Avoiding Allergens at the Grocery Shop

Whether you are new to food allergies or have been dealing with them for some time, figuring out the contents of the food you find in your weekly grocery run can be daunting. Particularly when scientific terms naming the root compound of a given ingredient are listed instead of layman’s term. With all the confusing ingredients on packaged goods labels, how do you know that box of crackers does not have nuts in it, or that prepacked soup was not made with wheat? 

The good news is, in the EU, there are regulations (EU Food Information to Consumers), meant to make reading food labels simpler for people with allergies. Although many food ingredients have the potential to cause a hypersensitive reaction, only 14 food allergens are responsible for most allergic reactions, and so it is important to know what is covered by these labelling rules, and what is not. 

The first and most important thing to know is that the European Union’s Regulations only apply to what are known as “priority” or major allergens. There are 14 priority allergens, and they are as follows… 

  • Cereals containing gluten, such as wheat (spelt and Khorasan wheat), barley, rye, and oats 
  • Crustaceans such as prawns, crabs, lobster, and crayfish 
  • Eggs 
  • Fish 
  • Peanuts 
  • Soybeans 
  • Milk 
  • Nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecans, Brazils, pistachios, cashews, macadamias 
  • Celery 
  • Mustard 
  • Sesame 
  • Sulphur dioxide or sulphites (where added and is >10mg (about the weight of a grain of table salt)/kg in the finished product) 
  • Lupin 
  • Molluscs such as clams, scallops, squid, mussels, oysters, and snails. 

 The list of above allergens must be highlighted in bold within the ingredients list of every pre-packaged product to help EU consumers in identifying potential threats. To ensure you have the correct information, always read the ingredients list thoroughly.  

The good news though, is that you do not need to worry about hidden allergens or second-guessing yourself, it is the responsibility of all food businesses supplying products within the EU to mark each allergen or potential allergen in bold within the ingredients list, which was always the aim of the regulation – to make it easier for allergy sufferers to avoid allergens. 

 From December 13th, 2014, the requirement to declare food allergens on prepacked food is extended by EU law to include non-prepacked food. EU Member States are permitted to introduce national legislation to determine how this legal requirement is put into effect within their jurisdictions. Read more at Food Safety Authority of Ireland. 


What Exactly May My Product Contain? 

Precautionary allergen labelling, better known as the “May contain X” or “Not suitable for someone with X allergy” phrases, can be used only if the manufacturer has carried out a thorough risk assessment and believes there is a real risk of allergen cross-contamination that cannot be eliminated.  

This prevents a lot of defensive labelling, witnessed before this legislation’s introduction at the end of 2014, and puts the responsibility on food businesses to know these 14 allergens and where they occur in the foods they sell, rather than covering themselves legally with a catch-all “may contain” label. 

Because we do see these same “May contain X” or “Not suitable for someone with X allergy” phrases quite frequently, many tend to hypothesize on the accuracy of such statements, particularly when the potential allergens are seemingly unrelated to the product in question entirely. 

The fact is that this regulation has been in place for quite some time and food businesses are now completely up to speed in terms of the efficacy of their allergen risk assessment. 

 The Conclusion: 

Overall, thanks to EU regulation, it is now much easier to avoid allergens in pre-packed and non-pre-packed food. You just need to know what to look out for. Remember to always read the ingredients on pre-packed products and never assume a non-pre-packed a product is allergy-free. Keep an eye out for ingredients listed in bold and always check for ‘may contain X’ information – these assumptions are well founded by strictly controlled risk assessment procedures and need to be taken seriously. 


Disclaimer: The information provided is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Allergy Lifestyle Limited (t/a) Allergy Lifestyle) uses reasonable endeavours to check the accuracy of information provided, however, no warranty is given that they are error-free.  

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