All you need to know about Food Allergies

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One of the most important and critical points for a food and drink business is food allergies and the way they deal with them. You must have already been aware that customers in a number of food businesses have lost their lives from consuming food that had a food allergen that they were not supposed to have.  

Famous brands have been under fire and several business owners have faced imprisonment and huge fines for causing peoples’ deaths because they did not follow the right procedure with the food allergies.

You and your staff need to be really knowledgeable and cautious when it comes to food allergies. Therefore, lets go through some very important information on this subject.

The difference between intolerances and allergies

Physical reactions to certain foods are common, but most are caused by a food intolerance rather than a food allergy. A food intolerance can cause some of the same signs and symptoms as a food allergy, so people often confuse the two.

A true food allergy causes an immune system reaction that affects numerous organs in the body. It can cause a range of symptoms. In some cases, an allergic food reaction can be severe or life-threatening.

In contrast, food intolerance symptoms are generally less serious and often limited to digestive problems.

If you have a food intolerance, you may be able to eat small amounts of the offending food without trouble. You may also be able to prevent a reaction.

Rates of food allergies and intolerances vary across the world. In the UK, an estimated 2 million people are living with a diagnosed food allergy, and 600,000 (1 in 100) with coeliac disease. These figures exclude those with food intolerances such as lactose intolerance.

Food intolerances

Most people can eat foods without any problems although they may have different likes or dislikes that influence what they choose.

However, some people react to certain foods and eating them may cause uncomfortable symptoms or, in rare cases, a severe illness.

There are many reasons for unpleasant reactions to food. A general term for those that are not caused by food poisoning are food intolerances.

A food intolerance is difficulty digesting certain foods and having an unpleasant physical reaction to them.

Food intolerance is more common in children than in adults. Children often grow out of the intolerance before they go to school.

Most Common Food Intolerances

  • Gluten (coeliac disease) – the protein found in wheat, rye, barley and some oats.
  • Dairy (lactose) – the sugar found in all mammals’ milk, e.g. cow’s, goat’s and buffalo.
  • Yeast – bread and cereal products containing yeast, fermented or ripe foods, vinegar and salad dressing.

Symptoms from Food Intolerances

The symptoms of food intolerance tend to come on more slowly, often many hours after eating the problem food.

Typical symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Gas
  • Cramps or bloating
  • Vomiting
  • Heartburn
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Irritability or nervousness

Food allergies

Most unpleasant reactions to food are not true food allergies. A food allergy is one particular type of food intolerance that involves the body’s immune system.

Food intolerances may cause uncomfortable symptoms, but only true allergies involve the immune system.

The immune system is part of the body’s defence system, as it protects against foreign organisms like bacteria and viruses. In some people, they may also react to substances in foods, or in the environment, e.g. pollen or animal fur.

This response is known as an allergic reaction.

Causes of allergic reactions

Most foods may cause an allergy, the symptoms of which can be uncomfortable but when severe can be fatal. 

In the UK, the most common food allergies are to eggs, milk, fish, peanuts and tree nuts (such as walnuts, Brazil nuts and almonds). 

There are up to 10 recognised deaths from food allergies in the UK every year. 

Major allergens

Fourteen major allergens have been identified and will be highlighted on the label within the ingredients list.  They are:

Gluten: Can be found in wheat, rye, barley, oats, flour, baking powder, batter, breadcrumbs, bread, cakes, couscous, meat products, pasta, pastry, sauces, soups and fried foods which are dusted with flour.

Crustaceans: Including crabs, lobster, prawns and scampi are crustaceans. An ingredient to look out for is Shrimp paste, which is often used in Thai and south – east Asian curries and salads.

Eggs: Can be found in cakes, meat products, mayonnaise, mousses, pasta, quiche, sauces and pastries or foods brushed or glazed with egg.

Fish: Can be found in fish sauces, pizzas, relishes, salad dressings, stock cubes and Worcestershire sauce.

Peanuts: They are similar in taste and nutritional profile to tree nuts such as walnuts and almonds, and as a culinary nut are often served in similar ways in Western cuisines. 

Soya: Can be found in bean curd, edamame beans, miso paste, textured soya protein, soya flour or tofu, desserts, ice cream, meat products, sauces and vegetarian products.

Nuts, such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecan nuts, Brazil nuts, pistachio, cashew and macadamia nuts.

