The vital difference between food allergies and intolerances

Millions of people have food hypersensitivities, which means they can have uncomfortable or even fatal reactions to specific foods.

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August 15, 2018 4 min read


Chances are, some of your customers are carefully watching what they eat, and not just for diet reasons. Millions of people have food hypersensitivities, which means they can have uncomfortable or even fatal reactions to specific foods. Students learning the culinary arts in Boulder will explore the many types of food hypersensitivities and how to handle them in their classes. Here, we’ll discuss how to keep your kitchen safe.

Food allergy vs. intolerance

Food hypersensitivities can be categorized into allergies and intolerances. Though they may seem similar, food allergies and intolerances are very different, both in terms of what causes the reaction and the type and severity of the reaction itself.

Allergies cause an immune reaction, in which the body recognizes the foreign substance (such as the proteins found in peanuts or shellfish) as a threat, according to Medical News Today. As a response, the body releases chemicals such as histamine, which can lead to a wide range of reactions like throat tightness, hives, swelling, coughing or vomiting, KidsHealth explained.

A person holds up a jar of milk.Dairy is a common food intolerance, but it shouldn’t be confused with an allergy to cow’s milk.

Allergic reactions can be mild in some cases, but very severe and even life-threatening in others. Even if a person’s previous reaction to an allergen was mild, there’s always a chance that the next one will be much more consequential. Additionally, people who have food allergies will likely experience a reaction after any contact with the food, even a tiny amount.

Intolerances primarily lead to digestive issues and are usually caused by the lack of a specific enzyme that’s needed to break down a particular protein. For example, lactose intolerance is caused by a lack of lactase, which allows the body to digest milk protein.

The effects of certain intolerances can be reduced with treatment; in the case of lactose intolerance, taking lactase pills or drinking lactose-free milk can allow someone to enjoy dairy without experiencing discomfort. Other intolerances, such as Celiac disease (an intolerance to the protein gluten, commonly found in wheat and similar grains) don’t have enzyme pills available to ease symptoms.

Common food allergies and intolerances

Knowing the most common food allergies and intolerances can help chefs develop menu items that can be enjoyed by most guests. According to HealthLine, the eight most common allergies are:

  1. Cow’s milk; this is different than lactose intolerance and usually doesn’t affect older children or adults.
  2. Eggs.
  3. Tree nuts, including Brazil nuts, almonds, cashews, Macadamia nuts, pistachios, pine nuts and walnuts.
  4. Peanuts.
  5. Shellfish, including shrimp, lobster, scallops, squid, crayfish and prawns.
  6. Wheat.
  7. Soy.
  8. Fish.

Meanwhile, the eight most common intolerances are:

  1. Dairy.
  2. Gluten; this is different than a wheat allergy.
  3. Caffeine.
  4. Salicylates, which are naturally found in some vegetables, fruits and honey.
  5. Amines;vthese are often found in fermented foods and include histamine.
  6. FODMAPs, which stands for fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols, referring to short-chain carbohydrates.
  7. Sulfites, which are commonly used as preservatives.
  8. Fructose.

Keeping your kitchen safe from cross-contamination

Developing a few menu options that are free of the above 16 common causes of food hypersensitivities is one way to make your restaurant or food business safe and enjoyable for all your customers.

Beyond that, keeping your kitchen clean and free of cross-contamination risks is essential. Remember, even a small amount of a protein that causes a negative reaction can have large consequences for someone with a sensitivity.

Follow these tips to keep your kitchen safer for all customers:

Use dedicated equipment for allergen-free ingredients

Boiling gluten-free pasta in water previously used to boil noodles that contain gluten can cause a negative reaction for someone with Celiac disease. Using dedicated equipment, such as a specific gluten-free pot for making pasta, reduces the chances of cross-contamination.

Wash surfaces and tools after exposing them to allergens

After you use a knife to chop up almonds, using it to cut onions could expose a customer to tree nut proteins. Wash cutting boards, knives and any other surface that touched an allergen after finishing that task.

Carefully store your ingredients

Accidentally dropping a few peanuts into your chocolate chips, or mixing up types of flours, can contaminate your ingredients. Keep allergens tightly sealed, carefully labeled and away from other ingredients.

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