woman checking supermarket receipt, holding red shopping basket in supermarket aisle by Alexa Baracaia

Few families would claim a trip to the supermarket as a highlight of their week. But factor in shopping with food allergies and the experience becomes a great deal more stressful.

Let’s not sugar coat it: following a food allergy diagnosis, no more will you go skipping carelessly around the aisles, casually flinging delicious-looking items into your trolley, or nibbling freely at the samples counter.

In a rush to bake a cake/prepare a roast/find an urgent and yet somehow nutritious ready meal for screechingly hangry kids? Allow for an extra half an hour or maybe even an extra supermarket after you’ve visited the first.

The reason for this, of course, is that now a huge chunk of your life will revolve around the rare and exquisite art of ‘reading the label’.

From scouring tiny font to finding a previously loved product suddenly has an allergy warning, it can be a tiring and often emotional affair. Can I be sure this item is safe? Does no ‘may contain’ warning mean we’re OK to eat this? Can I trust this retailer/brand? Do they have to list all my allergens on the packet? When you are just starting out, learning how to navigate a food label can be a dizzying task.

But fear not: we’ve pulled together a handy ‘how to’ guide that will make the process less daunting. Let’s start with the basics.

What allergens have to be listed on food labels?

The very first thing you need to know is what information, by law, a food label must give you. Any food item that requires a label (we’re not talking about loose bakery items here, but packaged products) must list full ingredients and emphasise any of the top 14 allergens it contains. This applies in the UK and across the EU.

This means that the top 14 allergens might appear in in bold, IN CAPITALS, underlined or in a different colour font.

They are:

  • Cereals containing gluten (such as rye, barley and oats)
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts (including; almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts)
  • Sesame
  • Soybeans/soya
  • Fish
  • Crustaceans (such as prawns, crabs and lobsters)
  • Molluscs (such as mussels and oysters)
  • Mustard
  • Lupin
  • Celery
  • Sulphites

If you are allergic to a spice or a herb then you can contact the individual

The specific term for the allergen must be used – so it is not enough to highlight ‘tofu’. This must be listed as ‘tofu (soya)’ because the allergen is soya. Similarly, tahini would have to be listed as ‘tahini (sesame)’, cod as ‘cod (fish)’ and so on.

It gets a little more complicated with milk. Foods that are widely understood to be made from milk, such as cheese, yoghurt, cream or butter, do not have to add the word ‘milk’ to the label (although some manufacturers choose to make this clear). But less commonly known milk products, such as Quark, mascarpone, or fromage frais, must clearly include the word ‘milk’. Ingredients such as whey protein must also be labelled as containing milk.

These rules apply to foods defined as pre-packed – the packaged food you buy from a supermarket – and, thanks to Natasha’s Law, to those defined as ‘pre-packed for direct sale’. These are foods prepared on-site and displayed in their packaging ready for the consumer to choose: a pre-wrapped roll in a sandwich bar or cafe, for instance, or supermarket deli counter items displayed ready for purchase in their wrapper or pot.

For the really detailed nitty-gritty see the Food Standards Agency technical guidelines here: https://www.food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/media/document/fsa-food-allergen-labelling-and-information--technical-guidance_0.pdf.

Other allergens

If you are allergic to an allergen outside the ‘Top 14’ – e.g. peas or lentils – these do not need to be highlighted, so you should read labels with extra vigilance. Seeking support to understand the possible different names of your food allergen may also be important, for example, chickpea flour may also be labelled as gram flour or garbanzo bean flour.

Allergies to foods such as garlic, chilli or paprika can be even harder to navigate because often they can be hidden behind the general terms ‘flavourings’ or ‘spices’. This is because food labelling regulations state that, if the ‘compound ingredient’ is less than two per cent of the finished product, there is no requirement to list all the ingredients within it (unless one of the top 14 allergens is present).

In simpler terms, if ‘herbs’, ‘spices’ or ‘flavourings’ make up less than two per cent of the whole product, the manufacturer doesn’t have to give a full break-down of what’s included, unless it’s a top 14 allergen.

If you are allergic to a spice or a herb then you can contact the individual manufacturer to check whether they declare the food you are avoiding.

May contains

Sometimes you will see phrases such as “may contain [allergen]” or “made in a factory with [allergen]” or “not suitable for someone with [allergy] – this kind of labelling is called Precautionary Allergen Labelling (PAL). These “may contain” labels warn that allergens may be present unintentionally through cross-contamination.

Importantly, it is not a legal requirement for food manufacturers to declare the risks of cross contamination by including “may contain” warnings.

