Dietary requirements: Everything you need to know

By Luke Nicholls

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Allergy

Pay attention: Catering for dietary requirements can boost sales and increase customer loyalty, but you and your staff must be aware of the issues
Pay attention: Catering for dietary requirements can boost sales and increase customer loyalty, but you and your staff must be aware of the issues
As the first part of our special feature on dietary requirements shows, effectively catering for customers with food allergies and intolerances can help set your business apart from the rest, potentially increasing your bottom line. But with food allergies on the rise and a new set of Food Information Regulations looming, it is important you and your staff are fully aware of exactly what’s on your menu.

Whether it’s catering for customers with nut allergies, providing additional calorie information, or devising a separate gluten-free menu, it's important to understand exactly what these dietary requirements are and how you should approach them effectively and safely. 

Hopefully this fact file and selection of top tips from fellow business owners and allergy experts will help. So without further ado, here’s a list of some of the key terms and phrases that are banded around (but not always understood) in the world of dietary requirements. Let’s start with the basics…


Allergy – ​This may sound very basic, but it is important to understand the difference between ‘allergy’ and ‘intolerance’. A food allergy is a rapid and potentially serious reaction to food by a person’s immune system. The most common food allergies among adults are to nuts, peanuts and fish.

Intolerance – ​Food intolerances are more common than food allergies and are not life-threatening. The symptoms tend to come on more slowly, often a few hours after eating the problem food, with typical symptoms including bloating and stomach cramps. It is possible for a person to be intolerant to several foods, which can make it to identify exactly what is causing the problem.


Anaphylaxis – ​Anaphylaxis is an extreme and severe allergic reaction. According to the Anaphylaxis Campaign's website: “The whole body is affected, often within minutes of exposure to the substance which causes the allergic reaction (allergen) but sometimes after hours.” Common causes include foods such as peanuts, tree nuts (e.g. almonds, walnuts, cashews, and Brazil nuts), sesame, fish, shellfish, dairy products and eggs.

Coeliac disease (‘Gluten-free’) – ​Coeliac diseaseis not an allergy or intolerance to gluten, as Sarah Sleet of Coeliac UK explains: “It is an autoimmune condition which means that when the body is exposed to gluten, its immune system react to that gluten. It can affect any part of the body but the main response is in the gut. It’s a serious condition which, if not treated, can lead to death.” Gluten is most commonly found in wheat, rye and barley, and it is used as a food additive.


Nut allergy – ​A nut allergy is a hypersensitivity to dietary substances from tree nuts causing an overreaction to the immune system which can lead to severe physical symptoms. Tree nuts include almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, chestnuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, coconut, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts.

Peanut allergy – ​This is distinct from nut allergies, although both can cause anaphylaxis. It is listed as a ‘type 1’ hypersensitivity reaction to dietary substances from peanuts causing an overreaction of the immune system which in a small percentage of people can lead to severe physical symptoms. Ethnic foods and commercially baked items can be more easily cross-contaminated with peanuts, due to their more frequent use in these areas.


Wheat intolerance - ​This differs from coeliac disease as those suffering with a wheat intolerance will still experience adverse symptoms from gluten-free products. People with wheat intolerance may or may not be able to eat rye, barley and oats – so this would be best discussed with the customer prior to them ordering a meal.

Lactose intolerance -​  This is sometimes also referred to as dairy intolerance. It occurs when a person’s body can't digest lactose. Lactose is in milk and dairy products such as yoghurts and soft cheeses.


Soy - ​Soy allergy is more common in children than adults and is often outgrown. Avoiding soy in restaurants might seem pretty easy, but it isn’t just found in tofu and soy milk. Many fast-food restaurants, for example, commonly use soy protein in hamburger buns (soy flour), hamburger meat (soy protein) and hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) in sauces.

Vegetarianism - ​Moving from the ‘can’t eat’ to the ‘won’t eat’, Vegetarians encompass the practise of following plant-based diets (fruits, vegetables etc) with or without the inclusion of dairy products or eggs, with the strict exclusion of meat/fish.


