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Food allergies are thought to affect 1-2% of the UK population. When some people consume a trigger food that contains an allergen, their body produces an immune response which leads to chemicals, including histamine, being released.
Allergic responses to foods vary from mild discomfort to severe anaphylaxis, an acute allergic reaction which can be fatal.
In addition to food allergies, or hypersensitivities, an increasing number of people are suffering from food intolerances. Although often milder than allergic responses, the symptoms of food intolerance can be uncomfortable and painful.
The prevalence of food allergies and intolerances means that consumers are becoming increasingly aware of allergens and expect them to be clearly identifiable on packets, menus and food labels. In some instances, this is also a legal requirement.
Understanding allergen labelling
Legislation that relates to allergen labelling on products sold in the UK includes:
- The Food Safety Act 1990
- The Food Labelling (Declaration of Allergens) (England) Regulations 2008
- The Food Information Regulations 2014
- Natasha’s Law
Under The Food Safety Act, all food producing businesses have a duty to produce food that is fit for human consumption. This means food that is free from hazards and contaminants and that comes with appropriate allergen labelling.
The purpose of allergen labelling is to help people with food sensitivities and allergies to make safe and informed choices as consumers. When allergens are clearly labelled, it is easier for people to avoid them and to choose allergen-free alternatives.
Almost all food and drink items have to have appropriate labels that indicate:
- Nutritional information
It is important to check packets and ingredient lists for allergens if you have any dietary requirements, even with familiar foods that you have had before. This is because ingredients and manufacturing methods can change.
People can be allergic to a range of different ingredients and foods; however, there are 14 allergens that the law requires food businesses must declare on their menus or food labels in the UK. It is important that businesses communicate clearly to their customers if any of these allergens are, or may be, present in their items.
The 14 allergens are:
- Cereals that contain gluten (including wheat, barley and oats)
- Crustaceans (including prawns and crabs)
- Molluscs (including mussels and oysters)
- Sulphur dioxide/sulphites (if they are at a higher concentration than 10 parts per million)
- Tree nuts (including hazelnuts, pistachios, cashews and walnuts)
These allergens apply to not only the finished product but also any ingredients, manufacturing or processing methods used.
According to current NHS data, the most common allergenic foods include:
- Cow’s milk
- Tree nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, etc.)
- Shellfish (prawns, crab, lobster, etc.)
Although the above might be responsible for a majority of food allergies, people can be allergic to anything, including food additives. Wheat and gluten intolerance also appear to be on the rise.
It is thought that if you (or a close family member) have other allergies, eczema or asthma, then you may have a higher chance of developing a food allergy.
When you consume an allergen, an allergic reaction can include:
- Itchy rash/hives
- Swelling (of the lips, face or ears)
- Problems breathing
Reactions to food intolerances usually affect the gut and may include:
- Stomach cramps
If you unknowingly consume an allergen and have a reaction, you may need medical attention including medication such as antihistamines. If you are suffering anaphylaxis, this is best treated with adrenaline. People who are aware that they have severe allergies will be given an adrenaline auto-injector such as an EpiPen that they should carry at all times.
Where to find allergen information
On packaged foods, allergen information is usually listed within the ingredients list. Allergens should be easily identified (such as highlighted in bold, underlined or listed in a contrasting colour).
If you are in a restaurant, café or fast food outlet, allergen information has to be available to customers. Usually, an allergy sheet will be available on request. Allergy sheets look like a grid with allergens ticked or highlighted in some way. Allergy sheets can also help staff to understand about allergens in the products that they prepare and serve.
Some food outlets choose to list allergens on their menus instead. All of the main 14 allergens need to be listed clearly and be easily identifiable. If in any doubt, always ask for clarification from a member of staff or ask to speak to management rather than risking your health.
Reading ingredients lists
If a food or drink contains two or more ingredients (including additives) they must be listed by law. Ingredients should be listed in order of weight, with the main ingredient listed first.
The 14 allergens need to be listed on the ingredients label and emphasised in some way. This makes them easy to spot even if you are just scanning the ingredients list. Look out for allergens in:
- Bold text
- Contrasting colours
Although not required by law, it is considered good practice to include a statement on the packaging advising consumers how to quickly identify allergens. Look out for a statement such as:
For allergens see ingredients in bold.
These statements are best placed somewhere easily seen, such as just underneath the ingredients list.
Ingredients list example 1:
Wheat flour (Wheat flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin Folic Acid) Sunflower Oil, Sea Salt (1.5%) Yeast Powder (contains Wheat and Barley), Sugar, Rice Flour, Sugar Cane Syrup, Flavouring, Yeast.
Allergen advice: For allergens (including cereals that contain gluten) see ingredients listed in bold. May also contain sesame.
In this example, you will see in the main ingredients, the allergens present are wheat and barley. Allergens are easily identifiable here because they are in bold text. An additional precautionary label states that the product may contain sesame, probably due to cross-contact.
Ingredients list example 2:
Sugar, Cocoa butter, Dried whole milk, Whey powder (from milk), Dried skimmed milk, Emulsifiers (soya lecithins, polyglycerol polyricinoleate), Vanilla extract.
