Food Allergies & Intolerances: Are they fashionable obsessions?

“We are a kitchen, not a hospital” (Raymond Blanc).  On the BBC Good Food Show Raymond Blanc argued that it is now ‘fashionable’ to have a food intolerance. He is not the only chef to have complained about customers claiming to have food allergies and intolerances. In July this year an Australian chef vented his anger on Instagram with customers ‘who aren’t honest about what they can eat’.  He gave an example of a customer who had a ‘shellfish allergy but loves oyster sauce’. He said “you make it really damn hard for people with actual allergies and dietaries to go out to eat. Are they right?

It is important to distinguish between a food allergy and food intolerance.

What is a food allergy?

Food allergies

A food allergy is when the body’s immune system reacts unusually to specific foods – your immune system mistakenly treats proteins found in food as a threat. (NHS)

  • An allergic reaction can be produced by a tiny amount of a food ingredient that a person is sensitive to. Symptoms of an allergic reaction can range from mild symptoms, such as a rash and/or itching to more severe symptoms, like vomiting, and in extreme cases to anaphylaxis.
  • Approximately 10 people in the UK die from allergic reactions to food every year due to undeclared allergenic ingredients (FSA).

What is food intolerance?

Food Allergies and Intolerances: Are they fashionable obsessions?

A food intolerance is difficulty digesting certain foods and having an unpleasant reaction to them. (NHS)

  • Food intolerance does not involve your immune system and there is no allergic reaction; it is not life threatening.
  • It causes symptoms such as bloating and stomach pain, that usually come on a few hours after consuming food.
  • It only results in symptoms if you eat reasonable amounts of the food (unlike an allergy)
  • It can be caused by many different foods, e.g. lactose, wheat, gluten,food additive, chemical or contaminant.

It is important to note that people suffering with coeliac disease (which is neither an intolerance nor an allergy) must cut out gluten from their diet (NHS).


  • It’s estimated that 1-2% of adults and 5-8% of children have a food allergy (i.e. approximately 2 million people in the UK). This does not include those with a food intolerance
  • Up To 1 in 55 children have a peanut allergy
  • An estimated 1 in 100 people have coeliac disease.
  • UK admissions for children with food allergies have increased by 700% since 1990 (Gupta, 2007)

Free From Foods

Free from foods

Free From is a catch-all term used to denote food and drink that has been designed to exclude one or more ingredients to which at least some consumers can have either an allergic or an intolerance (Organic and Fair Plus)

  • In February 2017 Kantar WorldPanel reported that greater demand for gluten or dairy-free products, particularly from younger shoppers, has boosted the Free From category by 36% year on year.
  • Mintel forecast the Free From market to reach £673 million by 2020.
  • 27% in the UK buy Free From as part of a healthy lifestyle (Mintel)
  • 19% in the UK buy Free From due to an allergy or intolerance (Mintel)

Society is more aware of food allergies and intolerances today.  Most people know someone who suffers with these. To help people to choose which catering establishments can cater for their special dietary requirements, there are a number of online sites. For example: – where to go to eat 100% gluten free>eatingout – where to go to eat dairy free

There are also a lot more Vegetarian, Vegan and organic restaurants now.  For those who want to prepare organic and gluten free meals at home there are companies that deliver the ingredients to your home with a recipe to follow.  The Mindful Chef.

The Mindful Chef

What’s Changed?

Bread, milk, butter and cheese used to be part of our staple diet, now supermarkets are devoting more space for the Free From range. Around 1% of people in the UK are genuinely gluten intolerant (a fourfold increase between 1990 & 2011 according to research carried out by the University of Nottingham), but estimates put the proportion of adults adhering to gluten free diets at more than 12%.  The number of people who believe they have a food intolerance has risen dramatically over recent years (NHS). Chefs are complaining. Why?

It is difficult to know how many people are truly affected by food intolerance because many people assume they have a food intolerance when the true cause of their symptoms is something else (NHS).


Research from Mintel suggests that the ‘health halo’ of Free From foods is a key driver of uptake.  Furthermore, they believe that 54% of those who eat Free From foods would stop eating these products if they thought these were less healthy than standard foods.

Celebrity Diets
Celebrities can shape people’s health choices and what they worry about in different ways according to Dr. Zara Aziz, and it’s not always a good thing.  Take a look at some of the diets endorsed by celebrities:

BeyonceBeyoncé  – famous for the ‘master cleanse’, an all-liquid diet and the VB6 (vegan before 6pm) diet.

Miley CyrusMiley Cyrus – paleo diet

Lady GagaLady Gaga – rumoured to have tried the ‘baby food’ diet.

Gwyneth PaltrowGwyneth Paltrow  – gluten free, mildly vegan diet

Kourtney KardashianKourtney Kardashian  – gluten free and dairy free

Kate MiddletonKate Middleton – the Dukan diet

MadonnaMadonna – the macrobiotic diet

Tom HanksTom Hanks – sugar free

Bear GryllsBear Grylls  – urine therapy

Zoe KravitzZoe Kravitz  – reportedly followed the Clay Cleanse Diet

Researchers at Harvard University have reported that gluten free diets should not be encouraged among people who do not have coeliac disease. They warned that restricting dietary gluten may result in a low intake of whole grains, which are known to be beneficial for the heart.  They also suggest that ingesting only small amounts of gluten, or avoiding it altogether, increases the danger of diabetes by as much as 13%.

In the BBC Horizon documentary on celebrity ‘clean’ eating diets, Dr. Yeo stated that diet creators are doing nothing wrong in encouraging healthy eating but they use pseudoscience to “prey on and manipulate the most vulnerable.


I don’t think anyone would argue that food allergies are a fashionable obsession. Eating just a tiny amount of food can lead to very serious reactions, even death.  And, although we don’t know how many people are truly suffering from food intolerances, it must be pretty miserable for those who do. For those genuine sufferers, there’s no way their food intolerance can be regarded as a fashionable obsession.

Everyone deserves to be able to safely eat out.  Indeed, the EU Regulations 2014 require caterers to adhere to strict guidelines to ensure their customers’ safety with regard to allergens.  If you tell a restaurant that you have an allergy, most chefs are happy to prepare your meal taking all the necessary precautions.

The furore caused by Raymond Blanc’s comments, I believe, relates to those persons who claim to be allergic or intolerant to a particular food when really they are just choosing not to eat it. It may be because they do not like an item – but it’s a choice not a medical necessity.  I would urge those people who choose to refrain from eating certain foods to be honest. If you don’t like a particular item, tell the restaurant, because in most cases the chef will be happy to oblige. However, if you claim to be allergic or intolerant to a particular food when you are choosing not to eat it, that is just unfair and unkind.  It is unfair to the chef, who has to take special precautions when preparing your food and ensuring that your meal does not contain the allergens you told him about. And, more importantly, unkind to those people who genuinely have food allergies or intolerances – sometimes they are not taken seriously be because of a restaurants’ previous experiences with customers who have blatantly lied.

How do you think we can protect both the chefs, and the people with food allergies and intolerances, from those that make false claims?

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