Updated: Dec 25, 2021
My name is Jenna Tso. I'm a 20 year-old student at the University of Toronto, studying psychology and criminology. I love food, helping people, true crime, photography, and exploring new places. I was born with an anaphylactic milk allergy, meaning that if I ingest milk protein, I can die from a serious allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis. In addition, I have intolerances to eggs, beef, and pork.
When I was born, milk allergies were not commonly known about like they are today and there were hardly any milk alternatives out on the market. My parents even had to order a special soy formula from England because of the lack of options in the US. Growing up in a small town in Oregon, I remember the sheer excitement of going to a grocery store with my mom and seeing a new dairy-free item on the shelves each time. I remember the first time I saw and got to try soy ice cream, the first time Tofutti started selling their dairy-free cheeses, and the first time I got to try an ice cream sandwich (it was by the brand Purely Decadent and I still think about it to this day). Although I was fully aware of my allergy and vigilant, I felt safe as a child and was never preoccupied with fear around my allergy. My parents went above and beyond to ensure I was always prepared with my medical kit and dairy-free food to bring with me everywhere I went. Looking back, I think it is amazing I hardly had any allergic reactions as a child. Yet, in just the last 3 years, I have had 3 reactions. This is how tsoyum was born.
Managing my allergies started to become more difficult once I hit adolescence. Between wanting to be cool, desperately not wanting to stand out, and being faced with more complex social situations, I began to have anxiety around food. For the first time, my parents were not the ones ordering for me at restaurants and firmly telling the staff about the severity of my allergy. In addition, I had developed some shyness and social anxiety, probably partially due to the fact that my family had moved in the middle of 8th grade to another state and I had extreme difficulty making friends. It was harder for me to speak up and be vocal about my allergy to others as a teenager than it was when I was a child. I would get so nervous to speak to the waiter about my allergy that if possible, I would make a close friend or family member do it instead. I would eat before every social event to avoid having to bring food and be seen as an "outsider" or "different." I would even make up excuses for why I couldn't take a sip out of my friend's drink or eat the chips in the bag that all my friends were eating from, fearing that if I told them the severity of my allergy and informed them of cross-contamination, they wouldn't like me. These difficulties escalated when I decided to move to another country and start university.
My first year of university, I lived on campus in the dorms. I had a single room with a mini fridge/freezer and a communal microwave on our floor. I was forced to purchase a meal plan for the dining hall, even though the dining hall was full of cross-contamination and dairy products. My meals most days consisted of potatoes I baked in the microwave, canned Amy's Kitchen soups, and cucumber sushi rolls from the dining hall. Although it was difficult, this was a year of so much learning for me. I learned how to live (relatively) on my own and be self-sufficient. I also learned what I have to do in an allergic reaction as I had my most severe anaphylactic reaction that year in March.
It was at my sorority's formal, which ended up being a sit-down dinner at an Italian restaurant. I was nervous being in an establishment with so much cheese but was reassured by the restaurant staff and executives in my sorority. Long story short, the "vegan" pasta was not vegan. I went into anaphylaxis and made several mistakes along the way, which could have cost me my life. I refused to administer my Epi-Pen on myself because I was scared, I refused to take an ambulance to the hospital to save money, and I went to the hospital with someone who didn't know me or understand the seriousness of my allergy. I got lucky, but I could feel I was extremely close to dying at one point. I had one of the most traumatic and painful nights of my life in another country, away from my close friends and any family.
From this point on, I viewed everything more cautiously. I understood the importance of carrying not one, but TWO Epi-Pens on you at all times because one Epi-Pen often isn't enough for milk allergies. I was no longer afraid to use my Epi-Pens on myself, having felt how excruciating an allergic reaction can be. I realized how serious my allergy truly was. I saw how little other people knew about food allergies in general and so many areas in society that could be improved in regards to food allergies, specifically restaurant protocols and the dining halls in universities. I became more vocal about my allergy to my university friends and ended up running for a Vice-President position in my sorority where I was able to lead an educational presentation on First Aid, including anaphylaxis.
It was at this point that I decided to start an Instagram, just for fun, around the food that I ate. I wanted to show people that it's possible to eat fun, delicious foods at home and elsewhere even if you have severe food allergies like me. The name "tsoyum" just came to me one day, as I was playing around with puns on my last name Tso (pronounced "so"). And tso, tsoyum began (lol sorry) in January 2018. Now, tsoyum has transformed into a platform focused on raising food allergy awareness by showcasing all the delicious foods you can eat even with food allergies in addition to sharing lifestyle tips, insight, and personal stories. I have had the privilege of volunteering at food allergy expos like the Free From Expo in Mississauga, Ontario and volunteering with organizations like FATE, Food Allergy Education and Training, to spread food allergy awareness and share my experiences with others. My goal is to one day be able to help people with allergies in a more formal capacity as a food allergy therapist, but for now, I am tsoyum.