Make sure no one goes hungry and all diets and food allergies are accounted for when you're catering for the office.
One in five Australians have a food allergies and intolerances, so possibility of you having to cater for one or more special dietary requirements is almost a certainty. While some restrictions are religious or morals based, others can have serious health implications if they aren't adhered to. So, it's important to be aware of any special dietary restrictions and requirement of your guests when ordering office or events catering.
What are the common special dietary requirements?
There are many reasons for dietary constraints and they differ from person to person. Some of the more common ones include:
- Food allergies and intolerances — such as dairy free, fish and shellfish allergies, nut free and gluten free
- Special dietary requirements — vegetarian, vegans and pregnancy
- Religious reasons — halal, Kosher
As corporate catering experts, we provide literally thousands of breakfasts, morning teas, working lunches and events catering across a vast array of cuisines and special diet concerns. In order to help you with your office catering endeavours, we’ve put together this comprehensive special diet guide so that you can learn more about the most commonplace intolerances and allergies, and what foods or ingredients cause them. We’ll also offer some helpful tips and meal ideas to ensure everyone has plenty to enjoy.
Here are the common types of special diets we’ll cover in this guide:
- Gluten free and coeliac
- Dairy free and lactose free
- Tree nut and peanut allergies
- Fish and shellfish allergies
- The Ketogenic diet
In Australia, the two most common food intolerances are gluten and lactose.
Important note: The information on this blog post is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment in any manner. If you think you are suffering from any medical condition or have any specific questions about any medical matter, you should consult your doctor or other professional healthcare provider. Before starting and/or make any diet changes, you should speak to a doctor or other qualified health provider.
What does it mean to be "gluten free"?
Gluten is a combination of proteins that’s most commonly found in wheat, barley, rye, and their familial grains.
It commonly adds elasticity and a chewy texture to bread and wheat products, as well as aiding the rising process in baking.
What foods contain gluten?
Breads, cakes, cookies and pastries all contain gluten. Some others that may be surprising and are worth watching out for when stocking a pantry include beer and some sauces and soups where flour may be used as a thickening agent.
Flour contains gluten, which means any products that use the ingredient also contain gluten. Eating breads, cakes, pastries and a vast majority of baked goods are all a no no. While there are of course a range of gluten free products available, if they’re not labelled, it’s a better idea to avoid them.
There are easy substitutes however, with gluten free versions of all regular flour products available. Nut flours like almond or hazelnut are used for sweeter options like friands and small cakes, while a variety of other flours, seeds and grains are used in gluten free breads.
Texturally, gluten free cakes or breads are more dense than their regular counterparts. Bread is particularly different as it doesn’t rise as much as normal bread, which often results in a small, compact loaf.
Pasta is another major gluten heavy food. However, just like bread, there is a range of suitable gluten free options that make the most of other grains and substitutes like corn, or rice flour.
Regular store-bought pasta tastes almost identical to regular pasta, with only slight variation to the flavour depending on the primary flour used. Fresh pasta however tastes quite a bit different and many purist Italian restaurants aren’t likely to cater for it.
✅ Gluten-free option: Chickpea pasta, lentil pasta, rice pasta and shirataki noodles.
Many noodles, including ramen, soba, hokkien and udon are made using wheat in combination with other primary ingredients like eggs.
✅ Gluten-free option: Rice noodles and 100% buckwheat noodles can also be used.
Couscous is another side dish that needs to be avoided if you’re catering for gluten free people.
While often used as a rice replacement in Moroccan cuisine, it’s more commonly found mixed in with salads like tabbouleh.
✅ Gluten-free option: Rice or corn is the most common gluten free replacement for couscous. It tastes different, but works in all the same dishes and tastes great.
As you’d expect, many cereals contain wheat and a variety of grains and seeds which all contain gluten.
Furthermore, many cereals, like Cornflakes for example, are manufactured in a way that introduces wheat into what would have initially been a gluten friendly product.
Therefore, even if the primary ingredients seem obvious from the name on the box, it’s not always safe to eat.
Numerous gluten free versions of popular cereals exist, as well as a range of specially made cereals, muesli, and granola.
