Food allergies and food intolerances are not the same thing. A food allergy is a body’s reaction to a particular protein found in food. The reaction is generated by the body’s immune system attempting to protect it from potentially harmful substances.
Food allergies and food intolerances are not the same thing. A food allergy is a body’s reaction to a particular protein found in food. The reaction is generated by the body’s immune system attempting to protect it from potentially harmful substances. Most people can eat proteins found in food (such as milk, egg or soy protein) without a restriction. An allergic reaction occurs when the body does not tolerate these common proteins and the immune system makes antibodies against them. The results may be fatal. Food intolerance, on the other hand, is not a reaction to a protein and does not involve the immune system. A common intolerance is to a milk sugar called lactose. Some individuals with lactose intolerance may experience symptoms such as gas, bloating and abdominal pain. So why are so many people dealing with allergies and intolerances? Is it really on the rise?
The theories as to why we’re seeing more food allergies and intolerances vary. Some researchers say an increasing awareness is causing a spike in reports of allergies. Other scientists believe the reason for the increase lies in the way foods such as peanuts are prepared. Still others believe children are exposed to too few allergens in their youth and this denies them the “inoculation effect” enjoyed by kids who consume allergens in small amounts. Researchers suggest that a combination of consuming high amounts of similar foods on a regular basis, consuming food with preservatives, consuming foods with added food colourings, consuming foods with added flavour enhancers, the use of antibiotics during the care of livestock and the use of herbicides and pesticides in production of food are all playing havoc with our immune systems. According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology, peanut allergies in children increased twofold from 1997 to 2002. Health Canada has identified the nine priority food allergens, which include peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, soy, milk, eggs, fish including crustaceans and shellfish, wheat and other cereal grains containing gluten, and sulphites. With so much at stake and so many issues to manage – how do bakeries and restaurants mitigate the risk?
Staff training is imperative. Contact your public health organization to see if having a health-care professional come to speak to your staff as a group is a possibility. Cover the “dastardly nine” foods and ensure staff is familiar with the difference between an intolerance and a full-blown allergy. If you have sit-down service, train whoever takes the reservations or greets your customers to ask discreetly after any medical issues. Customers may not wish to have to explain in front of their entire dining party exactly what their medical concerns are. If there are any well-known allergens used as ingredients in your products, make sure the description on the menu or product signage clearly states “made with milk” or “may contain some wheat.” Icons that represent seafood, dairy, wheat, etc., will identify potentially problematic ingredients clearly and address any language or literacy concerns. Training should also cover storage and handling of allergens. A benign sugar cookie baked on a pan that just held a batch of peanut butter cookies is a ticking time bomb. Train your staff to clean all equipment and utensils thoroughly and to understand that even passing contact with a peanut can be deadly. In a few cases, people receiving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or a kiss from someone who’s just eaten a peanut have been killed by the exchange. The November 2007 issue of the Baking Association of Canada’s newsletter confirms that Health Canada is reviewing the use of “may contain” allergen statements on labelling of pre-packaged foods. The current regulations simply indicate that the precautionary statement on the label is voluntary in terms of indicating the presence of potential allergens. A variety of statements are used currently and not all of them effectively convey the degree of risk. The proposal aims to limit the options in terms of acceptable wording. The options proposed are 1. “may contain X”; or 2. “not suitable for consumption by persons with an allergy to X” (X represents the name by which the allergen is commonly known). The proposed changes also recommend that if a raw material has been labelled with a precautionary statement then this exact wording must be used as well on the finished product. While these proposed regulations only apply to pre-packaged foods, it stands to reason that consumers will come to depend on this information and they will conceivably demand that it be available for all the food they purchase. The Baking Association of Canada (www.bakingassoccanada.com) is a great resource for further details as well as the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) and Health Canada.
Food allergies and intolerances are more common than ever before. Whether it’s because of awareness or related to a genuine increase in the incidence, it’s clear that our customers are very serious about knowing what’s in their food. It’s time we put a little transparency on the menu.
Michelle Brisebois is a marketing professional with experience in the food, pharmaceutical and financial services industries. She specializes in helping companies grow their brands. Michelle can be reached at On Trend Strategies by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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