When it comes to food allergies and intolerances, most of the talk is about gluten and the top 14 allergens — mainly milk, eggs, nuts, peanuts, soya, gluten grains and sesame. Labelling legislation requires manufacturers to emphasise (typically in bold) these allergens in their ingredients. All well and good if your allergens are among the 14 — but what if they’re not?
There are no figures I know of for allergies to beans, to exotic fruits, to alliums, to spices, but they exist — and are more common than many people think. Allergies to hundreds of foods have been recorded. Even to bland ones: cases of anaphylaxis to lettuce are on record.
Although they should not emphasise them, manufacturers are obliged to list these ingredients on their packaging, so that if they include onion in a product, they must accordingly add ‘onion’ to their list of ingredients.
But such transparency only applies with ‘wholefood’ ingredients. So as I understand it, there are two problems for those with more unusual or less recognised allergies:
1/ The source of ingredients need only be declared when it is one of the 14 allergens. So, a ‘flavouring’ has to be described as ‘barley malt flavouring’, for example, if derived from barley, or ‘flavouring (from milk)’ if derived from milk — but can be described as nothing more than ‘flavouring’ if it’s onion-derived (or tomato-derived, or mushroom-derived …).
2/ The ingredients of compound ingredients — such as mayonnaise in a tuna pate — must be declared if constituting over 2% of the final product. But if constituting under 2%, they need only be declared if they are one of the top 14. If you have an allergy to a spice, typically used as mixtures, and in tiny amounts, you’ll commonly find — to your frustration — the expression ‘spices’ on ingredients, with no further elucidation. (Here’s Ruth at What Allergy almost getting caught out with coriander in a soup.)
This is tough for sufferers, because all ingredients must be read individually, and every non-explicit or non-wholefood ingredient that could be ‘concealing’ the trigger allergen needs to be assessed or investigated. Often, this will require a phone call to the manufacturer — inconvenient, especially if you’re at a supermarket and in a rush.
I have no evidence for it, but it would not surprise me to learn that the intense focus on the 14 allergens in the food industry since the allergen regulations were introduced had deflected attention even further away from other ingredients. Let’s face it, how many chefs will check whether there’s fenugreek in their spice mix, or chives in their dried herb mix? How many investigate compound or generic ingredients listed in stock cubes or bouillon powders that they use?
Then there’s the risk from cross-contamination. Product recalls are unlikely to be instigated for corn flour, for example; I don’t know of one on record due to a non-14 allergen that didn’t constitute a non-allergy health risk. Precautionary labelling — ‘may contain traces of’ — is unheard of with regard to allergens outside the 14.
No food allergy is nice to have — but the unusual food allergies come with a particular set of challenges which slip under the radar of most. How can we change that?
Further Information / Resources
The Anaphylaxis Campaign — Onion and Garlic Allergy
The Anaphylaxis Campaign — Kiwi Allergy
The Anaphylaxis Campaign — Banana Allergy
An article on this website you may find interesting: Nuts, seeds, legumes — allergens or not?
This article really resonates with me. I have an allergy to bananas and sometimes I feel like am playing Rushian roulette as I don’t feel that food manufacturers are bothered about labelling everything on the packaging.
I know this article is few years old, but has there been any updates or positive feedback regarding this at all?
Hi Colin – thanks for commenting, and sorry it’s such a tricky issue for you. Some manufacturers are better than others, but you do have to be on your guard and check any ingredients with them which conceivably could be derived from banana – such as any fruit flavouring. I know there was a case of banana extract being used as a sweetener or flavouring in a cough medicine for kids which triggered a reaction, so it really does pay to be aware – ditto things like toothpastes.
Good article. As someone who has a serious allergy to something that is not in the top fourteen it can get very annoying trying to figure out whether something i want contains my allergen. This is why i cook most of what i eat from scratch. I hate it when products say, “Spices”, “Herbs”, “Flavouring”, ” Natural Flavouring”, etc.
