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.


Making the right choices over Christmas turkey – and nut roast

Photo by Jeffrey F Lin on Unsplash

I have worked in the catering industry for over 30 years. I have experienced busy kitchens during the festive period and the frantic preparations both in the kitchen and front of house. I have managed a very busy catering team and completely understand the last-minute bookings, the stress of organising functions during busy periods of the year. I recognise that the increasing numbers of customers with specific dietary requirements adds to the stress and makes everything more complicated …

However my own daughter started to react to certain food groups at the age of 14 years old. Her dietary needs changed considerably and if she ate the wrong food, she was very ill. She is now 20 years old and does not want or expect special treatment, she just wants to eat out safely with family and friends. My perception of allergen management changed, I now provide advice, training and support for food businesses and I can offer a unique perspective as a professional caterer and parent of a young adult with food allergies.

As a caterer during the festive season, the days of offering a nut roast and a menu with limited options have long gone. In today’s world if you provide a nut roast on your menu, you will be required to declare all the allergens (nuts) in bold for that dish and for each dish on the menu. The chef will also need to prepare the nut roast in a separate area to reduce the risk of cross-contamination, or better still eliminate the risk and take it off the menu! It’s just not worth the risk as many nut allergy sufferers will react immediately if nuts are present (airborne allergy).

The menu options today for vegetarians will include a wide range of fresh, tasty vegetables and pulses which may also be suitable for guests with food allergies. Although a word of warning – the current trend for plant based vegan food will offer a wide range of options, however as peanuts are part of the legume family, we are already seeing an increase in allergies to lentils, chick peas and peas.

What about a traditional Christmas dinner? The stuffing in the turkey, the gravy, the pigs in blankets, are they gluten free? Milk/lactose is often a hidden ingredient, what was used on the honey glazed carrots just honey or is melted butter added? Brandy butter sauce, sulphites in dried fruits – is it even safe to go out for Christmas dinner if you have a food allergy?

In order to ensure that all your customers feel confident and relaxed whilst dining in your restaurant you must listen to your customer’s requests during the booking stage. 

  • Make notes in the booking diary and communicate to your team. 
  • Reassure your guests that you can cater for their dietary requests and talk to them about their allergies. 
  • Ensure that the chefs and restaurant manager always ensure that a pre-service brief is held before each service. 
  • Good communication is vital so that the chefs and FOH teams work together and follow strict allergen procedures.
  • If using temporary staff during the busy period, ensure that they have had some allergen training as if an incident occurs, your reputation is at stake as well as the health of the customer.
  • Plan the Christmas meal carefully and check the ingredients. Many stocks and sauces are now free from the #top14allergens. 
  • To reduce the risk, eliminate as many allergens as possible from the ingredient list. Cook meals using fresh ingredients. 
  • Ensure that the allergen file is accurate and up to-date. 
  • Alternatively use an electronic recipe management system which can be updated immediately if any ingredients change.
  • Ask yourself- If I have an allergy “Can I eat here?” Can recipes be adapted easily to suit a range of dietary requests.?
  • Do you have strict allergen procedures in place to reduce the risk of cross-contamination as far as possible? A busy working kitchen is not a sterile factory environment, but with care and planning the risk can be reduced.
  • Talk to your customer and be honest. Understand the severity of their allergy and respect their decisions. A customer with a severe, life-threatening allergy is depending on you to provide food which is safe for them to eat. 
  • Try to put yourself in your customer’s position. They don’t want to make a fuss; they just want to enjoy the occasion and they need to trust you- remember it’s not their fault!!

Food Safety Management and Food Allergen Management must be part of the culture – “It’s what we do around here”.

This is not something extra, this is part of the daily routine to ensure that our customers with dietary requests feel safe and confident. Pre-planning, communication and excellent Food Allergen Management procedures will ensure that the busy catering festive season will be successful.  

Have a very busy, stress-free, safe Christmas and New Year!

Why Choose Allergen Accreditation?

Photo by Florencia Viadana on Unsplash

The team at Allergen Accreditation has recently spearheaded a campaign which was twofold. The aim to increase Allergen Awareness whilst raising funds for the Anaphylaxis Campaign.

