onions are a popular ingredient in several dishes in countless cultural traditions. Many people will enjoy onions in several meals daily.

That isn’t true for everyone, though. Allium allergies are rare, but real. Even more common than allergies are intolerances to onions. This fact is no deep public crisis, but it illuminates a fascinating question: why is it so hard to find food without onions?

Most people wouldn’t eat a raw onion, but it can be prepared in a variety of ways, enabling countless onion experiences — caramelized, pickled, roasted or even cooked into bread. It has several health benefits and antioxidants, which ironically helps it fight other allergies.

This helps explain why the ingredient is so common in meals at all four dining commons. The “street food” section of dining halls frequently has bits or massive chunks of onion stirred in. Mexican food is almost certain to be loaded with onions. And while you can opt out of onions and garlic at the stir fry stations, it often takes picking chunks of onions out of adjacent vegetable bins.

To the best of my knowledge, my body’s reaction to onions can best be described as an intolerance, not an allergy. At worst, it’s an inconvenience for me. But what if it is more serious for other students? Shouldn’t we be more conservative with our use of onions? And besides, what other food gets to be in almost every meal without complaint? Even someone who hates onions by mere preference has a point that its ubiquitous-ness is unwarranted.

Onion overuse is not just a problem at UMass, either. The market for dehydrated onion powder, which has a long shelf life, is on the rise. As a long-lasting and inexpensive product, manufacturers put onion powder in several snacks and pre-prepared meals. It’s wildly popular in savory dry goods like potato chips, even if the flavor is not related to onions.

While allium is not as common as other allergens, like nuts, it is a testament to the difficulties of allergy control in a dining hall setting. Cross-contamination is a severe obstacle, with scoopers, knives and tongs being reused by the masses. Pans are usually rinsed before reuse, but that is hardly convincing to people with more serious allergies. UMass Dining tries to label their food and offer to acquire clean samples for people with food accommodations, and those are excellent steps. Still, those precautions can be time consuming when both students and dining hall workers alike are often rushing to get on with their days.

So, what should be done about the onion dilemma? Onions are a popular ingredient, so no one is advocating for an onion ban or taking favorite onion dishes off the shelf. Rather, I propose the dining halls tone down their onion use. It shouldn’t be used as an essential ingredient in every hot meal — there should be options for those who can’t or would rather not have onions on their plate. More, onions should be controlled appropriately in the same way as other potential allergens. Onion-lovers won’t be upset if one out of every five dishes didn’t have onions in it and for others, it would be a great relief.

It’s not just about onions, either. Until we find out why allergies have been on the rise, food allergen safety in heavily-used spaces is of utmost importance to a school of thousands of students, where any niche allergy has a chance of being found.

James Mazarakis is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]