What you need to know about allergies

Labels can help if you’re allergic to certain foods. For example, people with coeliac disease can’t eat gluten, which is why some products are labelled 'gluten-free'.

In theory, any food can cause a food allergy. But in fact just a handful of foods are to blame for 90% of allergic reactions to food in the UK.

If you have a nut allergy, it can be frustrating that many labels say 'this product may contain traces of nuts'. However, since November 2005 food manufacturers have had to be more specific.

The most common symptoms of an allergic reaction include:

  • coughing
  • dry, itchy throat and tongue
  • itchy skin or rash
  • nausea and feeling bloated
  • diarrhoea and/or vomiting
  • wheezing and shortness of breath
  • swelling of the lips and throat
  • runny or blocked nose
  • sore, red and itchy eyes

Symptoms can appear within minutes, or up to several hours after someone has eaten the food they are allergic to. Generally, you won’t experience all of these symptoms at the same time and bear in mind that some of the symptoms of an allergic reaction can also be symptoms of other illnesses.

Buying food – Check the label

Since November 2005, all pre-packed food sold in the UK has to show clearly on the label if it contains one of the following as an ingredient (or if one of its ingredients contains, or is made from:

  • peanuts
  • nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, Brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios, macadamia nuts and Queensland nut)
  • eggs
  • milk
  • crustaceans (including prawns, crabs and lobsters)
  • fish
  • sesame seeds
  • cereals containing gluten (including wheat, rye, barley and oats)
  • soya
  • celery
  • mustard
  • sulphur dioxide and sulphites (preservatives used in some foods and drinks), at levels above 10mg per kg or per litre
  • lupin
  • molluscs (including mussels and oysters)

Allergy statements or boxes

As well as the ingredients list, which is a legal requirement, many food products have a statement or an allergy advice box on the label saying they contain a certain food, for example nuts, milk or eggs.

These boxes are not a legal requirement and so they may not be on a food label. It is not a good idea to rely on them as not all retailers use them. You should always read the ingredients list regardless of whether there is a “contains” box or statement.

Some food labels say things like 'may contain nuts’ or ‘not suitable for someone with a milk allergy'. This means that even though nuts or milk aren’t deliberately added to the food as an ingredient, the manufacturer can’t be sure that on some occasions the product doesn’t accidentally contain small amounts of them.

If you have an allergy to the food mentioned you should avoid these products. The FSA has recently produced guidelines for manufacturers to help them manage foods that cause allergies. The guidance sets out ways of reducing the chances of the foods causing allergies getting into food products accidentally. It also advises businesses on how to assess the risk of this accidental cross-contamination so that they can decide if they need to use an advisory warning or not.

If an advisory warning is appropriate, the guidance for food manufacturers also suggests phrases to use to explain the risk to someone who has a food allergy.
These phrases are:

  • may contain X
  • not suitable for someone with X allergy

If you think a food product has been labelled inaccurately or incorrectly, you should report this to the Environmental Health Department of your local council.