The Ultimate Guide to Dietary Requirements

Picture this: you're gathered with your group of friends and colleagues, ready to chow down and enjoy some good food. But hold up! What did they order? Chances are, there were some dietary restrictions in the mix. Maybe one of them went for a soy latte, another opted for a gluten-free sandwich, and someone else chose a delicious vegetarian salad. Sound familiar?

Well, here's the scoop: in the UK, it's estimated that a whopping 30 in 100 people have a food intolerance or allergy. That means the odds of you having to cater to special dietary needs are pretty high. Plus, these days there are innumerable trendy diets that limit certain types of food, whether it's due to intolerance or just personal choice.

At Feedr, we feel your pain. In fact, almost 50% of our corporate catering orders are tailored to special dietary needs. Food allergies and intolerances are no joke- they can pose a serious health risk. That's why it's crucial to be mindful of your guests' dietary restrictions when ordering office or event catering.

ultimate guide to special diet catering

What are the common special dietary requirements?

Now, let's get down to business. There are many reasons why people have dietary constraints, and they can vary from person to person. Here are some of the most common ones:

- Food allergies and intolerances: think dairy-free, fish and shellfish allergies, nut allergies, and of course, gluten-free.
- Special dietary requirements: this includes vegetarians, vegans, and even expectant mothers with pregnancy-related dietary needs.
- Religious reasons: halal or other religious dietary restrictions.

As one of the UK's leading corporate catering companies, we've catered countless breakfasts, morning teas, team lunches, and events for a wide range of dietary concerns, across all sorts of cuisines. And now, we're here to help you navigate the world of special diets. In this comprehensive guide, we'll cover the most common intolerances and allergies, explain which foods or ingredients can cause them, and offer some handy tips and meal ideas to ensure everyone can dig in and enjoy the feast.

Here are the common types of special diets we’ll cover in this guide:

In the UK, 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 making any changes to your diet, you should speak to a doctor or other qualified health provider.

Gluten Free

What is gluten free?

So, what is gluten anyway? Think of it as a group of proteins that hang out together in wheat, barley, and rye, and other grains. They bring the chewiness to bread and wheat products, and help with that all-important rising process in baking.

What foods contain gluten?

Breads, cakes, cookies and pastries all contain gluten.

special diet catering - gluten free breads

Gluten is the key ingredient in flour that gives these baked goods their ultimate taste and texture. But, alas, if you're gluten-free, these treats become a no-no.

But fear not! There are gluten-free alternatives available, for all your favourite flour-based products. You've got nut flours like almond or hazelnut, perfect for sweeter treats like friands and small cakes. And there's a whole world of other gluten-free flours, seeds, and grains that are used in gluten-free breads.

One thing to note: gluten-free cakes and breads have a slightly different texture. They're a bit more dense compared to their gluten-filled counterparts. Bread, in particular, doesn't rise as much, resulting in a smaller, more compact loaf.


special diet catering - gluten free - pasta

A gluten heavyweight that's a staple in many meals. As with bread, there's a range of suitable gluten-free pastas made from grains like corn or rice flour, chickpeas, and red lentils.

When it comes to regular store-bought pasta, the taste is almost identical to its gluten-filled counterpart, with only a subtle variation depending on the primary flour used. However, fresh pasta tells a different story. Many purist Italian restaurants may not cater to the gluten-free alternative, but fret not, for there are other delicious options out there.


Who doesn't love a warming bowl of noodles! But be cautious, for many noodles like ramen, soba, hokkien, and udon are made with wheat. For those who are gluten intolerant, rice noodles are the perfect alternative. They are gluten-free and can be used as a substitute in a wide variety of dishes. And if you're feeling adventurous, 100% buckwheat noodles are also an option.


Found in savoury dishes like tabbouleh and used as a rice replacement in Moroccan cuisine, it's a gluten-heavy ingredient to avoid when catering for gluten-free folks. Thankfully, corn comes to the rescue as the most common gluten-free replacement for couscous. It may taste a bit different, but it works wonders in the same dishes and adds its own delightful flavor.


special diet catering - cereals

Wheat, grains, and seeds often make their way into many cereal boxes, even ones that seem gluten-friendly at first glance. Don't worry, there's a bountiful selection of gluten-free versions of popular cereals to choose from. Muesli, granola, and specially made cereals also provide a delightful crunch without the gluten-filled regret.

