PREVENTING ALLERGIC REACTIONS BEGINS IN THE SHOPPPING CART
Since many of my clients are affected by food allergies, I often help them in selecting products that are safe for them (or a member of their family) to eat. Knowing how to properly read labels is an important factor in controlling risks of allergic reactions. Let’s explore this further.
An allergy results in an overreaction of the immune system. Symptoms include itching, red patches, swelling, vomiting, abdominal cramps, shortness of breath, coughing, diarrhea, wheezing, swelling of the respiratory tract, runny nose, nasal congestion, hoarse voice, anxiety, nervousness, dizziness, fainting, drowsiness, weakness, etc. The most serious of all reactions is anaphylaxis. It can happen suddenly and result in death if left untreated. It can be triggered by the slightest trace of an allergen.
As to the allergen, it is generally a protein (or food additive) contained in the food in intact, modified or partial form. Note that even cooking the food will not remove the allergen, since most of the time these proteins are stable at high temperatures.
Several differences distinguish a food intolerance from an allergy: the symptoms of an intolerance are generally only of digestive nature (nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, diarrhea). The immune system is not involved and a person’s life is not in danger if the food is ingested. In addition, the intensity of the symptoms usually depends on the amount ingested. This being said, it is better to get medical advice to avoid taking unnecessary risk, or on the contrary, to avoid unnecessary privation.
List of ingredients
The list of ingredients (listed in descending order of weight) must be found on all packaged products sold in Canada, with some exceptions. If this is not the case, leave the product on the shelf.
Also, regulations require manufacturers to declare any presence of added sulphites and the main allergens responsible for more than 90% of allergic reactions: peanuts, nuts (almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts), sesame seeds, wheat and triticale, eggs, milk, soybeans, seafood (fish or shellfish) and mustard seeds.
Finally, the manufacturer must list these main allergens by their common name on the label. For example, if a product contains “ovalbumin”, the manufacturer should write the word “eggs” in the list of ingredients, or must write “contains eggs” immediately thereafter.
Over 200 types of other proteins can cause allergic reactions. Since they are not considered main allergens, manufacturers are not required to use their common name on the label. So be careful! For example, the term “dextrimaltose” refers to maize.
It is not mandatory to list the detailed composition of certain ingredients on the label, unless a main allergen is present. For example, the manufacturer of a product containing margarine, gelatin or seasonings is not required to describe the detailed composition of those ingredients. A person who is allergic to cinnamon should therefore be wary of a product containing “spices”. When in doubt, contact the manufacturer and ask to speak to the quality control manager.
“May contain…” claims
The law requires that all products be safe to ingest. If there is a risk of contamination with any main allergen other than those listed in the ingredients list, manufacturers must first review their manufacturing practices. If they cannot fully guarantee the absence of an allergen, they may then add the words “This product may contain …” on the product label. However, this warning is not mandatory; its absence does not guarantee the safety of the product.
Certifications and “without …” claims
Warnings, certifications and “no…” claims are not regulated or mandatory. Except for the “Allergen Control ™” certification, no external auditors validate and certify the optimal control of allergens. There will always be some risk of contamination. However, the manufacturer declaring a product to be “without (name of the allergen)” is still responsible for ensuring that the product is designed or processed in an environment that guarantees the absence of the said allergen.
Sometimes, a manufacturer can modify a product’s recipe or the manufacturing process. The product can therefore, at any time, contain an allergen that wasn’t there before. The composition can also be different from one size packaging to another. Occasionally, the translation can be misleading. It is therefore advisable to read each label before purchase, preferably in both languages!
You can also subscribe to food recall notices on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) website and the Quebec department of agriculture, fisheries and food (MAPAQ). Also, if you have an allergic reaction, do not hesitate to report the product; keep the packaging and contents intact if possible and contact CFIA or MAPAQ as soon as possible.
Allergen-Free, Gluten-Free and Precautionary Statements. (2016, 04). Retrieved from http://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/labelling/food-labelling-for-industry/allergens-and-gluten/eng/1388152325341/1388152326591?chap=0
Food labelling. Retrieved from http://foodallergycanada.ca/allergy-safety/food-labelling/
Allergies Québec. Infos Allergies. Retrieved from http://allergies-alimentaires.org/fr/infoallergies
Allergies Québec. (2016, September 9). Trucs et astuces pour une rentrée en toute sécurité. [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/Y1NFYdxn6rc
Bettez, M.-J. & Bettez-Théroux, C. (2017). Lunchs réinventés – Déjouer les allergies alimentaires. Montreal, Quebec : Éditions Québec Amérique inc.