Milk: A common ingredient in butter, cheese, cream, milk powders and yogurt, which can also be found in foods brushed or glazed with milk, and  powdered soups and sauces.

Celery: Including celery stalks, leaves, seeds and the root called celeriac. Can be found in celery salt, salads, meat products, soups and stock cubes.

Mustard: In this category you can find liquid mustard, mustard powder and mustard seeds. Mustard can also be found in breads, curries, marinades, meat products, salad dressings, sauces and soups.

Sesame: These are seeds and can often be found in bread, breadsticks, houmous, sesame oil, tahini, and salads.

Sulphur dioxide: They are also known as sulphites. It is often used in dried fruit like raisins, dried apricots and prunes. It can also be found in meat products, soft drinks, vegetables, wine and beer. People with asthma have a higher risk to develop a reaction to sulphur dioxide.

Lupin: Lupin is basically a flower, which can also be found in flour. Lupin flour and seeds are mainly used in several types of bread, pastries and pasta.

Molluscs: These include mussels, land snails, squid and whelks. They can also be found in oyster sauce and as an ingredient in fish stews.

Food Allergy Symptoms

A food allergy is a rapid and potentially serious response to a food by your immune system. It can trigger classic allergy symptoms such as:

  • Rash
  • Wheezing and itching
  • Vomiting and/or stomach cramps
  • Hives
  • Shortness of breath
  • Repetitive cough
  • Shock or circulatory collapse
  • Tight hoarse throat with trouble swallowing
  • Swelling of the tongue, affecting the ability to talk or breathe
  • Weak pulse
  • Pale or blue coloring of skin
  • Dizziness or feeling faint
  • Anaphylaxis

Symptoms of a food allergy can range from mild to severe. Just because an initial reaction causes few problems doesn’t mean that all reactions will be similar; a food that triggered only mild symptoms on one occasion may cause more severe symptoms at another time.

The most severe allergic reaction is anaphylaxis — a life-threatening whole-body allergic reaction that can impair your breathing, cause a dramatic drop in your blood pressure and affect your heart rate.

Anaphylaxis can come on within minutes of exposure to the trigger food. It can be fatal and must be treated promptly with an injection of epinephrine (adrenaline).

How will allergens be listed on a food label?

The fourteen major allergens will be highlighted on the label within the ingredients list rather than in a separate box as has been done in the past.

The allergen could be identified in bold, highlighted, underlined or in italics.

The example below is for a basic Victoria sponge:

Eggs, wheat flour, butter, sugar, vanilla essence, baking powder

Did you know these interesting facts?

Dishes containing sesame include tahini and hummus.

Whey and casein are proteins in milk and therefore must be avoided by people with milk allergy.

Caesar salad dressing normally contains anchovies.

Peanuts are also known as groundnuts.

Satay sauce is made with peanuts.

Marzipan, praline, nougat and frangipane are made with nuts.

Pesto sauce can be made with nuts and also contains milk.

Learn how to communicate the allergen information to your customers

Firstly, you need to create a document which will have all your menu items and the allergens which are included in them. This can be easily created using an Excel sheet. You will add on the left vertical column, starting from the top to the bottom, all your menu items. Then, on the top horizontal line, you need to add all the 14 major food allergens.

Now all you need to do is to add a tick to all those boxes which indicate that a menu item has one or more food allergens. This is your Allergens Matrix, which is a must-have for every food and drink business. Never forget this: always update your Allergens Matrix when you change menu items or recipes!

Apart from your Allergens Matrix, all the allergen information must also be displayed highlighted on your menu and labels on food packaging, as described above. To your assistance, you can also use chalkboards and other signs to inform the customers for the existence of allergens in your items, prompting them to request more information, if they have a food allergy. A great tactic is to train your staff to ask all your customers if they have a specific food allergy, before they start ordering their food and drinks.

And now the most important point of all: never ever suggest an item and make a decision for a customer with a food allergy.


What you need to do is to provide them with all the available information you have, like your Allergen Matrix and your menu, and let THEM make the final decision about their order.

Do not take such a huge responsibility, because you may end up in unbelievable trouble, as it is an offence to provide inaccurate or incomplete information about allergenic ingredients used in foods. When a customer decides about their order, they are responsible for their choice, but this requires that you have followed all the right steps in the whole process.

One last thing: make sure as a minimum requirement that all your staff have a Food Safety certificate, regardless if they are working in the kitchen or Front of House. It is a must for the safety of your customers and your business to have well trained people working for you.