Imitation meat

Imitation meat, a protein substitute for vegetarian diets, often relies on wheat as a binding agent to thicken the vegetables and solidify the patty along with tofu. Whilst the use of imitation meat in catering is not always super common, it is quickly becoming a popular option for vegans and vegetarians, so be careful to check the ingredients on the product.


special diet catering - beer

Oh, beer lovers, brace yourselves for an unfortunate truth. While most alcoholic beverages are gluten-free thanks to the distilling process, beer retains those harmful proteins. But don't lose hope just yet! The amount of gluten in beer depends on the style, and many with an intolerance can still enjoy lagers, pale ales, and pilsner without risk. Coeliacs, you may need to steer clear. However, nowadays there are lots of gluten-free beers to choose from including popular brands like Peroni.

Soy Sauce

Soy sauce, that delicious umami ingredient found in countless Asian cuisines, can be a potential stumbling block when it comes to gluten. It contains wheat, making it a tricky one to navigate. Many people with an intolerance can still enjoy regular soy sauce without triggering a negative response. For the gluten-free Asian cuisine aficionados, fear not! Gluten-free soy sauce is easily found in supermarkets and is a must-have in your pantry. Alternatively, why not try tamari, which is a great substitute and naturally gluten-free.

Gluten is cumulative

People with a gluten intolerance (as opposed to coeliac disease) will often have a limited tolerance to gluten that their bodies can process before it causes stomach issues. Naturally this varies from person to person, but it also works cumulatively, so eating different foods and drinks that contain low levels of gluten can accumulate to create a larger amount that might cause problems. Of course, if you go down the catering route, then you won't know each individual's tolerance and we would always recommended providing some gluten free options so you can rest easy.

What’s the difference between an intolerance & being coeliac?

special diet catering - gluten free catering

As someone responsible for organizing food for a group, it's essential to understand the difference between gluten intolerance and coeliac disease. Gluten intolerance, also known as non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, occurs when the body struggles to digest gluten. The result? Gastrointestinal issues like bloating, stomach cramps, and the unpleasant consequences of diarrhea and vomiting. While there's no "cure" for gluten sensitivity, a change in diet is often all that's required to avoid those pesky symptoms. Medication is in development to aid digestion, which means those with an intolerance may be able to consume gluten-containing products without side effects, provided they swallow a handy tablet.

Whilst there is no clinical test for gluten sensitivity, a diet change experiment is the most common way of identifying the issue. Typically this means eliminating gluten-containing foods for 2 weeks and keeping an eye on any change in symptoms.

Unlike gluten sensitivity, coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition. It occurs when proteins in gluten attack the lining of the stomach and other intestinal tissue. The tiny finger-like tissues lining the intestine, the villi, play a crucial role in nutrient absorption. Consuming gluten for someone with coeliac disease can lead to serious side effects such as bloating, stomach pain, cramping, insomnia, rashes, mouth ulcers, and difficulty concentrating. Every exposure to gluten causes long-term damage that cannot be repaired. A blood test can determine if one has coeliac disease, making it crucial to seek proper diagnosis and support.

special diet catering - coeliac disease
A blood test can be done to determine coeliac (celiac) disease. Source: US National Library of Medicine

Dairy free and lactose intolerance

What is dairy free?

special diet catering - dairy free

So, what's the deal with dairy-free? Well, when it comes to dairy, we're talking about products made from the milk of our slow-moving, grass-eating pals, cows. Think cheese, yogurt, cream, milk, and all the delicious concoctions whipped up with these ingredients. Just like gluten, dairy can cause both allergic reactions and intolerances. Let's break it down:

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


If someone has a dairy allergy, their immune system goes haywire in response to proteins found in dairy products, such as whey, casein, and albumin. Symptoms include bloating, vomiting, diarrhea, and even eczema and respiratory issues. Some people may even experience muscle pain, headaches, and joint stiffness. It's nothing to trifle with.