✅ Gluten-free option: Numerous gluten free versions of popular cereals exist, including Rice Bubbles, Corn Flakes, Sultana Bran and Coco Pops, as well as a range of specially made cereals, muesli, and granola.
A protein substitute for vegan and vegetarian diets, imitation meats are becoming more and more common on our corporate catering menus, including plant-based meats like Beyond Meat.
In order to thicken the vegetables and solidify the "meat", wheat often used as a binding agent along with ingredients like tofu.
✅ Gluten-free option: Most Beyond Meat products, including burgers and mince, don't have any gluten.
Sorry beer lovers! While the vast majority of alcoholic drinks are gluten free, as the distilling process removes the harmful proteins, beer retains them.
However, the amount of gluten depends on the style of beer, and some people with an intolerance may be able to digest lagers, pale ales and pilsner style beers without risk. Coeliacs (also spelt celiacs) though will need to steer clear.
✅ Gluten-free option: There are gluten free beers available, including the O’Brien brewery which is 100% gluten free.
Soy sauce is another tricky one. Found in an enormous variety of Asian cuisines, soy sauce contains wheat and can be harmful depending on your level of tolerance.
Like beer, many people with an intolerance can consume regular soy sauce in a meal without triggering a negative response.
✅ Gluten-free option: Gluten-free soy sauce is frequently found in supermarkets (and is a pantry must for if you’re an Asian cuisine fan!)
What’s the difference between an intolerance & being coeliac?
As someone that’s responsible for organising food for a group of people, it’s really important to understand the difference between someone who is gluten intolerant, and someone that is coeliac.
An intolerance, often referred to as non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, is when the body has difficulty digesting gluten. Eating gluten-laden foods causes gastrointestinal issues which often include bloating, stomach cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting.
Many people describe the reaction as one akin to food poisoning, where the body goes into overdrive trying to get rid of the substance from your stomach in whatever way it can. While there’s no “cure” for gluten sensitivity, a change in diet is often all that’s required to avoid the symptoms. Medication is currently being developed however, that aims to aid the body with digestion meaning that someone with a gluten intolerance will be able to consume products containing gluten without side effect provided they swallow the tablet first.
There is no clinical test for a gluten intolerance, instead a diet change experiment is the primary way of identifying any issues. This usually involves avoiding gluten for a period of two weeks and monitoring any change or reduction in symptoms.
Coeliac (or celiac) disease on the other hand is an autoimmune condition where the proteins in gluten attack the lining of the stomach and other intestinal tissue, particularly the villi.
Villi are the tiny finger-like tissues that lines the intestine and are primarily responsible for nutrient absorption. Unlike a gluten sensitivity, there is zero tolerance to gluten for coeliacs and consumption can result in serious side effects.
If a coeliac digests gluten, they’ll encounter many of the issues cited above, including bloating, stomach pain and cramping and diarrhoea. Furthermore, they can include insomnia, rashes, mouth ulcers and many coeliacs experience difficulty concentrating. These symptoms can last for days.
While this may not sound too terrible to some, the difference is that every exposure to gluten creates long term damage to the intestinal tissue that can’t be repaired. Gluten intolerant people don't suffer any long term effects.
A blood test can be done to determine coeliac (celiac) disease.
Dairy free and lactose intolerance
What does it mean to be dairy free?
Dairy is any product that’s produced with the help of our slow-moving, grass-eating friends, cows, as well as products made from sheep and goats milk.
The milks is used for cheese, yoghurt, cream,and of course any products created with those products. Just like with gluten, there is both an allergy and an intolerance to dairy products.
An allergy to dairy products is an autoimmune response and can be fatal, while an intolerance is gastrointestinal reaction to the enzyme, lactose.
What’s the difference between a dairy allergy and lactose intolerance?
People who have an allergy to dairy have an autoimmune reaction to one or more of the following proteins found in dairy products: whey, casein, and albumin.
As with most allergic reactions, the symptoms are immediate and fast moving. Symptoms of a dairy allergy include bloating, vomiting and diarrhoea, but can also result in eczema (dry skin), and respiratory issues. Muscle pain, headaches, and joint stiffness are also common effects of an allergic reaction.
