If you’ve ever ordered catering for a group of people, you know that dealing with people’s dietary requirements and restrictions can be more difficult that it seems. Sure, you know that gluten-free means no bread, but did you know that it means no soy sauce as well?
Keeping up with dietary restrictions that aren’t always your own can be a struggle, especially when you’re dealing with a team that isn’t static, in their choices or in their numbers.
Making sure that everyone has access to the food that makes them feel great is something that we’re continually striving for at Feedr, so we’ve written up a handy cheat sheet when catering for dietary requirements from intolerances to allergies, including pitfalls to avoid and safe options to go for.
Dairy products are anything that has been made with cow’s milk, including milk, yoghurt, cream, butter and cheese. They are often something we have difficulty processing, with about 65% of the global population experiencing some form of lactose intolerance past infancy. There are many reasons people avoid dairy products, from people who just avoid cow’s milk and prefer a plant-based alternative, to those who experience lactose intolerance or have a dairy allergy. Lactose intolerance is a reaction to a certain enzyme (lactase) that exists in dairy products, which the body sometimes cannot digest properly, whereas a dairy allergy is caused by an allergy to a specific kind of protein – often whey, casein and albumin.
It’s really important to discuss the specifics of people’s dietary requirements surrounding dairy, as consuming dairy can result in responses with varying levels of severity. Some people experience only gastrointestinal issues as a result of their lactose intolerance, but a dairy allergy, like other allergies, is an autoimmune issue and as such can cause fatal anaphylaxis.
Items to Avoid
Although the most common type of milk in the UK is undoubtedly cow’s milk, other types of milk such as goat’s milk, sheep’s milk and any other animal can also trigger responses in people who are dairy free. Although straight goat’s milk isn’t often on the menu, it often does crop up in different types of cheeses, which are rarely suitable for a dairy free diet.
Lacto-Free products are products made from cow’s milk that have had an enzyme added to circumvent the effects of lactose, so while they are suitable for people with lactose intolerance issues, they aren’t suitable for people with dairy allergies.
Milk Powders and Proteins
If you’re catering for a dairy allergy, it pays to be super attentive to labeling. Milk Powders are often included in items you would assume are dairy-free. For example, it’s often included in gravy mixes or sauces as a thickening agent, and is part of the mix used for flavouring on crisps.
Meats can also include unexpected milk proteins, which are the triggers for those with dairy allergies. Items such as canned tuna, deli meats, hot dogs, salami and sausages have all been known to contain milk proteins as a filler and extender. If you’re dealing with a dairy allergy, it’s always best to develop a communicative relationship with your catering service and vendors, so you can ensure that you know where dairy might slip in, and how to avoid it.
Gluten is a naturally occurring protein found in various types of wheat, barley, rye and other grains. An issue consuming gluten can be a very difficult dietary restriction to cater to, as grains such as these have been a staple crop for centuries, with 15% of the world’s caloric intake coming solely from wheat and wheat products. It’s often put into other foods because it’s great at binding food together and adding protein, shape and texture to products, so there are plenty of hidden sources of gluten to be aware of.
Gluten-Free vs Celiac
Much like the difference between lactose intolerance and dairy allergy, there are different levels of food restrictions when it comes to gluten.
A gluten intolerance is when someone has difficulty digesting gluten, often resulting in gastrointestinal issues that can be as bad as food poisoning. However, there are naturally different levels of gluten sensitivity, which is key information to understand about individuals when you are catering for them.
Celiac disease can present like a gluten sensitivity, and gastrointestinal reactions are similar. It is an autoimmune issue triggered by proteins, which impacts the lining of the stomach and small intestine. Celiac disease can result in much longer-term impacts than gluten intolerance, from long-lasting rashes and insomnia amongst other symptoms. Celiac is more severe than gluten intolerance long-term as gluten is cumulative, so even if you only eat small amounts of gluten, they add up in the body and result in extensive damage to the villi in the small intestine.
Gluten is most commonly found in products that utilise flour – so that includes all cakes, breads, cookies, pastries, biscuits, crackers and pasta products. Any product that uses flour, will also contain gluten, which unfortunately takes a lot of food off the table. Over the past decade there’s been a massive increase in the availability of flour alternatives such as almond flour, and gluten-free baking has made leaps and bounds. This means that many of these are no longer off-limits to gluten free eaters, but it’s always best to only consume ones explicitly labeled as gluten free.
