I have been reading a lot of articles and blogs about the great responsibility that a restaurant assumes when serving a diner with special dietary needs. I remember a time a when it was quite rare to encounter someone with a food allergy, especially a life threatening one; nowadays we serve tons of people with specific food intolerances and sensitivities, or just intense preferences. It’s kind of a lot for the restaurant/hospitality industry to handle; not all servers and line cooks have a vast knowledge of what foods contain gluten, or what a food allergy even is.
A lot of the frustration from the food industry comes from the vast quantity of diners who claim to be “allergic” to this or that, which seems to be much more than the 6% of the population who actually are. Here are some of the specific problems that diners may cite when placing a special order, and what these terms actually mean:
Food Allergies – A food allergy is a chemical response to a food on the body that generates an anaphylactic response. These reactions can be quite severe and can be life threatening if not treated immediately.
Food Intolerances – The most common food intolerance these days is to lactose, a sugar found in dairy products. When someone is intolerant to a food, that food will not digest properly in their system and will flush through the body too quickly without being broken down, causing extreme discomfort and usually diarrhea. Celiac Disease is very similar to an intolerance, and has a similar reaction when those affected consume gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, oats, and barley). Unlike lactose intolerance, the food does not simply pass through the system undigested, it actually damages the digestive tract which can lead to other food not being digested and absorbed properly.
Food Sensitivities – People with food sensitivities can generally consume small amounts of the food that “bugs” them. The reactions to sensitivities can range from illness similar to an intolerance to a general “icky” feeling. Common reactions include swelling of the hands and feet, nausea, and fatigue.
Of course your diners probably won’t go into deep detail about which issue they will have with the food in question, but it may help to know what some of the outcomes may be. Some restaurants have chosen not to take on the liability, for these special needs diners because the risks are so high, but no one likes turning away business. It doesn't look like the discussion about allergens will be going away any time soon, so it might be helpful to train your staff on the differences between these terms, so they can better help diners and protect the restaurant operator.
How does your operation handle special dietary needs?