Food businesses must list ingredients for consumers and must follow the guidelines and requirements that apply to them. Individuals need to be aware of the guidelines in order to stay safe when eating out.
Food allergies and intolerances can be life changing. In the UK they affect around 8% of children and 2% of adults.
To make it easier for you to get information when buying food or eating out, food businesses are required to provide information on 14 specific allergens.
Food businesses include restaurants, cafés and takeaways, and businesses that produce, manufacture or pre-pack food.
Allergenic ingredients must be emphasised within the ingredients list of prepacked food or drink. Any prepacked and loose food or drink sold or served in the UK must declare if it contains any of these 14 allergens as ingredients
- cereals that contain gluten – including wheat, rye, barley and oats
- crustaceans – such as prawns, crabs and lobsters
- molluscs – such as mussels and oysters
- mustard tree nuts – including almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts
- sesame seeds
- sulphur dioxide and sulphites (if they are at a concentration of more than ten parts per million)
Buying food and eating out with confidence
When you eat out or order a takeaway meal, tell the staff before you order about any allergens that you need to avoid.
If you ask for allergen information and the staff cannot provide this, ask to speak to the manager of the food business or the chef.
If you are still not given enough information to help you, you can report them to the local authority responsible for the food business. If you are not confident in the information you have been provided, it is better not to eat at the premises.
When you buy prepacked foods, allergenic ingredients must be emphasised. This can be done, for example, using bold, italic or coloured type, to make the ingredients easier to spot.
Food allergies happen when the immune system – the body's defence against infection – mistakenly treats proteins found in food as a threat. These proteins are known as allergens.
As a result, a number of chemicals are released by our bodies. It's these chemicals that cause the symptoms of an allergic reaction.
Almost any food can cause an allergic reaction but there are certain foods that are responsible for most food allergies. The 14 allergens are on the regulatory list because they have been identified as the most common in the UK and the rest of the EU.
Planning an allergy friendly meal at home
Cooking for someone with food allergies and intolerances can be worrying if you’re not used to doing it. Plan a safe and enjoyable meal by:
- asking your guest (or their parents or carers, if you’re cooking for a child) what they can and can’t eat
- making sure you keep allergens separate from other foods
- double-checking the ingredients lists on prepacked foods for allergens
- avoiding adding toppings or decorations to dishes which might otherwise appear safe
If someone is allergic to something, simply taking it off their plate isn’t enough. Even a tiny trace can be enough to cause an allergic reaction.
Clean work surfaces and equipment thoroughly to remove traces of anything you might have cooked before, to avoid cross contamination.
There are often good substitutes for allergens available in food shops – don’t hesitate to ask your guest (or parents/carers) for help and suggestions.
‘May contain’ labelling
Phrases such as ‘may contain’ warn customers that there could be small amounts of an allergen in a food product. This can happen when the allergen has entered the product accidentally during the production process.
It's not a legal requirement to label food with ‘may contain’. Food must be safe to eat and information to help people with allergies make safe choices, and manage their condition effectively, must be provided.
Manufacturers can also choose to use different phrases to warn of the risk of allergen cross-contamination, such as:
- May contain x
- Made on equipment that also processes x
- Made in a factory that also handles x
These different phrases describe what the risk could be caused by but not how serious the risk is.
Helping to keep you safe – free allergy alerts
It’s important that you can trust the food you are buying. So we work closely with local authorities and the food industry to make you are aware of missing or wrong allergen information on packaged food products. You can sign up to receive a free email or text message each time we issue an allergy alert about a food product. This will include information about what to do if you have bought it.
Helping to keep you safe – researching and monitoring risks
The Food Allergy and Intolerance Research Programme identifies risk factors associated with food allergies. This programme exists so that we can provide you with the most useful appropriate and up-to-date information.
You can also download an infographic with the 14 allergens, or read our guide ‘Advice on food allergen labelling’.
NHS Choices has information on what to do in the event of an allergic reaction.