Understanding Food Allergies and Intolerances: What You Need to Know

In today's world, where food choices are as diverse as they are abundant, navigating the complexities of food allergies and intolerances has become an essential aspect of our daily lives. For millions globally, this isn't just about dietary preference but a necessary measure to avoid potentially life-threatening reactions. Whether dining out or shopping for groceries, understanding the nuances of food allergies and intolerances is paramount.

Food allergies occur when the body's immune system mistakenly identifies a harmless food protein as a threat, leading to reactions that can range from mild to severe. Common allergens include nuts, milk, eggs, and shellfish, among others. On the other hand, food intolerances, while generally less severe, can cause significant discomfort, with lactose and gluten being frequent culprits.

In the United Kingdom, recognising the critical need for consumers to make informed food choices, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has set stringent guidelines for food businesses. These regulations ensure that allergen information is clearly provided, helping individuals with food allergies or intolerances steer clear of harmful ingredients. The Food Information Regulations (2014) and the Food Labelling Regulations (2014) are cornerstone policies requiring the disclosure of 14 specific allergens in both pre-packaged and non-packaged foods.

Food law identifies the following 14 allergens as the most potent and prevalent: 

  • celery 

  • cereals containing gluten (such as wheat, rye, barley and oats) 

  • crustaceans (such as prawns, crabs and lobsters) 

  • eggs 

  • fish 

  • lupin 

  • milk 

  • molluscs (such as mussels and oysters) 

  • mustard 

  • peanuts 

  • sesame 

  • soybeans 

  • sulphur dioxide and sulphites (at a concentration of more than ten parts per million) 

  • tree nuts (such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts)

But what does this mean for you, the consumer? Simply put, these regulations are a lifeline for those affected by food allergies and intolerances, offering peace of mind in a landscape filled with dietary landmines. Here are a few key takeaways:

  • Always check labels: Whether you're allergic to peanuts or intolerant to gluten, always read food labels carefully. Look for the 14 allergens, which must be highlighted according to UK regulations.

  • Speak up when dining out: Don't hesitate to ask about allergen information when eating at restaurants or cafes. Staff should be knowledgeable or have access to the information you need.

  • Stay informed: Understanding the difference between allergies and intolerances can help you manage your condition more effectively. Education is your best defence.

As we navigate the complexities of our dietary needs, it's reassuring to know that regulations are in place to make our food choices safer. Whether you're someone with a food allergy or intolerance, or simply someone looking to be more informed about what's on your plate, the knowledge that you have the power to make safe, informed decisions is empowering. Let's continue to advocate for transparency and safety in our food industry, ensuring that everyone can enjoy their meals without fear.