If someone you’re catering for has a dairy allergy it’s critical you understand what you need to do in the event of a reaction. As respiratory issues can arise, the potential for a life-threatening reaction like anaphylaxis exists. Treating this reaction via an epinephrine injection (often known as an epipen) is not uncommon and at least somebody present must know how to administer it if required.
Somebody with an allergy to dairy must be incredibly strict with their diet and not consume it in any form or quantity.
Another common reaction to dairy products is a lactose intolerance. Lactose is a sugar present in cow and other animal milks. Lactase is an enzyme that breaks down and digests lactose in your body.
An intolerance occurs when there isn’t enough lactase present in the body to properly digest the lactose from those beverages and foods.
Symptoms of an intolerance are similar to that of gluten and commonly include bloating, diarrhoea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and other gastrointestinal issues.
What foods contain dairy?
Any product that contains milk products is a no-go. Cheeses, yoghurts, milk, ice cream, chocolate and creams like thickened or sour.
Similar to gluten though, there are a few tricky products that contain it which you may not realise.
Wine and beer
Milk proteins are used in the fining process of making wine and therefore can be cause for an allergic reaction. While wine does contain lactose in that protein, many people can handle small volumes of wine.
✅ Dairy-free option: There are dairy free wines available, along with certain craft beers like stouts that may also contain milk proteins and lactose. If you’re scanning for brands that offer dairy free versions, you may have better luck searching for vegan products.
Gravy, sauces and sweeteners
Many instant mix products like gravies, sauces, sweeteners or artificial creamers contain milk powders that are used as a thickening agent.
✅ Dairy-free option: Avoid white gravies.
Lactose free products are cow's milk products that have had the lactase enzyme added in order to circumvent the effects of lactose.
If you have a dairy allergy or are serving food to someone who is, lactose free products are absolutely not suitable. Anyone suffering from a lactose intolerance can consume these products however.
✅ Dairy-free option: Nut and oil-based cheeses or plant-based milks, including rice, almond and oat. (If you need to avoid dairy altogether and not just lactose)
What does being vegetarian mean?
A vegetarian is someone who doesn’t eat meat but may eat foods made from animal by-products, including eggs and cheese.
The moral reasoning is that it’s okay to consume foods from an animal that don’t result in the slaughter or mistreatment of that animal. Due to this, vegetarians will also generally consume only animal products that have been sourced ethically.
There are approximately 2.1 million adult vegetarians in Australia as of 2016, so the likelihood of catering for one or more is a near certainty. Unlike the allergies and intolerances mentioned thus far, a vegetarian diet is more a preference and a voluntary dietary restriction of certain foods.
Some vegetarians do choose to eat fish, which is common enough to have created its own name - pescatarian. While there’s not usually a clinical or food allergy related reason for this, it’s essentially where you draw the line morally or purely a preference to avoid some meat and not others.
What does being vegan mean?
Unlike a vegetarian diet, vegans will not consume any animal products, including meats and by-products derived from animals. While vegetarians choose to avoid meat often due to the treatment of the animals, vegans continue that line of thought but are against the animals being bred and placed in a captive environment for the sole purpose of exploiting their lifestyle for the creation of food.
Due to its moral reasoning, veganism is a diet preference, not an allergy or food intolerance to these products. However, a vegan diet can be a good option for someone with a dairy allergy as it is very safe to consume vegan friendly foods.
Avoiding meat products is relatively easy, however ensuring that an entire meal is vegan friendly can be more complex. There are many animal products used in the manufacture of foods and beverages that you perhaps wouldn’t expect.
Milk products, for example, are often used in binding and flavouring agents used in things like potato chips and some soy products. Scroll up to the dairy allergy section for a list of foods that include milk products.
As a significant amount of processed foods contain milk or animal products in some way, whole foods are often the best solution for someone sticking to a vegan diet. This ensures that there aren’t any hidden ingredients in the foods you’re trying to enjoy.
While you may just be catering for a single meal or single day for someone following a vegan diet, it’s worth mentioning the effort and planning required to ensure that your body receives all the nutrients it requires that are usually found in animal products. Supplements are therefore often required for things like B12 that are only found in animal products, and iron. Protein can also be an issue for some, but there are plenty of animal free alternatives that provide ample quantity.
