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Have food allergies? 5 tips for reading food labels

Over 3 million Canadians are impacted by food allergy. Accurate food labelling and reading labels carefully is vital for those living with food allergy and those who shop for them.

Priority allergens, which are common allergens like peanuts, soy and eggs, must be declared on food labels. To help Canadians stay safe, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) verifies that food industry partners follow the rules by inspecting, investigating complaints, and sampling and testing products.

Those with food allergies or sensitivities can protect themselves from potential exposure by understanding what's on the label.

Step 1: Know what you need to avoid

The first step is knowing the ingredients you need to avoid based on your own food allergies, sensitivities or intolerances.

Even if you don't see the allergens that you need to avoid on the label, be aware that some ingredients have the potential to cross-react with other priority allergens and may not be suitable for you. Cross-reactivity in allergies happens when your immune system mistakes similar proteins in different substances as the same, causing it to react to both even if you're only allergic to one of them. If you have not consumed the food before and you're unsure if a specific product may create cross-reactivity, ask your allergist. Some examples of cross-reactivity include:

Step 2: Scan the ingredients list

Once you've identified your priority allergens, read the ingredients list. Some of the more common allergens you may be looking for are eggs, milk, mustard, peanuts, crustaceans and molluscs, fish, sesame seeds, soy, sulphites, tree nuts, wheat and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye).

Pre-packaged food products that contain priority food allergens and gluten sources must include them in the list of ingredients and/or in a statement that begins with "contains" on their label. Some manufacturers also choose to use a "may contain" statement to inform consumers of possible cross-contamination with priority allergens.

If you have an allergy that is not a priority allergen, read the list of ingredients carefully and contact the company if you're unsure.

Read the label every time. This includes the full ingredient list, the "contains" (if used) and any "may contain" statements (if used) for your allergen(s) so you know what products to avoid.

Step 3: Look for allergens even if the food doesn't look like it would contain them

Even if you've bought a product before, manufacturers can change ingredients without notice. When buying products for someone with food allergy, make sure you do the Triple Check – where you read the labels 3 times: (1) before buying it at the store (or online), (2) when putting away groceries at home, and (3) before you serve or eat the product.

To help identify these allergens, check the label including all component ingredients. For example, some people may not know that tahini is made from sesame seeds or that fish (anchovy) can be found in Worchester sauce.

For non-priority allergens, you may be surprised to find these ingredients in products you were not expecting. For example, pea protein can be found in coffee creamers, yogurt, hamburger buns and pizza products. Always read the label fully to know what's in the products you are purchasing.

Step 4: Pay attention to allergen warnings and claims

It's important to recognize allergen warning statements. A "contains" statement tells you the allergen is in the food.

If there is precautionary allergen labelling, such as "may contain" or something similar indicating the allergen might be in the food, you should assume that the allergen may be in the food and avoid it. Statements with 'may contain' are used by manufacturers to voluntarily indicate a potential risk of cross-contamination, such as when a product that does not contain an allergen as an ingredient comes into contact with other products containing allergens during the manufacturing process. If you see this statement, don't risk it and leave the product on the shelf!

You should also be aware of claims that indicate that food does not contain an allergen, such as "peanut-free" or "milk-free". However, do not only depend on these claims to determine if a product may be safe for you. Always read the full ingredient list on the label and any "may contain" statements.

Step 5: Report any allergen labelling issues

If you have an allergic reaction to a food or find a product that appears to be mislabelled report it to the CFIA

The CFIA investigates potential labelling issues. If there was an error in the labelling, the product could be recalled.

Spread the word, not the allergen

Stay up-to-date on food recalls due to undeclared allergens by signing up for our recall alerts.

Did you find this article helpful? Share it with family and friends! Learn more about how you can help protect your child with food allergies by visiting our website or visiting our partners at Food Allergy Canada.

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