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?
An article on this website you may find interesting: Nuts, seeds, legumes — allergens or not?