Whether you work in a small mom-and-pop restaurant or well-known fine dining establishment, it’s important for all food service workers to familiarize themselves with the nuances of food allergy versus intolerance. Some people assume these conditions are the same. While they share some similarities, however, there are stark differences between a food allergy and a food intolerance.
All types of allergies are characterized by an overactive immune system response to an otherwise harmless substance. Our immune system is a complex biological defense mechanism that protects against infection. When it detects a pathogenic bacteria or virus, it responds by sending white blood cells to attack the foreign invader and by releasing chemicals like histamines.
That’s how the immune system is supported to work, at least. People with allergies have a condition in which their immune system wrongfully targets substances, resulting in a symptomatic reaction. Someone with seasonal allergies may be allergic to pollen whereas someone with a food allergy may be allergic to peanuts.
So, just how common are food-related allergies? According to research cited by CBS News, roughly four percent of the U.S. population has a food allergy. That means nearly 324 million Americans suffer from this immune system disorder.
According to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), 90 percent of food-related allergies are caused by eight ingredients: dairy milk, eggs, fish, peanuts, shellfish, nuts, wheat and soy. However, more than 160 different food ingredients have been identified as potentially allergens.
A food intolerance has similar symptoms to allergies, but it’s a completely different condition. Someone who has a food intolerance isn’t allergic to the offending ingredient, nor does their immune system attempt to control the ingredient. Instead, the person’s body has trouble digesting and processing the ingredient as it should.
Statistics show that roughly one in four people globally have an intolerance to dairy. Known as lactose intolerance, it’s the most common type of food intolerance. A person who’s lactose intolerant lacks the enzymes to digest dairy sugar, resulting in stomach distress.
Symptoms of a food intolerance are typically milder than a food allergy. Both conditions may cause diarrhea, nausea, gas and vomiting. However, food intolerances are less severe. Furthermore, some individuals are prone to a life-threatening reaction to food allergens, known as anaphylaxis. This is why it’s important for food and beverage workers to take measures to protect customers from allergies.
Protecting Against Food Allergy in Food Service
Food service workers have a duty to help protect customers from food-related allergies. Neglecting a customer’s food allergy needs can mean the difference between life and death. Each year, dozens of people die from food allergy anaphylaxis. After consuming the allergen, their air passages swell to the point where they are unable to breathe.
Taking an allergen awareness training course is an invaluable step towards protecting against food allergy. Among other things, it educates food service employees on the appropriate way to handle food without contaminating it with potential allergens. If a customer informs you that he or she has a peanut allergy, for instance, you’ll need to keep that customer’s food away from all sources of peanuts, even peanut cooking oil.
Food service workers should also familiarize themselves with the appropriate procedure for dealing with an allergic reaction. If a customer is experiencing anaphylaxis, workers should call 911 immediately. At the same time, workers should ask the customer if he or she has an epinephrine injector to treat the attack.
While there’s no cure for food-related allergies, there are steps we can take to reduce the risk of attacks. Avoiding the allergen is the single most effective safeguard. Additionally, food service workers can educate themselves on this condition with an allergen training course.