April 20

Reading Food Labels when Your Child has Food Allergies

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Introduction

Being able to read food labels correctly is a vital part in navigating which foods are safe for your child to enjoy.  Feeling confident and sure in your ability to understand food labeling can also help you save time and limit worry and stress when shopping, and when enjoying foods at home.

At first it may feel like there are a huge number of things you need to keep in mind when choosing food for your child, but rest assured that as time passes and the more you do it you will start to feel much better about choosing the correct items.

This blog will provide you with some useful tips on how to read and understand the labelling of foods and how to know when a product is safe for your little one.

How do allergens need to be labelled on prepackaged foods?

The labelling of allergens hasn’t always been straightforward but nowadays it is regulated by law, making it easier for you to be able to trust a label on a food product.

All pre-packaged food that is sold must by law include a full ingredients list that emphasizes in bold writing the 14 most common allergens.  This law is incredibly helpful as it saves you from having to read every ingredient on the list when your child has an allergy to a common allergen. The 14 major allergens that must be emphasized are listed below.

  • Celery
  • Cereals
  • Crustaceans
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Lupin
  • Milk (Cows)
  • Mollusks
  • Mustard
  • Nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Sesame seeds
  • Soya
  • Sulphur dioxide (sometimes known as sulphites)

(Your quick guide to: Food Labelling Advice, n.d.)

Unfortunately, if your child has an allergy to a food, not in the top 14 most common allergens, you still need to read every item in the ingredients list, and this is more time consuming.

This type of food labelling is similarly used in EU countries where the 14 major allergens must be emphasized but can be done in a variety of ways such as a highlighted colour or different font (European Union, 2022). Food labelling will differ in different countries, and it is important to keep this in mind whilst travelling abroad.  For example, in the United States only nine foods have been identified as major allergens and it isn’t mandatory to emphasize them in bold writing on the ingredients list (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, 2020).

A long overdue legislation came into place in the UK in October 2021 called Natashas Law which requires that food prepared on the premises and prepacked for direct sale, must provide full ingredients lists on the packaging with clear allergen labelling.  This follows the sad death of Natasha Laperouse who ate a sandwich from Pret a Manger which she believed to be free from her food allergens.  You can read more about her story here: https://www.narf.org.uk/natashas-allergies   Her parents fought tirelessly for a change on the law to prevent this from happening to anyone else.

Foods that are made to order (and not pre-packed) such as fresh sandwiches aren’t mandated to include a full ingredients list, but information on the allergen content must be provided, either on an attached food label, or on a menu, or be provided verbally.  This information is required to be available when requested, so if you are ever unsure, make sure to always ask for any additional information you require.

Food such as fresh fruit and vegetables, bottled water and single ingredient foods are exempt from needing to display an ingredients list.

“May contain” and other” free from” statements

You may have wondered if labels that include a “may contain” statement are safe for your child to consume.  What this often means is that the product is produced in the same factory that also produces products that contain the ingredients listed in the “may contain” section.  Whilst in a lot of cases these products will not contain any of the allergens listed, in some cases they might, and therefore general advice is that you should avoid giving your child these products.

Whether your child needs to avoid “may contain” products though is individual and may not be always necessary.  Avoiding products with a “may contain” label is difficult as there are so many products with this label and so you should always discuss your child’s individual needs with your health care provider.

Food products found in the free from aisle may not always be suitable for your child as they may not be free from your child’s individual food allergen.  For example, A “free from” wheat product may still contain milk and if your child has a milk allergy, the product will not be safe for them.   Again, you must check the ingredients label to ensure the product does not contain your child’s food allergen.  “Free from” foods often have a higher price compared to other products and if you are on a budget, the cost can quickly add up, so it may be better to search for the products you want on other aisles first as many of these can still be suitable.

Some allergens have different names that can be used in labelling

Something to bear in mind is that allergens may not always be labelled using the same name every time. For example, soya may also be labelled as edamame or textured vegetable protein. Other products such as miso, tofu, tempeh and tamari contain soy while their name might not suggest it.  You may find it helpful to write down a list of all the different names for your child’s allergens as this could be helpful when choosing foods for your child.

The same goes for egg and egg derivates as these have a variety of different names that are used in labelling such as albumen, globulin, ovalbumin, E322 (sometimes made using egg yolk), and batter (may sometimes contain egg).  If you enjoy using white wine in your cooking it is important to note that some white wines may sometimes contain egg white as egg can be used to clarify wine.  This may not be mentioned on the label of the wine, so a good idea could be for you to opt for wines that are labelled as vegan as these will not contain any egg.  Also, fish can sometimes be labelled as seafood or sea meat, which can be misleading.

There are some apps available such as Spoonful which can help save time when checking products for allergens. This app has a label scanner and takes a variety of different diets into account such as dairy, egg and peanut free diets as well as many more.  To be safe though, still check the food label as sometimes an App may not always have the most up to date information and product ingredients can change regularly.

How to start teaching your child to read a food label?

reading-ingredients-food

A good tip to help your child learn to read labels (if they can) and identify which products are safe for them to eat is to read labels with them when they are shopping with you.  Show them how to find their allergen from the food label and ask them if they think it is okay for them to eat.  This is a good way to help your child become more confident and support them in gaining responsibility whilst making sure they stay safe.

If you are unable to take your child shopping with you could also do this at home using websites of major supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, and Tesco’s.  The ingredient list of a product on the website is also required to emphasize any possible allergens in bold writing.  As with Apps, the website may not always be kept up to date so always double-check the ingredients label on the food packaging label when the food arrives. Ensure your child understands this too.

Summary:

  • Whilst at first it may feel like an overwhelming number of factors to consider, feel assured that over time efficient and careful label checking will start to become second nature.
  • Always check the ingredients list – allergens are listed and identified usually in bold, but sometimes italics or underlined.
  • If your child has an allergy not in the top 14, additional care is needed as it will not be highlighted on the ingredients label and can be more difficult to spot.
  • When buying fresh food don’t be afraid to ask staff for any additional information if you are unsure about any ingredients as this is your right as a customer.
  • Please keep in mind that the ingredients or the recipe of a product can change at any time, so it is important to always check labels when shopping even for products that you are very familiar with.
  • May contain – general advice is to avoid but some products may be safe for some children.

Familiarise yourself with the alternative names for your child’s food allergens as this can be helpful for when shopping online or when on holiday abroad.


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