I have an extremely severe food allergy to the entire Nightshade/Solanaceae family. This includes, Potato, Aubergine, Tomatoes, Peppers, Chillies, Chilli Pepper, Paprika, Cayenne, Jalapeno, Bell Peppers, Goji Berry, Physalis, all types and derivatives of Tomatoes and Peppers and Chillies, and a few other things. But all Peppercorns (like Black Pepper) are fine and Sweet Potato are fine which often causes confusion. Most other spices and vegetables and fruits are fine as well.
I have a serious reaction to all of these and have to carry an epi pen. Even if i eat a tiny amount they cause me severe breathing problems and i would die if i don’t use an epi pen or get to hospital immediately. I have an anaphylaxis reaction to them. I have had some bad experiences in the past and been to hospital many times (although avoiding them does get easier over time as you become more aware).
As a result i avoid eating any product which does not list the full ingredients. So anything which has ingredients like, “Spices”, ” Herbs”, “Flavouring”, “Natural Flavouring”, or anything similar i make sure to avoid. Obviously as it is not one of the fourteen major allergens it is difficult to tell. Some companies are helpful though and i have even found a small amount of companies which were able to confirm that their facilities are Nightshade/Solanaceae free. But many have never even heard of this allergen although i think it is a more common allergy than people may think (there is quite a lot of information online about people who have it so i think it is not that rare).
I would love to see the Nightshade/Solanaceae family added to the allergen list one day. Also companies should be required to always list each and every ingredient (rather than vague terms like mentioned above) as this would help so many people with less common allergens like mine. I have also heard of people with a Corn/Maize allergy and with a Yeast allergy and with an Allium allergy so there are lots of less common ones out there.
That must be incredibly difficult. I had no idea goji and physalis were also nightshades. There is a case for adding more allergens, but I understand the concern that by continually adding allergens, they will eventually outnumber the non-allergen ingredients and defeat the object of making them stand out in an ingredients listing. I agree that vague terms such as ‘flavouring’ help nobody … I don’t know whether brands are reluctant to declare in detail because ingredient lists would get too long. Maybe it’s just less ‘work’, and legislation would force them to be more precise … Things do change. Vegetable oils can no longer merely state that: they have to declare the vegetable source. That was a recent change. So things do constantly improve, but sometimes the pace is glacial. Thanks for stopping by. All the best, Alex.
Yes it is certainly a difficult allergy to have. Although you do obviously get used to it after having to cope with it for so many years. It just means a lot of cooking everything from scratch and carefully examining all the products i find and contacting manufacturers. So it is not the easiest.
I think that there are a number of reasons why some products don’t list the full ingredients. Firstly some do it (as you say) simply to make the list of the ingredients shorter and simpler and not confuse people with lots of ingredients they might not have heard. Secondly some do as they want to try and keep the ingredients secret so that other manufacturers don’t try to copy them. Thirdly some do it because the Herbs or Spices or Flavouring or Natural Flavouring (or whatever they are using) contains lots of dodgy ingredients and artificial additives so they think it will look better to hide them.
Yes as you say things have improved. I hope one day it is required for the full ingredients to be listed with no vague terms allowed. I didn’t realise that Vegetable Oil now had to say the exact oil so that is certainly an improvement. Although depending on the results of next weeks election i can also see things getting worse if the CONservatives win and our allergen regulations become more aligned with the USA after Brexit takes place. So who knows. Many thanks for your reply.
I too am deeply worried about alignment with the US on matters labelling. It would be very confusing – and it’s confusing enough for newly diagnosed people to get a handle on it.
I am really allergic to all the spices. This is not without it’s own set of issues. If I am away on a mini vacation or at the supermarket I read food labels and the entire menu card. I tend to ask the restaurant waiters to tell me a bit more. It saves me a lot of time and money. You should ideally do the same. It is hard work but nowhere near as difficult as a allergy to nuts or milk for instance. Far from it.
Good luck. Alternatively I check the information on the actual website of the chosen restaurant in question. I also like to pay very close and careful attention to finding some cheap tubes of non spicy toothpaste. I always prefer to make out some brief summary notes in case. I routinely do a inspection in advance to make sure yes I can eat the food safely. Request a ingredient list as a precaution.