Items to Avoid
Wheat is one of the primary ingredients of soy sauce, which makes this something that people with celiac should definitely avoid. If you have a gluten intolerance that is fairly mild, you can sometimes consume soy sauce as it only has relatively minor amounts of gluten that are consumed in smaller amounts. However, if you’re in charge of catering to people with gluten issues, it’s always better to err on the side of caution and double check if soy sauce is an ingredient in marinades or sauces.
There are great gluten-free options for soy sauce lovers, as tamari is made without wheat. Tamari is very similar to soy sauce, as both are the byproducts of fermented soybeans, but it has a richer, darker colour and a less salty flavouring, which you may even prefer!
Grain is a key ingredient in brewing beer, and of these grains barley, rye and wheat are the most popular. So it’s not surprising that beer, which is basically liquid bread, is a no go area for people avoiding gluten. Beer can contain a varying amount of gluten, depending on brewing tactics and ingredients, and depending on which type of beer you go for. For example, an Ale contains almost 10x the amount of gluten in a Stout beer, so it’s difficult to predict the impact it can have. If you’re looking for drinks, beer is best avoided in favour of something else, or bring in some specially brewed gluten-free beer. In the same vein, all grain alcohol can cause issues, including scotch, bourbon and grain vodka.
In order to recreate the texture and shape of meat, many imitation meats utilise gluten. Culprit number one is anything made from seitan, which is pure gluten extracted from flour through a process of washing and kneading. Definitely not something you’d want to serve up to a gluten-free person.
If you’re looking for some gluten-free veggie options, there are plenty of vegetable based imitation meats, and lots of the brands accessible to us in the UK are already gluten free. The Beyond Meat range is gluten free, so it’s not to say that imitation meats are off-limits, but they are something to double check.
Other things to watch out for include instant coffee, corn starch, curry powders and other spices, hot chocolate, baking powder, food colourings and stock cubes. Sauces and soups can often be an issue for gluten intolerant people, as while flour is not technically part of the recipe it is very often used as a thickening agent.
Common Food Allergies
Nine out of ten allergies can be sourced back to only 8 foods, so these are definitely something to be wary off when catering for a large group of people. We’ve already discussed avoiding dairy and wheat as a dietary requirement, but here are the other major players so you know what to look out for, and what to specifically ask your caterer about.
One of the most common allergies in the world, nut allergies are often specifically triggered by tree nuts. Tree nuts are some of the most popular nuts, including almonds, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts and pine nuts. These nuts can be hidden ingredients, especially in items such as gluten-free cakes, which often contain almond flour as a flour alternative. Nut allergens can become an issue in office catering especially if you’re providing healthy snacks such as protein bars, granola, trail mix or flavoured coffees. Having a tree nut allergy doesn’t necessarily mean you must be allergic to peanuts – which are legumes, rather than nuts – but it does make it more likely. There are many hidden sources of peanuts, from dipping sauces, chocolate bars and granola bars, which often use a nut butter as a binding agent.
In terms of allergens, finned fish and shellfish are two completely different issues, but both are pretty common allergies to have and about half of the people who are allergic to one will be allergic to the other. Even if you’re not allergic to both, cross-contamination can be a major issue with seafood, so it’s always good to check. Fish allergies can be a difficult one, as about 40% of people with fish allergies experience them for the first time as an adult.
Some unexpected sources of fish include barbecue sauce, caesar salad (due to the use of anchovies in the dressing), worcestershire sauces and anything that may contain fish sauce, such as vietnamese dipping sauces like Nuoc Cham and Kim Chi. Another irritating source of fish is imitation fish like crab meats, which contains surimi, a paste made of fish and other agents, which means sushi might be entirely off the menu for those avoiding fish. Although vegetarian sushi exists, the possibility of cross contamination is pretty high, so it’s best to avoid or check in with your caterer to ask about how they avoid contamination in the kitchen.
Soy allergies, like most, are seen most often in children, but they can appear at any age and can be caused by eating foods that have been eaten with no issue previously. Soybeans are part of the legume family, alongside chickpeas, peanuts, lentils, kidney beans and others. While it’s rare for people who have allergies to peanuts to be allergic to soy, the opposite is not true, and those with soy allergies are often more sensitive to all major allergens.
Soy is a common ingredient in asian cuisines, so they may not be a great choice if you’re catering for a soy allergy. Common foods that include soy are miso soup, as well as foods that are completely made from soy such as tempeh, edamame (which are just soybeans in pods) soy sauce, tamari and tofu. Soy can often be processed into different forms as soy protein, soy flour and others, which can be a common hidden ingredient in various different foods so accurate labeling is very important.