Vegan - ​Dietary vegans eliminate all animal products from their diet as above, but also no dairy products or eggs. So, no meat/fish/dairy/eggs or products containing animal elements or involved in a process involving the use of animal products. Honey is also avoided.

Raw veganism - ​A diet which combines veganism and raw foodism. It excludes all food of animal origin and all food cooked above 48 degrees Celsius. There are many different versions of this diet including fruitarianism, juicarianism and sproutarianism


Macrobiotics -​ This is a dietary regime which can vary from person to person but usually involves eating grains as staple food supplemented with other foodstuffs such as local vegetables avoiding the use of highly processed or refined foods and most animal products.


Top Tips: Is your business getting it right?

Having already heard from operators large and small about their work in this area, BigHospitality has spoken to a number of industry experts for advice and guidance when it comes to enhancing your allergy-free offering.

  • Start with the basics. ​“Review your existing menu," says Caroline Cooper, founder of Zeal Coaching. "You may be surprised to identify a number of dishes already on your menu that will meet certain dietary requirements such as those with no dairy produce, or wheat.”
  • Avoid cross-contamination​. Anna Holt, a nutritionist for hospitality purchasing experts Pelican Buying, explains: “It is really important to make sure utensils are washed between uses, and that food preparation areas are kept clean and separate.”

Maureen Jenkins, director of clinical services for Allergy UK, adds that cross-contamination is not exclusive to the kitchen. “Waiting staff must clean tables properly,” she says. “Sometimes, good old hot soapy water is just as good as these other cleaning gadgets – basic hygiene is critical.”

  • Staff training.  ​Anaphylaxis UK advises that restaurants, hotels and pubs should organise a staff training session on allergies. “Make sure that all new staff members (including part- time and casual staff) are aware of serious allergies and know how to handle a customer enquiry.”

Sarah Sleet, chief executive of Coeliac UK, points out that it is just as important to train your customer-facing staff. “The classic mistake is when the front-of-house talks to the customer and it doesn’t get translated properly to the back of house.” – A good EPoS system can help here.

Juliette Joffe, co-founder of Giraffe, agrees. “The front-of-house is equally, if not more important,” she says. “They're the ones who are serving the customers. If a customer asks them a question, they have to be able to answer that question with confidence.”

  • Promote your ‘allergy gurus’. ​If any of your staff have first-hand experience, enlist them as your dietary champion. As hospitality business consultant Liz Allan points out: “With every shift you just need to have one or two people that can be seen as the ‘gurus’ of the shift. There should always be at least one staff member on duty who has access to accurate ingredient information. Staff with any quiries can then go to that person for help.”
  • Stay up-to-date. ​If you change your menus or add new dishes regularly, make sure your front and back-of-house staff are aware of the changes with regards to allergens, food intolerances, dietary requirements etc.

Jenkins from Allergy UK says: “If you’re really serious about it, you can prepare a book, or a guide, which lists the ingredients in every dish you prepare. It can be a lengthy procedure, but once you’ve got it set up, it’s only a new dish that requires any additional work.”

  • Speak with your suppliers. ​You should be working closely with suppliers to make sure they are supplying you with ​accurate written details about all ingredients, including any planned changes. “Try to avoid the indiscriminate use of nuts, e.g. chopped nuts as a garnish, unless this is an essential part of the recipe,” advises Anaphylaxis UK.
  • Never guess. ​Listen carefully and sympathetically to any customer who asks about ingredients. Take the enquiry seriously and tell the truth about what’s in a dish. If you don’t know or aren’t sure, never guess. Business consultant Allan adds : “If  you don’t know, just be honest - the customer would appreciate your honesty and you’ll avoid getting into a really difficult situation.”
  • Shout about it. ​Advocating what you do for those with intolerances, allergies and dietary requirements will almost certainly help with your brand image as it reinforces the high levels of customer service, as well as giving you the edge over the competition. Having separate online menus is an effective way of doing this.

Include a prominent statement on the menu encouraging customers with severe allergies to question staff. For example, this could state: ‘Some of our dishes contain nuts. If you are allergic to nuts, please ask what dishes would be suitable for you to eat.’

Read and view all of our content on dietary requirements here.

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