The major UK supermarkets (Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s, Tesco, Waitrose etc.) do assess the risks of cross contamination in their own brand products, so you can generally be reassured if there is no ‘may contain’ warning on those. If you want to be extra certain, check their allergy policy info online, or phone customer services.

For independent manufacturers – including those sold in supermarkets – it is unfortunately a bit of a free-for-all. Some label very well, and these you will come to know and trust.

Some companies don’t include ‘may contain’ warnings even if there is a risk; and others add  ‘may contain’ on everything, even if the risk is negligible.

So how can you tell? The first thing to do is to head to the brand’s website and see if they have any FAQs or info on allergens in their products. If not, you can drop them an email or give them a call to ask whether there is any (genuine) risk of cross contamination from the allergen you are avoiding, and whether they will always include a ‘may contain’ warning if they think there is a risk.

The other place it all gets murky is in the multitude of ways a ‘may contain’ warning may appear on a label – you’ll see everything from ‘packed in a factory where nuts are present’ to ‘may contain traces of nuts’ to ‘not suitable for nut allergy sufferers’.

There’s a common misconception that these different phrases automatically mean different levels of risk – for instance that ‘may contain peanuts’ is fundamentally less safe than ‘made in a factory where peanuts are processed’.

In fact, because there is no set standard for the wording of precautionary labels, it’s virtually impossible for the consumer to accurately assess the risk. The only way to judge is to contact the manufacturer for more information.

Does ‘may contain nuts’ include peanuts?

Not always. Some manufacturers differentiate between ‘may contain peanuts’ and ‘may contain nuts’. This is hugely helpful for those avoiding either just peanuts, or just tree nuts, but you will need to check their policy.

Other manufacturers go the extra mile and specify which tree nut their product may contain: for instance they may state ‘may contain almonds’. This is even more helpful for those allergic to just one type.

Unfortunately, very many more impose a ‘may contain nuts’ label indiscriminately, as a catch-all for peanuts and all kinds of tree nut. The only way to know for sure is to contact them to find out their policy. The major supermarkets and bigger brands should have this information available online.

Do I even need to be avoiding ‘may contain’?

All of this assumes, of course, that you or your child will be avoiding ‘may contain’ labels. In fact, whether you need to avoid “may contain” foods needs to be based on individual risk assessment. Many allergy consumers do avoid ‘may contain’ warnings, but equally many do not.

There is a view that avoiding all ‘may contains’ places impossible restrictions on people’s daily lives and food choices, and that severe reactions to traces are few and far between.

On the other hand, there are reports of people reacting to trace amounts of an allergen – you should discuss “may contains”with your allergy specialist to assess the risk for your child.

Vegan doesn’t mean allergy safe

Here’s another curveball – a ‘vegan’ food product is not automatically safe for those with egg, milk, meat or fish allergy. This is because Vegan Society accreditation does not mean there is no likelihood of cross contamination.

The Society notes: “It is important to be clued up about the differences between vegan standards and allergy or ‘free-from’ standards. The Vegan Society does not claim that products registered with the Vegan trademark are suitable for people with allergies to animal products; this depends on the standards achieved by individual manufacturers.

“The licence agreement asks companies to confirm that they strive to minimise cross-contamination from animal products as far as is reasonably practicable. Therefore, vegan products may carry warnings about animal allergens.”

Finally… always check the label

This is your new mantra for life. Even if you’ve eaten an item one hundred times before, re-read the label each time you buy it anew. Ingredients, recipes, manufacturing methods and factories change, so it’s important to always check.

Our personal rule of thumb is to read the label once, when we buy the product, and again before eating it. If an item has been ordered online it’s sensible to triple check on delivery, as sometimes the info on a website can differ from the packet.

If this all seems terribly arduous, I’m not going to pretend shopping and the constant label-checking doesn’t get incredibly old and boring from time to time. But it does very quickly become second nature, and you’ll rapidly discover brands and retailers that you know and trust.

Over the years, we’ve coped with a string of allergies, including eggs, wheat, peanuts, sesame, lentils, peas and banana – and we’ve always managed to find something out there for our son to eat. It takes a little longer, it’s a whole lot more frustrating, but you will get the hang of it in the end.

For more information on food allergen labelling law, see the Food Standards Agency guidance here: https://www.food.gov.uk/safety-hygiene/food-allergy-and-intolerance

Alexa Baracaia is a freelance journalist, author and allergy mum. Her books include My Family and Food Allergies: the All You Need to Know Guide (Sheldon Press).

Reviewed by Speclialist Paediatric Dietitian Lucy Upton, November 2023