! ALLERGY ADVICE
For allergens see ingredients in red. May also contain cereals containing gluten and nuts.
In this example, you can easily identify that allergens present in the main ingredients are milk and soya. This is because allergens are in a contrasting colour. An additional precautionary label states a caution that gluten and nuts may be present, most likely due to cross-contact.
Allergen statements and precautionary labelling
Unintentional allergens may sometimes enter products by accident through manufacturing and production processes. Food companies can warn about this using precautionary allergen labelling (PAL). This is a voluntary statement and should never be used on certified allergen-free items.
PAL is best used only once a risk assessment is complete which finds that allergen risks cannot be otherwise mitigated. A precautionary label is not a substitute for upholding best practice within health and safety and hazard awareness.
Overusing PAL can seriously impact on the choice of items available to consumers. The Food Standards Agency instead encourage food businesses to look at ways they can change their methods or make different supply-chain decisions around allergens, rather than use a precautionary ‘catch all’ label. However, you will find them ubiquitously on thousands of products on supermarket shelves.
A PAL warning may look like:
- This product may contain nuts
- Not suitable for those with a milk allergy
- Packaged in an environment that also handles wheat, gluten and soya
- Although every care has been taken, we cannot guarantee that this product is nut free
Cross-contact is the reason why some products that are labelled vegan still carry a PAL warning, meaning they may not be suitable for people with a hypersensitivity to dairy, even though the product itself contains no animal products or by-products as ingredients.
Of the approximately two million people in the UK who live with a diagnosed food allergy, around 600,000 of these have coeliac disease. Coeliac disease is a lifelong, autoimmune condition that is caused by a reaction to the allergen gluten. There is a law that covers products that are labelled as gluten-free. When this label is present on packaging it means that the foods contain 20 parts per million (ppm) or less of gluten, making it suitable for a gluten-free diet.
These certified ‘free from’ foods can only be produced under strict conditions with stringent protocols put in place to completely mitigate the chances of cross-contact.
If you purchase an item that is labelled as free from an allergen, such as wheat-free bread or dairy-free chocolate, you can rest assured that this product has been subject to strict controls and additional risk assessments.
As previously discussed, if a business performs an allergen risk assessment and decides that they cannot fully eliminate cross-contact they will usually add a caution label to the finished product. This information is designed only to warn consumers about the potential presence of unintentional allergens.
Cross-contact happens when trace amounts of one food somehow come into contact with another food. This can be via:
- Pots and pans
- Chopping boards
It can also happen due to improper storage or transportation methods. This means that, potentially, allergen cross-contact can happen at any stage during the supply chain. This is why it is so critical to have proper controls and management systems in place to address allergens and food safety.
In addition to checking food packaging for allergens, if you know that you have allergies and are prone to reactions, remember to check the ingredients on other items for hidden allergens, including:
- Drinks (including alcohol)
- Make-up and cosmetics
- Food supplements
- Essential oils / carrier oils / massage oils
- Pet food
In addition to thinking about the raw ingredients that make up a product, consider other factors such as the oil that food is cooked in. Some restaurants, for example, may cook in sesame or peanut oil which can be highly allergenic to some people. Check takeaway menus carefully and always ask your server when dining out if you have any concerns.
Even with the most careful checking and planning, an allergen can accidentally end up being consumed. If you know you have serious reactions, consider:
- Wearing an allergy alert bracelet
- Carrying your EpiPens with you always
- Making sure people around you know about your allergies
There is an ever increasing selection of alternative products out there available to consumers with allergies and food sensitivity. Consider making sensible swaps and talking to children and young people openly about the importance of checking labels and choosing sensible alternatives (even if this sometimes means going without the things they enjoy).
Advocacy and allergen labelling regulations
In recent years, changes have been made to the law around allergen labelling. This is mainly due to the tireless efforts of Natasha’s Army who campaigned for Natasha’s Law, after a young woman named Natasha died in 2016 after suffering anaphylaxis brought on by sesame that she had unknowingly consumed in a baguette.
The changes to the law make it mandatory for businesses that are selling food that is pre-packed for direct sale (PPDS) to list all ingredients and allergens clearly on their packaging.
PPDS food includes:
- Pre-packed, ready to go sandwiches, baguettes, wraps, etc.
- Burgers or hot dogs in buns that are wrapped up and kept under a heat lamp
- Any foods that can’t be altered or customised without undoing the packaging
Although PPDS food doesn’t include food that is packed after you have ordered it and the rules don’t apply in the same way to distance selling (such as food ordered over the phone and delivered), allergen information still needs to be available to consumers. This could be in the form of an allergy sheet or given verbally.
If you have allergies or food sensitivities, you can always request allergen information from vendors to make sure the food you are selecting is safe for you to consume.
The prevalence of allergies is increasing and although fatalities from allergic reactions to food are rare, they do happen. It is important that we all work together to continue to improve standards around all aspects of food safety, including allergens.
You can report any breaches (including missing or incorrect allergy information) to the Food Standards Agency or your local authority. Issues relating to food labelling, including the labelling of allergens, can be reported directly to Trading Standards.