Intolerances and Allergies: understanding the differences

Photo by Lidye on Unsplash

The food-hypersensitive consumer includes people who have food allergies, food intolerances and coeliac disease – which have all seen a significant increase in cases over the last few years.

An allergic reaction occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to a particular substance (allergen) as if it’s harmful. Food allergens are generally harmless to most people, but when a person develops a food allergy the body reacts. Reactions can vary from mild – such as a rash, stomach-ache, and vomiting – to more severe reactions such as swelling of the throat and mouth, or an anaphylactic reaction which requires immediate attention. Allergic reactions happen immediately after eating, drinking or, for some sufferers, even simply touching the allergen.

A food intolerance, however, refers to a difficulty digesting certain foods and having an unpleasant physical reaction. Reactions can vary from mild, such as bloating or tummy ache, to more severe gastric cramps or vomiting that may last a couple of days. Contrary to an allergic reaction, an intolerance reaction usually happens a few hours after eating the food.

Coeliac disease is a severe intolerance caused by the immune system attacking and damaging the gut when food containing gluten is consumed. It is an autoimmune disorder primarily affecting the small intestine which can result in long-term health issues, such as the body not being able to absorb the nutrients and vitamins from the food. Like other food intolerances, reactions will occur soon after eating food containing gluten.

Food allergies can start at any age, and whilst children often grow out of allergies such as eggs and milk, some allergies can continue into adulthood. Conversely, allergic reactions can start unexpectedly as an adult. In any case, for an allergy sufferer is very important to eliminate any allergens completely from their diet. 

There is no medication to ‘cure’ food allergies, only to calm down symptoms; antihistamines for mild allergic reactions and AAI devices to stop anaphylactic reactions, which are serious and life-threatening. Once allergens have been identified, it is important to understand the severity of the reactions and plan meals that eliminate the relevant allergens completely from the diet. 

Sometimes children can be encouraged to tolerate certain allergens under strict medical supervision to build a resistance to the allergy; this is common with milk allergies and the process is known as the “The Milk Ladder Challenge”. This approach is taken because mild allergic reactions in childhood could become more severe in adulthood, so the idea is to try and treat it early.

Food intolerances are often misunderstood, with assumptions that food intolerances do not cause unpleasant reactions and sufferers being mistaken for ‘fussy eaters.’ Sometimes a food intolerance sufferer can slowly re-introduce the food in very small amounts to try to encourage the body to accept the food again. 

The food hypersensitive consumer is not a passing trend; the numbers are increasing, and the list of dietary requirements is becoming more complex.

If we understand the issues faced by this consumer group and listen to their needs, we will be in a much better position to provide suitable menus which are safe and varied enough for them to enjoy.

How to Integrate Allergen Management into your hospitality business

To operate a successful catering business, it is essential that food allergen management is intrinsically linked to the Food Safety Management System and HACCP documents. It must become part of the day to day operations and form part of the culture:

 “It’s what we do around here” 

The minute this becomes something extra, an additional task is when it will be forgotten, and the mantra becomes “it’s not important”.

We know however, due to recent tragic cases that it is vitally important to understand how allergen management processes and procedures will ensure that customers with allergens can eat safely and with confidence in your establishment.

Training for all staff will provide them with the knowledge and confidence to understand the logic behind allergen management. A good starting point is to ensure that all staff complete the online FSA training. This training will provide the basic knowledge for new staff during their induction. 

I would suggest that supervisors, team leaders, chefs and managers undertake a formal training course such as Highfield Training HABC Level 3 Allergen training. This will further develop their understanding about the practical implementation of allergen procedures. 

Online training options are now available –please get in touch

Allergen Awareness Workshops

The advantage of a group training session is that this will create discussion points and provide further information for the attendees that they would not have learnt via an online course. A practical allergen awareness workshop or presentation will also ensure that catering staff have the opportunity to ask questions and encourages discussions about how to manage allergens in the workplace. 

This will of course be available when Covid restrictions allow.

Independent Allergen Audits

In order to reduce cross-contamination it is necessary to walk around the kitchen and assess the current risks. This can be done in-house or an independent auditor can be used to undertake a full allergen audit with the risks and recommendations outlined.

The review of the kitchen processes must begin with the supplier and delivery of products. The supplier must provide full disclosure of allergens present in the product. The chefs must check the products and ensure their recipe specifications are updated and matches the allergen matrix. The Allergen Matrix can be downloaded from the FSA website and will highlight all the allergens present in each dish. Technology has also provided the opportunity to use apps, online recipe management systems and other system. The staff members must have access to the information in a format they can understand.

Storage areas must be organised in such a way that any allergen foods-peanuts, almonds, sesame seeds etc must be placed in a sealed container with purple allergen labels to clearly identify the allergen contained in that container. Allergen labels should also be used in freezers and fridges on any cooked foods stored in these areas. This will ensure all staff using those products are aware of the ingredients contain within.

Once they have the confidence to eat with you, they will become a regular customer and they will tell their friends and talk about their experience on social media. It is important to take this subject seriously and get it right!

Any areas which may present a risk to the allergen management process should be included in the HACCP paperwork, to highlight and address any issues which may affect the end product.  This will ensure due diligence. 

Communication between the chefs and the front of house team must be part of the culture so the chefs can confirm the ingredients in the dishes and can advise front of house staff. Communication between the customer and the catering staff must be honest and accurate to any customers who ask about allergen content. They need to be in a position to make an informed decision about their menu choice based on the information provided by the caterer.

It is worth noting that customers with allergens are increasing – they are an important customer as they bring their friends and family to eat in your establishment. Once they have the confidence to eat with you, they will become a regular customer and they will tell their friends and talk about their experience on social media. It is important to take this subject seriously and get it right! 

Please get in touch if you would like further information