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The Big 3: Do You Know The Most Common Food Intolerances?

Trust20 Contributors

June 19, 2022

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It is more important than ever to understand what it means for people to have food allergies, intolerances, and preferences – particularly because the number of people diagnosed with food allergies and intolerances is steadily increasing each year.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) reported between 1997 and 2011, the prevalence of food allergies in children increased by 50% (Food Allergy Research & Education). As the number of people with allergies and intolerances increases, so does the number of order modifications the foodservice industry sees.

While an allergic reaction is an immune system response to a food, an intolerance reaction comes from the body’s inability to digest a food. Part of being able to safely serve people at risk for these reactions means being aware of the ingredients and substances that can commonly cause a reaction. 

Technically, it is possible for anyone to have a reaction to any food substance. In addition to the eight extremely common food allergies in the US population, food intolerance reactions are frequently caused by lactose, caffeine, and gluten.

Lactose Intolerance

Someone who is lactose intolerant cannot properly digest lactose, the main sugar in milk and other dairy products. People who are lactose intolerant typically have gastrointestinal symptoms that vary in severity – from minor discomfort to extremely unpleasant. Similar to food allergies, someone can be born with this intolerance or they can develop it later in life. It is also highly unlikely for someone to outgrow a lactose intolerance. 

Milk and other dairy products may be the immediate foods you think of as risky for someone who is lactose intolerant, but if a customer tells you they are lactose intolerant, you’ll want to keep an eye out for foods that include milk products as an ingredient. Lactose can hide out in baked goods, instant potatoes, salad dressing, candies, non-dairy whipped toppings, and some dry mixes for biscuits or cookies.

Savvy foodservice pros like yourself should make sure they read ingredient labels when serving someone who is lactose intolerant. MedicineNet notes that if you see whey, curds, milk by-products, dry milk solids, or non-fat dry milk powder on an ingredient list, those foods are not safe for a lactose intolerant person to consume. 

Caffeine Intolerance

Caffeine intolerance, or sensitivity, can be caused by a few different factors. One of the common reasons a person has a caffeine intolerance is because their liver can’t properly metabolize and eliminate caffeine from their system. Genetics may also play a role in this intolerance. 

If someone ever orders a decaf coffee from you, make sure you grab the right pot to serve them! There is no way to tell if your customer has an intolerance or an allergy – and absolutely no way to know how severe their reaction to a food substance may be. In addition to coffee, tea, and soda, caffeine can be found in some medications and supplements, candy, gum, and “energy-boosting” food products. 

Gluten Intolerance

Gluten intolerance, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, is used to describe when someone cannot properly process gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Gluten intolerances impact approximately 6% of the US population. Someone who has celiac disease or a wheat allergy may also refer to their condition as gluten intolerance to keep things simple in conversation. 

Wheat is the most common grain product found in the US, and is frequently found in pasta, flour, semolina, beer, and cereals. Most breads, crackers, and seasoning mixes are also off the table for people with any iteration of a gluten intolerance.

To sum it up…

More than 20% of the population in industrialized countries deals with an intolerance or allergy to food substances like lactose, caffeine, and gluten. While a food intolerance reaction may not be life-threatening like some food allergy reactions, the symptoms are still deeply unpleasant.

Common symptoms of food intolerance include:

  • Bloating and/or gas
  • Stomach cramps and/or pain
  • Headaches, jitters, racing heart rate
  • Irritability, nervousness, or anxiety
  • Nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea 

Foodservice workers can’t possibly memorize all of the foods their customers may be allergic or sensitive to. The best things you can do include: learning about the most common culprits, working to prevent cross contact with other foods, clearly communicating with all members of your team, and taking customers seriously when they communicate about their conditions.

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