Food allergies are becoming more prevalent and severe, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). More and more it seems that people, young and old, are developing allergies and intolerances to certain foods and ingredients. Some of these allergies can be life-threating, while others are “just” inconvenient, as they cause less dire symptoms that people still want to avoid. As a restaurant owner, you have a front row seat to the ever-evolving world of food allergies and sensitivities.
However, the problems of food allergies are particularly relevant in the restaurant industry where owners and chefs have to be aware of their customers’ concerns and address them with care. It has been described as a public health issue and it is time for restaurant owners to wake up and take notice. We’re not talking about palate-based or ethics-related preferences, like customers who are vegetarians or vegans by choice; rather we’re addressing serious conditions, like nut allergies and Celiac, the consequences of which can change one’s life in an instant.
Food Allergies vs. Food Intolerances
Because food allergies and sensitivities are a hot issue, the terminology related to this growing phenomenon is changing as well. There is a whole “free-from” movement, which dedicates itself to informing the public in general, and those in the food industry in particular, about the importance of offering foods that are free from allergens or sensitivity-triggering ingredients.
According to the Mayo Clinic a true food allergy causes an immune system reaction that affects more than one organ in the body, which can cause a variety of symptoms. Food allergies can be described as life-threatening, while a food intolerance – or sensitivity – is usually much less severe. People who are intolerant to certain foods or ingredients can usually eat small amounts of that item without dire consequences, while an allergen should be avoided at all costs.
With food sensitivities, a person’s body has a hard time breaking down the food and digestive problems ensue, for example, with milk intolerance the body can’t break down lactose, a sugar found in dairy products. Whereas eating food that you are sensitive to can lead to stomach pain, cramps, and nausea, the symptoms of food allergies include skin reactions like hives, swelling, and itching; as well as anaphylaxis, including difficulty breathing and wheezing; fainting, light-headedness, and dizziness; and, possibly – if an antidote like epinephrine or Benadryl is not administered quickly enough – death.
Understanding Food Allergy Triggers
Education and awareness – and measures to avoid food-related problems – are the keys to preventing allergic reactions in your restaurant. Take precautions now to avoid a disaster later on.
Of the myriad ingredients people ingest regularly, most food reactions are caused by what are known as The Big Eight: wheat, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, soybeans, eggs, and shellfish. As a restaurant owner, you must know the ingredients of all your dishes and – more importantly – of the pre-packaged items that you use as ingredients. Customers with food allergies must know what they are liable to put in their mouth when ordering a menu item; and you must know, as well.
With serious allergies, “cross contamination” is something to be strictly avoided; cross-contamination can happen when a small amount of a food allergen gets into another food accidentally. Since even a negligible amount of an allergen could cause an allergic reaction, it’s not enough, for instance, to just remove the slice of cheese from a cheeseburger (if someone is allergic to dairy); or to pick out the peanuts from a dish of pad thai. With allergies, mere molecules can kill. Restaurant equipment suppliers are now offering items like allergen safe cutting boards and kitchen tools (usually color-coded in purple), so that the preparation of food for customers allergic to gluten, peanuts, fish, etc., can be done exclusively with these tools to help prevent cross contamination between ingredients.
Full Disclosure is the Buzz Word
At this point, it is too late for restaurant owners to bury their heads in the sand and blithely ignore the needs of a growing segment of the population. Just as your restrooms should be wheelchair accessible, your menus – the ingredients of your dishes and the cooking processes – should be accessible to those with allergies and food intolerances. Full disclosure is the buzz word right now in the industry – you and your patrons will be happier for it. We will be expanding on the all-important subject of food allergies in the restaurant business in future blog posts, so stay tuned.