Food allergies and ‘vegan’ labelling

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Vegan dishes and food allergies

Is vegan food safe for people with food allergies?

Many people choose to eat plant-based foods for a variety of reasons; from ethical concerns to environmental impact. But, for those with food allergies, the seemingly safe haven of vegan-labelled products may not be as secure as it appears.

Vegan labelling is not the same as ‘free-from’ or ‘allergen-free’ labelling

Vegan labels on food products are typically associated with plant-based ingredients, making them appear safe for individuals with certain food allergies. Unfortunately, this assumption can be misleading and it’s important to understand that vegan food advisory labelling is not the same as ‘free-from’ or ‘allergen-free’ safety labelling. With no agreed definition for ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based’ food in UK food law, a ‘vegan’ label merely indicates that no animal-based ingredients were intentionally used. Understanding this difference is crucial for people with food allergies, as the unintentional presence of allergens in a product labelled ‘vegan’ can still pose a risk.

Hidden allergens and cross-contamination

Anaphylaxis UK warns that manufacturers may use shared equipment or facilities for both vegan and non-vegan products, increasing the risk of cross-contamination. Hidden allergens may also be present in seemingly innocent vegan products, making it essential for individuals with allergies to remain vigilant. The advice is to always check the allergen information and never assume that a ‘vegan’ label means safe to eat. You should also be very clear about your allergies when ordering vegan food while eating out.

Many vegan or plant-based alternatives include ingredients that are common food allergens, including
– Tofu and Tempeh (soya-based)
– Seitan (gluten)
– Meat substitutes (often pea, soya and wheat protein )
– Plant-based milk (often almond, soy and coconut)
– Vegan butter, cheese and yogurt (‘dairy-free’ options may include other allergens)

According to Allergy UK, “Vegan-labeled products do not guarantee allergen-free status, as cross-contamination may occur during the manufacturing process.” This cautionary statement serves as a crucial reminder that consumers should not solely rely on vegan labels to ensure a product is safe for those with allergies.

The Natasha Allergy Research Foundation echoes this sentiment, stating that “Allergy sufferers should be cautious when relying solely on vegan labels, as allergens might be present in trace amounts due to shared production lines or cross-contamination.”

Food Standards Agency research and campaign

In March 2024, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) published research from an online survey showing that there is misplaced consumer confidence in the term ‘vegan’ meaning that a product is safe for those with food hypersensitivities to allergens of animal origin (milk, eggs, fish, crustaceans or molluscs). This includes consumers dealing with the risk of severe reactions.

Key research findings:
– 62% of all survey respondents were confident that the term ‘vegan’ means a food is safe for those with a food hypersensitivity to allergens of animal origin. This is despite it not necessarily indicating that the food is safe.
– 57% of those who have, or shop for someone with, severe reactions were confident the term ‘vegan’ means it is safe.
See the full report [pdf]

In response, the FSA launched a campaign aimed at raising awareness about the potential risks of food labelled as vegan for individuals with allergies. The campaign acknowledges that, while vegan-labeled products are intended to be free from animal-derived ingredients, they may still pose risks due to cross-contamination and hidden allergens.

Key messages from the FSA campaign

1. Cross-contamination: the campaign emphasises the potential for shared facilities and equipment in the production of vegan and non-vegan products, which can lead to cross-contamination.

2. Hidden allergens: the FSA underscores the possibility of hidden allergens in vegan products, urging consumers to remain vigilant and not solely rely on vegan labels for assurance.

3. Direct communication with manufacturers: consumers are encouraged to take an active role in their safety by directly contacting manufacturers to inquire about allergen management practices.

Conclusion

While veganism offers exciting alternatives for many consumers, those with food allergies must approach vegan labels with caution. The FSA’s campaign is a timely addition to the ongoing dialogue about the potential dangers of trusting vegan labels for those with food allergies. Trusting these labels blindly can pose serious risks due to potential cross-contamination or hidden allergens. By remaining vigilant, reading allergen labels thoroughly, and communicating with manufacturers, individuals with food sensitivities can safely navigate the world of diverse world of plant-based products while prioritising their health and well-being.

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