The ultimate caterer's guide to special diets

Order In
Wednesday, 15 March, 2017

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Ensuring your clients have delicious food that’s catered to their needs provides enormous benefit to your business but leaving someone hungry because you have not catered to their dietary requirements is the exact opposite. Currently 1 in 5 Australians live with an intolerance or allergy, which means every caterer will need to accommodate special dietary requirements on a regular basis.

Make sure everyone has something to eat by checking their special dietary requirements and then using this guide to make sure your meeting, office lunch or corporate event is full of plenty of food for everyone.

As corporate catering experts, Order In provides literally thousands of meals across a vast array of cuisines and special diet concerns. The company has put together this comprehensive guide so that you can learn more about the most common intolerances and allergies, and what foods or ingredients cause them. They have even included some helpful tips and meal ideas to ensure everyone has plenty to enjoy.


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.

Breads, cakes, biscuits and pastries

Flour contains gluten, which means any products that use the ingredient also contain gluten. 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. Gluten-free 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 are 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.


Many noodles, including ramen, soba, hokkien and udon, are made using wheat in combination with other primary ingredients like egg. Rice noodles on the other hand contain no gluten and can be used as a substitute in a wide variety of dishes. 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. 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.

Imitation meat

Imitation meat isn’t regularly found in corporate catering menus, but is a protein substitute for vegetarian diets. In order to thicken the vegetables and solidify the pattie, wheat is used as a binding agent along with ingredients like tofu.


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 many people with an intolerance can digest lagers, pale ales and pilsner style beers without risk. Coeliacs though will need to steer clear. There are gluten-free beers available, including the O’Brien brewery which is 100% gluten-free.

Soy sauce

Soy sauce is another tricky one. Found in an enormous variety of Asian cuisines, soy sauce does contain 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 soy sauce is easily found in a supermarket and is a pantry must for if you’re an Asian cuisine fan!

What’s the difference between an intolerance and 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. It 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 effects 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 2 weeks and monitoring any change or reduction in symptoms.

Coeliac 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 tissue that lines the intestine and is primarily responsible for nutrient absorption. Unlike gluten sensitivity, there is no tolerance to gluten 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 primary difference is that every exposure to gluten creates long-term damage to the intestinal tissue that can’t be repaired. Gluten-intolerant people do not suffer any long-term effects.

Non-coeliacs will often have a certain tolerance to gluten that their bodies can digest before it causes stomach issues. This can vary greatly from person to person, but it’s also a cumulative total, so consuming multiple foods or beverages that contain low levels of gluten will add together to create a greater amount of it in your system. If you’re planning catering, then the level of tolerance will be an unknown to you and it is always recommended to order from a gluten-free menu just to be on the safe side.

Dairy-free and lactose intolerance

Dairy is any product that’s produced with the help of our slow-moving, grass-eating friends, cows. Cow’s milk is used for cheese, yoghurt, cream, milk, 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 lactose.

What’s the difference between a dairy allergy and lactose intolerance?

People that have an allergy to dairy products 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?

Unlike gluten, avoiding dairy is a lot more straightforward. Any product that contains milk products is a no-go. Cheeses, yoghurts, milk, ice cream, chocolate and creams like thickened or sour. There are a few tricky products that contain dairy though.

  • 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. 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.
  • Canned tuna: Some canned tunas have the caseinate protein present and may trigger an allergy. If you’re serving a salad or sandwiches that include canned tuna, it’s important to read the ingredients thoroughly to ensure it is safe.
  • 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.
  • Lactose-free products: 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.
  • Animal milk — sheep and goat’s milk: Contrary to what some believe, other animal milk like that from a sheep or goat does contain just as much lactose as that of cow’s milk.
  • Potato chips: While potato doesn’t contain any milk products, the flavourings used often have milk products added. Always check the packets as not all varieties are dairy-free.
  • Soy products: Soy provides the vast majority of milk alternatives, however in order to achieve textural similarity to products like cheese, milk proteins are sometimes used. Imitation meat also contains milk proteins. While soy products should be fine for anyone with a lactose intolerance, dairy allergy sufferers should avoid them.


There are approximately 2.1 million adult vegetarians in Australia as of 2016. This means that the likelihood of catering for one or more is a near certainty. Unlike the allergies and intolerances mention thus far, a vegetarian diet is more a preference and voluntary restriction of certain foods.

A vegetarian is someone who doesn’t eat meat but will eat foods made from animals. The moral reasoning is that it’s OK to consume foods from an animal that don’t result in the slaughter or mistreatment of that animal. Due to this reasoning, vegetarians will also generally consume only animal products that have been sourced ethically.

Vegetarian-friendly foods are therefore far easier to define and to cater for. Sticking to vegetables and meat substitutes are the simple rules to follow.

Many vegetarians choose to eat fish, which is common enough to have created its own name — pescetarian. While there’s not usually a clinical or 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.


Unlike a vegetarian, vegans will not consume any animal products, including meats and 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 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 are an easy solution, however ensuring that an entire meal is vegan friendly can be more complex as 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.

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.

When catering for vegans, it’s important that your options be classed as vegan and that the ingredients are clearly specified so as to avoid these processed foods and your clients’ or colleagues’ disappointment!


Sometimes referred to as the ‘cave-man diet’, paleo is a diet preference, not a diet based on allergy or intolerance. The diet revolves around the consumption of high fat and protein and moderate carbohydrates. The moniker comes from following a diet that the cavemen would’ve consumed, being unprocessed foods that can be harvested or hunted.

A paleo diet excludes all cereal grains and legumes. Barley, wheat, oats and kidney and pinto beans are a few examples from Paleo Leap of the foods that are avoided. Soy is also avoided.

Avoiding the majority of processed foods is the key here. Confectionary like lollies that have significant amounts of sugar and preservatives are 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.


 A low FODMAP diet is based on a study from Dr Susan Shepherd and expanded on by the Monash University that details the effects of diets on people that suffer from gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

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:

  • Fermentable
  • Oligosaccharides
  • Disaccharides
  • Monosaccharides
  • And
  • Polyols

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 products, 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 incredibly 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 [consume] it.

Special Diet Food Catering Checklist

Special diet catering checklist. Image credit:

Top image: © Zupancic

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