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The allergen ingredients you’re not told about

Good Housekeeping UK logo Good Housekeeping UK 11/10/2018 Emilie Martin
a close up of food © Getty Images

The UK has some of the highest rates of allergy in the world, with allergies affecting almost half the adult population.

Allergic reactions – when the body’s immune system mistakenly identifies a substance as a threat – can range from mild to severe. Vomiting or breaking out in hives is unpleasant but in extreme cases, an allergic reaction can cause anaphylaxis. As recent headlines have shown, this can be life-threatening.

Here’s what you need to know about what food companies do – and don’t – have to tell you about the allergens in your food.

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How can I see if a food contains an allergen?

There are 14 allergenic ingredients that food companies have to flag up on the packaging of pre-packed food. These include things many of us would recognise as allergens, such as peanuts and other nuts, sesame, soybeans, fish and shellfish, eggs, milk and cereals that contain gluten. But other lesser-known allergenic ingredients also have to be declared – things like celery, mustard, sulphites and lupin, which is sometimes found in speciality breads and pastries.

a close up of a newspaper: Food Allergy Warning Label on Package of Cookies © Envision Food Allergy Warning Label on Package of Cookies

Many food companies choose to list allergens in bold in the ingredients list, but they may be underlined or printed in a different colour instead.

If an ingredient has been used and it’s not obvious from its name that it contains an allergen, the allergenic ingredient must also be listed So you’ll see things in ingredients lists such as: tahini paste (contains sesame) or mascarpone (contains milk).

What if I’m cooking for someone who’s only allergic to one specific nut?

When a food contains nuts, the food company has to name the nut that’s been used, so the packaging will list ‘hazelnut’, ‘almond’ or ‘walnut’, for example. Be aware, though, that chestnuts and pine nuts aren’t classed as nuts, so don’t have to be flagged, although they are known to be allergens.

The same rules apply to cereals containing gluten. Wheat (including spelt), oats, rye and barley will all be named. For shellfish, the information on packaging only has to declare whether the food contains molluscs or crustaceans.

© Getty

Does all food have to be labelled with allergens?

All pre-packed food, such as biscuits, ready meals and pasta sauce, has to carry allergen labelling. The only exceptions are things like a box of eggs or a bag of peanuts where it’s obvious they contain an allergen.

However, for food that is prepared on the spot or packed to order (such as food bought from a delicatessen, bakery, butcher or fast food outlet) the rules are different. The business you’re buying from still needs to tell you if something contains one of the 14 allergenic ingredients, but they can choose how they do this. They might list allergens on a sign or display a statement that directs customers to a member of staff for information.

a dirty plate on a wooden table: Coffee, sandwiches and cookies on the old table © Alexander Spatari Coffee, sandwiches and cookies on the old table

For takeaways that take orders online or over the phone, you must be told about the use of any of the 14 allergenic ingredients before you finish placing your order and when your food is delivered.

Critically, though, information about allergenic ingredients in food that isn’t pre-packed doesn’t have to appear on a label on the food itself. Not everyone thinks that this offers good enough protection for people with food allergies.

"Information about allergenic ingredients in food that isn’t pre-packed doesn’t have to appear on a label on the food itself"

How can I be sure I’m getting the right information about food that isn’t pre-packed?

© Getty

Allergies charity, Allergy UK has called for a review of existing regulations so that consumers are better informed about allergens in non-pre-packed food. So better labelling may follow in the future.

In the meantime, Good Housekeeping's health director, Julie Powell, believes food businesses could do more: ‘Large food outlets need to do more to ensure they have clear allergen labelling on the packaging of all food products, regardless of whether the food is made on or off the premises. Don't assume all outlets provide comprehensive allergy labelling. However following the recent high profile cases with Pret it's likely that this will improve.’

She offers the following advice: ‘If you suffer from a food allergy, always ask for information just in case. Don’t feel awkward about asking a member of staff to check if they sound unsure. And don’t feel bad about asking for proof that something doesn’t contain an ingredient you’re allergic to.’

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Related: 15 Signs You Have a Food Intolerance, According to Dietitians (Eat This, Not That!)

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