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Allergies – reaction stations

10 July 2009
Allergies – reaction stations

Four in 10 people in the UK have an allergy or intolerance to food at some time, Caterer looks at how operators can accommodate sufferers and tap into a lucrative and growing market.

"The number of people with food allergies and intolerances is on the increase, and it's really important that chefs in the industry take note of it," says Chris Horridge, head chef of Waldos fine-dining restaurant at the Berkshire hotel Cliveden. "The supermarkets have ‘free from' aisles, offering alternatives for allergy sufferers, so there's obviously money in it, yet the catering industry is still behind the times on this. The chefs of tomorrow need to know about all these different conditions and how to cater for them."

Horridge, who has been pioneering healthy gourmet fare for 15 years, highlights the growing number of people suffering with food-related ailments. Currently, allergies and intolerances affect about 40%, of the population in the UK at any one time, though this is an umbrella figure that includes people with coeliac disease (a lifelong autoimmune disease triggered by eating gluten), allergies and intolerances.

For the catering industry, it's a daunting statistic and a situation which is sometimes misunderstood, as Horridge points out, "I'm sure that half the time when kitchens are told there's a coeliac sufferer in, they don't even know what that is."

But for diners with allergies, for whom eating the wrong thing can have dire consequences, it's a crucial consideration when choosing a restaurant. Those places that competently and happily cater for them will be rewarded with business and, importantly, customer loyalty.

Matt Gillan, head chef of the Pass restaurant, South Lodge hotel, near Horsham, West Sussex, says his restaurant has reaped the rewards of creating a reputation for catering for particular needs. "It's definitely been positive for us," he says. "We have a lot of people that come here because they know that they will receive as good a meal as their fellow diners who can eat whatever they want. Normally the party will be led by the person that has the dietary requirement anyway, so if you have a table of eight and one person is allergic to gluten, if you can't cater for that person and they go elsewhere that's eight people you've missed out on."

With so many different conditions out there, it's almost impossible for a menu to be safe for all allergic customers, (which may explain operators' reluctance to mark up menus) but Gillan gets around that by encouraging customers to book in advance so that he can then create personalised menus.

"We personalise them rather than putting allergy options on the main menu because there are so many different allergies and intolerances you can't have one blanket menu. We do have safe dishes that we can produce on the spur of the moment though, if someone just happens to walk in," Gillan explains.

ALLERGY VS INTOLERANCE

So what is the difference between an allergy and an intolerance? A food allergy is when someone's immune system reacts to a particular food - the allergen - and treats it as though it is harmful, creating antibodies to attack the food. In extreme cases, this can lead to a potentially fatal anaphylaxis reaction where the allergic person will react to an ingredient by developing symptoms in different parts of the body at the same time such as difficulty breathing, swelling of the throat and a rapid fall in blood pressure. If this sort of reaction is not treated immediately, usually with an injection of adrenaline, it can be fatal.

Food intolerances tend to be less severe because they don't involve the immune system, but if someone eats a food that they are intolerant to it can make them feel ill and potentially affect their long-term health.

COELIAC DISEASE

Coeliac disease stands on its own in that it isn't classed as a food allergy, but nor is it a straightforward food intolerance. It's an autoimmune disease triggered by the consumption of gluten, where the body's immune system attacks its own tissues. If the disease, which affects 1% of the UK population, is left undiagnosed, exposure to gluten can cause infertility, osteoporosis and hair loss among other symptoms.

Research by Coeliac UK showed that the hospitality industry is missing out on an estimated £100m a year by failing to provide safe, gluten-free options, because sufferers feel obliged to eat at home. Its survey of 3,000 people with coeliac disease revealed that 62% eat out once per month or less, while 38% eat out once every two weeks or more. When asked how often they would eat out if more safe, gluten-free options were available 74% said they would eat out once every two weeks or more, while 26% said they would still eat out once a month or less.

For Sarah Sleet, chief executive of Coeliac UK, while progress is being made in hospitality, there is still a long way to go. "It very much depends on the individual outlet," she says. "Carluccio's has a gluten-free menu but doesn't advertise or market it, while other places don't think it's an important market at all.

"If you go to Finland or New Zealand you'll see clearly marked gluten-free options on menus. Many foods are naturally gluten-free, and there are loads of tasty options that can be marked as gluten-free, but are brilliant for everyone. It's about realising that you could make some simple changes that could revolutionise eating out for people with coeliac disease."

COST IMPLICATIONS

So how difficult is it to cater for people with allergies and intolerances? It's a matter of education and practice, says Gillan. "It depends on the allergy - some are quite easy to work around as long as you have the knowledge, and I think that chefs are getting better at using alternative ingredients. In terms of costs, it balances out, because the money you save on cream and butter for the lactose intolerants, you then spend on replacement ingredients for other allergy foods.

"You just need to do your homework really, educate your front- and back-of-house teams, and know where to get the best deals and who are the best suppliers for your alternative ingredients," Sleet says.

Horridge has two tasting menus at his restaurant, Waldos, which on the surface both look identical, but one of which is free from dairy, gluten and sugar. He believes that allergy sufferers should be accommodated as much as the next diner.

SAME BUT DIFFERENT

"As a chef you need to understand that these people have as much right to eat out as everyone else. The angle we're going for is making the same dishes you'd usually get in a fine-dining restaurant, but without the allergen ingredients.

"We need to take the mountain to Mohammed, rather than the other way round. We want to give people what they usually eat, but in a healthier format or one that doesn't affect their allergy because of the way it has been produced or prepared," says Horridge.

Gillan has a similar outlook. "The dishes are as close to what we produce for everyone else as possible. The guys are all educated on it now and they know what the dishes are," he says. "When you go and speak to a guest that you've especially catered for after a meal and they say that it's the best meal they've ever had because finally someone has put some thought and creativity into a meal for them, it really spurs you on.

He adds, "It makes you want to learn more about the allergies and think about what you can do for them that's a bit different when they come back.

"Because I know how to deal with it, it's not a problem any more," Gillan says. "I think that's where a lot of chefs fall down because perhaps they don't understand who they're cooking for, or lack the knowledge or information they need. It's such a huge percentage who eat out that have allergies and dietary requirements, people are missing a trick. Putting a bit more emphasis on understanding people's needs, could be very beneficial for their business."

TIPS FOR OPERATORS

Chris Horridge, head chef of Waldos restaurant, Cliveden hotel

"First of all find out what the main intolerances are by going to the various organisations - such as Allergy UK and Coeliac UK - and speaking to the people involved. They'll give you all the information you need and explain more.

"In the kitchen and restaurant, make sure you think about cross contamination. If you have a diner who has coeliac disease it's no good serving gluten-free bread out of the same basket as your other bread. You might be doing a great job by having gluten-free bread available, but the condition can be set off very easily by a small amount of flour dust on the chopping board."

Sarah Sleet, chief executive, Coeliac UK

"Look at your current operation and see whether any of the dishes are already naturally gluten-free. For instance, making sure soy is gluten-free will not make a difference to the dish.

"Small adjustments that provide options could open up a whole new customer base for your restaurant."

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