5 Specialty Diets Every Event Pro Should Understand

Keep these ideas in mind to accommodate requests from guests with a restricted diet.

By Mitra Sorrells May 12, 2015, 7:15 AM EDT

All countries in the European Union must notify consumers when foods contain any of the top 14 allergens that the E.U. regulates. At an MPI event in Poland, organizers wrote on the table covers to indicate which allergens were present in the buffet items. Stuckrath says she would like to see the U.S. Food and Drug Administration adopt a similar requirement. “The more transparent you are up front the less headaches you’ll have from questions,” she says.

Photo: Tracy Stuckrath

It’s not uncommon for planners to receive requests from guests for special diets. Whether for medical or religious reasons, or simply by preference, many attendees follow specific guidelines as to what they will and will not eat. While it may not be possible to fulfill every request, planners can familiarize themselves with some of the most common specialty diets. Planner Tracy Stuckrath has a food allergy and created Thrive Meetings and Events to help educate the industry on dietary issues. Here are five of the most common diets she says event professionals may encounter.

Stuckrath says this is by far the most common dietary request right now. Some people follow a gluten-free diet out of necessity: they have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that means gluten damages their small intestines. More commonly, people may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, meaning gluten causes physical discomfort similar to celiac disease but it does not destroy the intestines. People who avoid gluten cannot eat foods made with flour, wheat, rye, or barley. That means no pizza, cakes, pasta, cereals, or baked products made with regular wheat flour. “You also have to think about sauces. Soy sauce contains wheat. Salad dressings may have wheat. Barley and rye come into play in beverages, your beers and hard liquors,” Stuckrath says. Also keep in mind cross-contamination: oatmeal is naturally gluten-free but it is often processed on the same equipment as wheat. When guests request gluten-free options, Stuckrath suggests planners review ingredients with their chef and aim for meals that provide fresh meat, seafood, and vegetables. “Eighty percent of food is naturally gluten-free. It’s when you talk about processed foods that it comes into play,” she says.  

Vegetarian and vegan
Stuckrath says she often gets questions about the differences between these two diets. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, about 5 percent of people in the United States identify themselves as vegetarian. That means they do not eat any meat, such as fish, chicken, beef, or shellfish. But vegetarians do consume the by-products of those animals, such as dairy products and eggs. Vegans have a much more limited diet. They avoid all animal products, including eggs and dairy, and they also will not eat honey since it comes from a living thing. “It can get kind of tricky. Sugar, unless it’s certified vegan, is not vegan because it’s refined with bone char. Salad dressing can contain eggs or honey. And not all wines and alcohol are vegan,” Stuckrath says. To simplify things when accommodating vegetarians and vegans, Stuckrath suggests serving all of them a vegan meal, since it will address the needs of both groups.

Milk allergy and lactose intolerance
While milk allergies are most common in children, they can persist in adults. People with a milk allergy cannot process the proteins in milk, known as casein and whey. When the protein is ingested it can trigger an allergic reaction such as hives and swelling to more serious symptoms such as trouble breathing and loss of consciousness. Milk is in everything from cookies and chocolate to salad dressings and cream sauces. “Even hot dogs can have casein and whey. If someone is truly allergic to milk, you have to take that seriously because even a small amount can cause a reaction,” Stuckrath says. Some guests may avoid milk products because they are lactose intolerant, which means their bodies are missing the enzyme lactase which breaks down lactose, a sugar found in milk and dairy products. While lactose intolerance is not life-threatening, it can cause discomfort such as nausea and bloating.

Stuckrath says this is commonly called the “caveman diet,” because those who follow it eat foods similar to what ancient humans may have eaten. That means a lot of protein and fresh vegetables and fruits and no grains, sugar, milk, or processed foods. People on a paleo diet also avoid all legumes, such as soy, peanuts, and all types of beans. “And for their protein, people on a paleo diet want it to be as pure as possible. So not farm-raised. They want grass-fed beef and chicken, wild-caught fish and seafood, and organic eggs,” Stuckrath says.

A certified kosher meal will generally cost more than a regular meal due to the steps needed to prepare it in accordance with Jewish law. Stuckrath says she has heard stories of planners who have paid for certified kosher meals only to find out later that they were not picked up by the guests, possibly because those guests were willing to eat “kosher-style,” and were able to find items in the regular meal that they could eat. “If you have that kosher question on your registration form, ask them a follow-up question which is, ‘Do you need a certified kosher meal or are you okay eating kosher-style?’ Or, ‘Can you eat vegetarian or vegan?’ You can say, 'We have no problem serving you a kosher-certified meal, but we just want to clarify,'” she says. She also says it is important that planners understand that sealed, kosher-certified meals should not be touched by anyone except the person who is going to eat it.

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