The background behind the campaign was that Senior Allergen Advisor and Business Owner of JACS had previously led her team to remove one of the key 14 allergens from their diet in order to “Step in My Shoes” What is it really like to live day to day with any type of allergy? How difficult is it to eat out, shops, cook? The Free From community supported our campaign and took to Twitter and Instagram to share our campaign.

Recent incidents in the press have highlighted the difficulties of eating out with a severe food allergy. Participants of our campaign reported a lack of understanding within the industry. Many customers who plan to eat out in a restaurant will ring in advance quizzing the person who answers to phone. The response to these questions asked will affect whether the customer will book a table in that establishment or not.

Customer “I am ringing to find out if you can cater for my allergies” 

Restaurant “Oh yes, of course, we do all the allergies ???!!”

Customer “Thanks I’ll leave it this time”

There must be a quicker more reliable way to check whether restaurants are on the ball when dealing with their Allergy customers … well of course there is Allergen Accreditation.

This robust audit scheme will ensure that the food business has willingly undertaken an in-depth audit of their business from the suppliers at the back door through to the food served on the plate.

The framework provides the caterer with the opportunity to work through the audit scheme and question their own suppliers, recipes, training and communication process. This will highlight any areas that need improving and once accredited the business can celebrate in the knowledge the customers with food allergies will be treated properly and the food will be safe to eat.

The scheme needs to be publicised widely in order that the customers who would benefit, start to demand that food businesses can provide proof of their ability to cater for them. The Free From customer will feel safe and the restaurant will benefit from repeat business.

The auditors who carry out the process are Senior Allergen Advisors and are very knowledgeable and skilled in this area. They will scrutinise the standardised recipes and ask the teams questions to check their understanding of the process. Suppliers need to provide full disclosure of all allergens and we recommend breaking down the gluten into each specific identity eg rye, wheat, barley need to be identified individually. The methods of communication are also highlighted and the team recommend pre-service briefs from the chef direct to front of house staff.

Once accredited the Senior Allergen Advisor will present the certificate to the team. This is valid for 3 years and should be proudly displayed to provide confidence to your customers that dietary requirements will be catered for.

See also: Allergen Services

Working with universities to raise awareness of allergens


I have been working with the fantastic catering team at the University of Wolverhampton to increase their awareness of allergens and to ensure that the students attending this university will be looked after whilst living away from home.

It has been recognised that university students with food allergies are a vulnerable group. Living away from home, often for the first time everything will be unfamiliar to them. Settling into new accommodation with new friends is difficult enough but suffering with a potentially life-threatening food allergy is a challenge. Peer pressure, not wanting to feel different, Mum’s not cooking and shopping for the student anymore and trying new food and drink are all adding to the problem.

Luckily catering departments at Universities are very aware of the problems and are providing safe food for their students.

The University of Wolverhampton catering team led by the commercial service manager Amanda Shipley and her managers David Robinson and Stuart Rutty have recognised that their students with allergies deserve a consistently good food offer which is safe for them to eat. They had an in-depth rigorous audit to check their Allergen Management policies and procedures and were successful in achieving Allergen Accreditation status which is valid for 3 years.


David Robinson, the catering manager led his team through the audit making changes to his allergen management procedures as required. David was very keen that the team understood the need to ensure that the procedures were understood and the reasons behind them.

I was invited to return to Wolverhampton for the first of three Allergen Awareness Workshops. I present these in a relaxed group of team members with a mix of presentation, video clips and interactive activities. The group found it very interesting and learnt new facts .

I asked the group when we had finished to write down 3 things they had learnt from the session and 3 things they were going to do differently.

I was really pleased with the responses as clearly the groups had found the information interesting and they were going to put into practice some of the advice I had given.

What’s in the pots?

When the 1st day of workshops had finished I was delighted to receive great feedback from David:

“Really great day today, scary knowing that the actions we take can potentially cause loss of life; all food handlers must do this course. Jacqui is really good at putting across this point”

Other members of the group had told me that they were now going to take some of the lesser known allergens seriously as they hadn’t realised that they could also result in Anaphylaxis.

Food allergies, as we know, are on the increase and schools are reporting more complex multi -allergen-free diets in children.

If you have read this blog and are interested in the workshops or you want more information on the Allergen Accreditation scheme then please visit my website for more information . The workshops can be tailored for any audience .

“The more we learn, the better we cater”