If you're catering for someone with a dairy allergy, it's crucial to be aware that the risk of a potential life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis exists. Keep an epinephrine injection, like an epipen, on hand and make sure at least one person knows how to administer it.

And remember, if you have a dairy allergy, you've got to be strict with your approach to your diet. Absolutely no dairy in any shape, form, or cheese-covered disguise.


Now, let's talk about intolerance to dairy. This happens when your body doesn't produce enough of the enzyme lactase to properly break down the sugar called lactose found in cow's milk and other animal milks. With lactose intolerance, you might experience the classic symptoms of bloating, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and other gastrointestinal woes.

What foods contain dairy?

special diet catering - dairy free catering

Avoiding dairy is a lot more straightforward than gluten. Essentially, any food that contains milk products is to be avoided. This is all the typical dairy products like cheeses, yoghurts, milk, ice cream, chocolate and sour cream or creme fraiche. There are, however, a few less obvious products that contain dairy.

Wine and beer

Did you know that milk proteins are sometimes used to fine-tune the wine? Who would've thought, right? This means there's a chance of an allergic reaction for some folks. Don't worry, though. You can still enjoy the occasional glass or two of wine; just keep an eye out for dairy-free wines or certain craft beers like stouts that may contain lactose or milk proteins. Trying to find dairy-free options? Look for vegan brands—they'll have your back.

Canned tuna

Surprise, surprise! Some canned tunas contain the sneaky caseinate protein that can trigger an allergy. So, if you're throwing together a salad or sandwich with tuna, be sure to read that ingredient list closely and make sure it's safe for your dairy-free friends.

Gravy, sauces and sweeteners

Gravies, sauces, sweeteners, and even artificial creamers can contain milk powders as a thickening agent. Sneaky, right? Just double-check the labels to stay on the safe side.

special diet catering - dairy - gravy can contain milk powders

Lactose free products

Now, don't get confused. Lactose-free products are still cow's milk products, but they've had the lactase enzyme added to make them easier to digest for those with lactose intolerance. However, for someone with a dairy allergy, these products are a no-go. But if you're lactose intolerant, go ahead and enjoy these with a sense of liberation!

Animal milk | sheep and goat’s milk

Contrary to popular belief, other animal milk (ie from a sheep or goat) contains just as much lactose as regular cow's milk.

Potato crisps

Be warned, while the potato itself is dairy-free, those flavourings can often include milk products. Don't fret though, because many brands of crisps are still dairy-free and okay to devour. Just check those packets carefully!

Soy products

Ah, soy, the hero of milk alternatives. But here's the twist—sometimes, in order to get that cheesy texture just right, soy products may contain milk proteins. For those with lactose intolerance, soy products should be fine, but for those with a dairy allergy, it's best to steer clear of these imposters. Better safe than sorry, right?


What does being vegetarian mean?

Being vegetarian means not eating meat, but still being open to foods made from animals. It's a moral choice, where we say yes to animal-derived foods that don't involve slaughter or mistreatment of our animal pals. And guess what? Many vegetarians go the extra mile by seeking out ethically sourced animal products. Talk about being animal-loving superheroes!

special diet catering - vegetarian

Now, hold on to your hats, because there are approximately 1.2 million adult vegetarians in the UK as of 2012. But that number's predicted to have skyrocketed in the past decade, which means you're gonna have more vegetarians to cater to. Lucky for you, it's easier than ever to provide vegetarian-friendly foods. Just stick to those veggies and meat substitutes, and you'll have everyone cheering for your kitchen skills.

Many vegetarians choose to eat fish, which has its own name - pescatarian. This normally depends on where you draw the moral or ethical line, or equally can be a way for vegetarians to incorporate more animal-based protein into their diets.


What does vegan mean?

Veganism takes things up a notch. It's not just about skipping meat; vegans say no to ALL animal products - including meats, dairy, and anything that comes from animals. It's about not just how animals are treated, but about not supporting their captivity and exploitation for food. That's some serious dedication right there.