When catering for vegans, it’s important that your options be classed as vegan and that the ingredients are clearly specified as to avoid these processed foods and your clients or colleagues disappointment!
What does it mean to be paleo?
Sometimes referred to as the ‘cave-man diet’, paleo is a diet preference, not a diet based on food allergy or intolerance.
It revolves around the consumption of foods that are high in fat and protein and have moderate carbohydrates. The moniker comes from following a diet that the cavemen would’ve consumed, being unprocessed foods that can be harvested or hunted.
The name comes from the Paleolithic Era, a time where much of the human diet was based on foods that could be hunted and gathered. According to the Mayo Clinic, the benefits are believed to be lower rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
What does a paleo diet consist of?
A paleo diet excludes all cereal grains and legumes that are farmed. Barley, wheat, oats and kidney and pinto beans are a few examples from Paleo Leap of the foods that are avoided.
Avoiding the majority of processed foods is the key here. Confectionary like lollies that have significant amounts of sugar and preservatives are also a no-go. This includes a wide variety of not just sweets, but fruit juices and a significant percentage of packaged products will likely be avoided.
Dairy is a no-go as well. We’ve covered dairy extensively above, but as paleo is a choice, it’s up to the individual as to where they draw the line on the exclusion of dairy.
Given that processed foods, which make up a substantial volume of junk foods, are excluded you’ll just need to cut out cheeses, yoghurts and animal milks as well.
In a similar way to veganism, a paleo diet can leave gaps in nutrition needed for your body, particularly with the absence of dairy products. Calcium and vitamin D deficiencies are a strong possibility and supplements are likely a necessity for someone following a strict paleo diet. High consumption of saturated fats and protein can also cause issues with the heart and kidneys.
What does FODMAP mean?
A low FODMAP diet is based on a study from Dr Susan Shepherd and expanded on by Monash University that details the effects of diets on people that suffer from gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
What are FODMAPs?
FODMAP is an acronym for the short chain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols that appear in foods, either naturally or as an additive. It stands for:
These sugars ferment in the large bowel and can cause irritation to people suffering from bowel problems. These sugars include:
- Fructose is a commonly found example that exists naturally in fruits and vegetables as well as in products like soft drinks and jellies.
- Lactose, the sugar found in dairy is also an example of fermentable sugar and is found in milk and anything made with milk.
- Fructans are another example and are found in bread, pasta and other wheat based products.
- Galactans are the fermentable carbohydrates found in certain legumes.
- Polyols are sugar alcohols found in stone fruits and apples.
What is interesting about a low FODMAP diet is the correlation between lactose and gluten sensitivity. As FODMAPs appear in both wheat products and products containing lactose, it may explain the reaction many people have to these foods as well as some reasoning behind the increase in reported intolerances.
A low FODMAP diet is very specific about the foods you can eat, and there can be differences between varieties of the same fruit and the quantity that would provoke a negative reaction. As these foods affect everyone differently, a person would need to follow a FODMAP diet exactly for a period of 2 weeks or more and then begin to introduce certain foods one at a time to measure the effect on their body.
Due to this, it can be difficult to cater for someone following a strict individual FODMAP diet. For this reason, many people will instead give a preference of gluten and dairy free that will provide the highest possibility of being safe for them to it.
Traffic light system
In order to simplify the FODMAP system, the Monash University introduced a traffic light system and mobile application so that you could easily identify problem foods. The systems works like this:
- Red Light = High risk of reaction - avoid consuming these items.
- Yellow Light = Medium risk of reaction - usually a smaller portion of that food/beverage is OK.
- Green Light = Low risk of reaction - safe to consume.
What are we doing at EatFirst to make it easier to cater to special diets?
On each menu item, we'll apply any applicable labels to show what diets it's suitable for. This includes:
- Dairy free
- Gluten free
- Religious diets, including Kosher
There's both the option to filter by allergens or diets on our menus, as well as labels on individual food items, like on the example below. This item is gluten-free (G), dairy-free (D) and suitable for both vegetarian (V) and vegan (Vg) diets.