Egg allergies are the second most common allergies for young children, but around 70% of children with an egg allergy will outgrow it by age 17. This is good news, as eggs are a very common ingredient in a variety of foods, and even foods labelled egg-free can contain egg proteins. Oddly, people can be diagnosed with an allergy to egg whites and yolks separately, but in both cases you should avoid eggs completely as it’s naturally nearly impossible to avoid cross contamination.
Mayonnaise, and many sauces or salad dressings, as well as breaded foods which often use eggs to ensure the breading sticks. Sweet treats such as baked goods, breakfast foods such as muffins and pancakes, marshmallows, frostings, marzipans, puddings and custards are all to be avoided as well. Although not all pasta and noodles contain eggs, many do, so it’s best to double check just in case.
Vegetarians follow a simple dietary rule – no meat.
Around 7% of the UK’s population identify as strictly vegetarian, with the data suggesting that the younger you are, the more likely you are to be a vegetarian. As such, this is one dietary restriction that has become increasingly easy to cater for, as restaurants have increasing access to great quality meat substitutes and put more thought put into creating fully rounded vegetarian meals.
There are many reasons to be vegetarian, whether you’re trying to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle or following a religious conviction. If you’re catering for a group that includes vegetarians, it’s a good idea to provide several options, especially since many people who do not identify as vegetarians still regularly eat and enjoy vegetarian food.
Vegans and vegetarians have similar diets, and are often done for similar reasons, but catering for vegans can be a bit more of a challenge. Veganism is not just eschewing meat, but involves avoiding all animal products and byproducts. This includes obvious things like all meat and animal flesh, regardless of how they were kept, animal products like milk and honey and animal derived products like cheese and butter.
Unfortunately there are many animal byproducts hidden in things that initially appear to be vegan, so it’s always best to double check labeling. Sweets, such as marshmallows and starburst are not vegan as they contain gelatine, which is a protein derived from collagen in cow or pig bones. Many red sweets contain a dye, carmine, that is not vegan as it is made from crushed beetles which give it that red pigmentmentation. Even sprinkles, seen on cupcakes and cookies, are not vegan due to the inclusion of gelatin and food dyes. As hidden sources of animal products are such a common ingredient and are often not obviously connected to an animal, it’s best to have an open communication with your caterer, who will have a greater understanding of what is vegan and what is not. If your caterer isn’t aware of all the pitfalls of veganism, it may be better to search one out with more experience in this area, so you can ensure everyone is catered for.
As the vegan diet becomes more popular, many vendors and restaurants have become used to catering for vegans, and so it’s easier and easier to provide delicious options. Always check in with your catering service to double check, and order things that are explicitly labeled as vegan.
Following a pescetarian diet is very similar to a vegetarian diet, but allows you to eat fish, which is often consumed only occasionally. Pescetarianism is a great choice for people who like a vegetarian diet but struggle to get all the key nutrients needed, as fish is a fantastic source of protein and vitamins. Pescetarians can be easier to cater for, as they often eat a mostly vegetarian diet, so providing vegetarian options also satisfies any pescetarians at the table. Providing fish options is a great way to cater for pescetarians, but it’s always best to consider who else is at the event – for example, if at an event there are two pescetarians but also two people with a severe shellfish allergy, it might be best to leave off ordering the shrimp platter.
There are also various religious restrictions surrounding food that can have a massive impact on what people can eat. While this isn’t a health issue in the same way, it’s very important to respect these religious differences and ensure that you’ve considered them when ordering food. It’s also important to consider the individual when dealing with religious dietary restrictions, as not every person who follows a religion keeps to the dietary rules, or they may modify them as needed.
Kosher food is that which is allowed under kashrut, the food laws of Judaism.
Keeping kosher involves avoiding certain types of meats – namely pork and shellfish, in favour of only eating seafood with fins and scales, or only eating land animals that eat grass.
One other major dietary restriction that exists in keeping kosher is avoiding eating meat and dairy together. This can be a troublesome one as it means that foods such as pizza, cheeseburgers and nachos can all be off-limits depending on their preparation.
Islam prescribes a set of dietary restrictions that are divided between what is halal (allowed) and haram (prohibited). There aren’t many foods that are completely haram, namely pork and alcohol, but there are other requirements involved in the preparation of certain foods, especially in the slaughtering of animals.
If you’re catering for a group that requires halal options, it’s best to choose a caterer that explicitly states that they follow these guidelines, or go for an option that avoids this issue by providing a meat-free alternative.
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