How to read a Food Label
The only way to prevent a food-allergy reaction is to avoid the food allergen. Therefore, it is important to know how to identify those foods, as well as understanding how foods are labelled.
According to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, food businesses must declare the presence of food allergens used as ingredients in their foods.
The following 14 allergens must be declared:
- Cereals containing gluten: Wheat (Spelt and Khorasan wheat), rye, barley, oats
- Crustaceans e.g. crabs, prawns, lobsters
- Nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, cashews, pecan nuts, brazil nuts, pistachio nuts, macademia/Quensland nut)
- The name of the nut, e.g. ‘almond’, must be declared and highlighted, not ‘nuts’
- Sesame Seeds
- Sulphur Dioxide and sulphites
- Molluscs e.g. mussels, oysters, squid, snails
There are some derivatives of these allergens which are so highly processed that they are not considered an allergenic risk and so do not need to be highlighted as allergens.
What to look for on;
The allergen must be:
- indicated in the list of ingredients
- highlighted by font, style, background colour to make it stand out from other ingredients. Ingredients: Flour (wheat), sugar, eggs, milk
- indicated with the word ‘Contains’ followed by the name of the allergen e.g. ‘Contains Peanuts’
Non pre-packaged food
The allergen must be indicated in writing for non-prepacked food at the point of:
- presentation, or sale, or supply
Precautionary labels or May Contain Statement
A ‘may contain..’ statement indicates that the product may contain an allergen as a result of possible cross-contamination. Some foods labelled with this have little or no contamination, however for others the risk can be higher.
Other precautionary language on food labels such as “processed in facility that also processes” or “made on equipment with” indicates possible cross-contamination. Although the allergen is not directly in the food, there is a risk that it could have come into contact with the food.
**It is very important to note that according to the Foods Standards Agency ”There is no specific legal requirement to label food with ‘may contain’. However, food must be safe to eat and information to help people with allergies make safe choices, and manage their condition effectively, must be provided. ” Therefore, if you are concerned about a particular food item/dressing on a menu in a restaurant, make sure to ask to see the ingredients label.
Restaurants may provide precautionary statements, e.g. ‘’We can’t guarantee that there will be no cross-contamination…’’ The inconsistence and vague nature of this statement can be problematic as it does not provide you with a clear sense of the risk. I read an analogy somewhere that this risk was similar to crossing the road. Anyone can be at risk of an accident when crossing the road, but you can visually see how much traffic there is and how dangerous it might be to cross at any given time. Therefore, until there are better and more standardised precautionary practices, many choose to avoid foods with the Precautionary label.
Food ordered Online/Phone/App
Food ordered via Website/Phone/App should have allergen information provided
- in written form on menus, leaflets, online before food is ordered
- in written or verbal form at delivery e.g receipt, leaflet, menu
It is vital to be aware that for various reasons, food manufacturers change the ingredients of their products without modifying the packaging. E.g. A Chocolate bar may be labelled ‘nut free’ for most of the year, whereas the Halloween version may be labelled ‘may contain nuts’.
Restaurants may change their suppliers or current suppliers may change the ingredients of products so ensure to ask staff to check food packaging regularly for your safety.
Gluten Free Oats
As one of the 14 allergens above, Oats can only be ‘gluten-free’, if they have been specially produced, prepared and processed in a way to avoid contamination and the gluten content must not exceed 20mg/kg.
If gluten-free oats are used in food, ‘Oats’ must be highlighted as they are listed as an allergen but should also include a note highlighting, they are ‘gluten-free’ due to their production, manufacturing and processing.
Sulphur dioxide and Sulphites
Sulphur dioxide and sulphites are preservatives that must appear highlighted on the ingredients label under their chemical names, not their E-numbers when the content is exceeding 10mg/kg or 10mg/l.
The ingredients list will show the contains statement followed by the allergen, e.g. ‘Contains Sulfites’.
Sulfur dioxide or sulfites are naturally produced in the production of alcohol or can be added as preservatives. When the level of sulphites exceeds 10mg/L, it must be declared on the label.
If you have any other allergies not listed in the ‘Top 14 Allergens’, it is not a legal requirement to list them as an allergen. Therefore, you must check the ingredients list thoroughly to avoid your allergen.
More Tips for Reading Food Labels
- Make a list of all words used that mean the allergen ‘nuts’ in your local language and other languages if your purchasing food abroad
- Familiarize yourself with your allergen and the food it appears in
- Contact the manufacturer if you are unsure whether a product contains an allergen
- Food labelling differs by country so be careful with imported products
- Ensure a child with a food allergy is taught how to check labels as soon as they learn to read- practice at home and when shopping