Now, here's the scoop: veganism is a diet preference, not an allergy or food intolerance. But hey, it's a great option for folks with dairy allergies. Vegan-friendly foods are a safe bet for them, no doubt about it.

special diet catering - vegan

But hold your tofu dogs, because creating a whole vegan meal is more complex than it seems. You see, many sneaky animal products find their way into foods and drinks you wouldn't expect. Think milk products hiding in potato chips and some soy goodies. So, when catering to vegans, stick to whole foods to ensure there are no hidden surprises in your culinary creations.

Oh, and here's a bonus tip: being vegan requires some extra planning to get all the nutrients your body needs from non-animal sources. Keep an eye on things like B12 and iron. And don't worry about protein – there are plenty of tasty animal-free alternatives to satisfy those cravings. So, when you're catering for vegans, make sure your options are clearly labeled as vegan and avoid any processed tricksters. Nobody wants to disappoint their vegan friends or colleagues, right?


What is paleo?

Ah, the mysterious paleo diet, also known as the "cave-man diet." It's not about allergies or intolerances, but a dietary preference that takes us back to our caveman roots. Picture this: high fat, high protein, and moderate carbs. It's all about going back to unprocessed foods that our ancestors would have hunted or gathered. Talk about a throwback!

special diet catering - paleo

What is the paleo diet?

But what does it mean in terms of what you can and can't eat? Well, cereal grains like barley, wheat, oats, and legumes like kidney and pinto beans are a no-go for paleo enthusiasts. Even soy gets the cold shoulder. It's all about avoiding the processed stuff and going for the real deal.

Now, brace yourself, because dairy is out of the picture too. We covered dairy earlier, but with paleo, it's up to the individual to decide if they want to nix dairy completely. And since those following a paleo diet don't indulge in processed foods (goodbye, sugary treats and fruit juices), you'll need to cut out cheeses, yogurts, and animal milks too.

But here's the catch: with all those exclusions, nutrient gaps can sneak up on paleo dieters. Calcium and vitamin D deficiencies are common culprits. So, supplements are likely a necessity to keep those bones strong. And keep an eye out for excessive consumption of saturated fats and protein – they can cause some heart and kidney issues.


What does FODMAP mean?

It's not just a fancy acronym; it's a game-changer for people with gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Dr Susan Shepherd and the Monash University have done some serious research on this, uncovering the effects of different diets on our bellies.

special diet catering - FODMAP

What are FODMAPs?

FODMAP is an acronym for the short chain carbohydrates and sugar alcohols that occur 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 who have bowel problems. These sugars include:

  • Fructose 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 can be found in any milk product.
  • Fructans are found in bread, pasta and other wheat based products.
  • Galactans are the fermentable carbohydrates found in some legumes.
  • Polyols are sugar alcohols occurring in stone fruits and apples.
FODMAP diet - special diet catering

You ready for some food intrigue? A low FODMAP diet has uncovered a fascinating correlation between lactose and gluten sensitivity. Since FODMAPs appear in wheat products as well as those containing lactose, it might explain why many people react to these foods and could be behind the rise in reported intolerances. Food mysteries, solved!

A low FODMAP diet is specific about what you can eat. There can even be variations among different varieties of the same fruit, and the quantities that trigger a negative reaction are no joking matter. To figure out how these foods affect each person individually, a strict FODMAP diet should be followed for at least 2 weeks. Then, certain foods are introduced one at a time to measure their effect on the body.

Catering for someone following a super strict individual FODMAP diet can be quite demanding. That's why many opt for a preference of gluten and dairy-free options. It's a safer bet to meet their needs and keep their taste buds happy.

Traffic light system

To simplify the FODMAP journey, the brilliant minds at Monash University came up with a traffic light system and a handy mobile app. It's like having a personal food detective in the palm of your hand! This system works like a traffic signal with three colors:

Red Light = High risk of reaction – avoid these items like the plague.
Yellow Light = Medium risk of reaction – smaller portions might be okay, but proceed with caution.
Green Light = Low risk of reaction – these foods are safe to consume and enjoy!

If you need any help in catering for special dietary requirements, let us know how we can help! Submit a quote request with all the details on what needs you have, and we'll send you back some tailored options. Our marketplace makes it super easy to filter by foods that are applicable to specific needs: click the badges and it'll only show options suitable for those needs.

Send us an email at [email protected] if you need any help and and one of our experts will be happy to advise you.

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