Understanding food labels


Once you have been diagnosed with a food allergy, you will need to avoid your allergen and any foods that contain it. It can feel overwhelming and frustrating at first, when you have to read every ingredient list and scrutinise every detail on a packaged food. Read our handy guide, to help take the stress out of shopping with a food allergy. 

14 major food allergens

In the UK, there are 14 major food allergens that must be emphasised in the ingredients list on pre-packaged food. The law that covers this is the Food Information Regulation 2014 (FIR). It doesn’t say how the allergens must be emphasised, so they could be in bold, underlined, in capitals or even in a different colour. 

Can you spot the emphasised allergens in the example labels?

All pre-packaged foods (including foods such as sandwiches and cakes that are made on site and packaged in a café or bakery before you choose them) must have a label that includes a full ingredients list with the 14 major food allergens emphasised.  

Ingredients are listed in order of amount, so the first ingredient will be the largest amount and the last on the list, the smallest amount. 

You will need to check food labels  every time  you buy a food as ingredients and labels can change from batch to batch. Often there will be a ‘recipe change’ label on the front of the pack, but this is not a legal requirement, so always double check. 

The 14 major food allergens that must be emphasised are shown on the right.

What about multi-packs?

Many foods come in packs of individually wrapped portions, inside an outer wrapper. The law says that allergens only have to be displayed on the outer wrapper, when the portions are not intended to be sold separately. 

However, if allergen information is listed on the packaging of the individual portions, then it must match with the outer wrapper and not give different information. 

Be really cautious with any foods that have come from a multi-pack and may not have allergen information listed. If the outer wrapper is not available to check, don’t take the risk. 


What about ingredients that are not on the list of 14 major allergens?

Apart from the 14 major allergens, there are many other foods that can cause allergic reactions. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, pulses are some of the most common food allergens not included in the top 14. These will be listed in the ingredients list on the label of the food but will not be emphasised.  

Are there any foods exempt from labelling?

Certain flavourings, herbs and spices can be listed on the ingredients label without specifying what they contain, except if they contain one of the 14 major allergens. The only way to be completely sure is to ask the manufacturer directly. 

A few packaged products don’t have to have an ingredients list at all, as it’s very clear what they are from their names. 

These include:
  • right_arrow_orange_icon fresh fruit and vegetables that have not been peeled or cut
  • right_arrow_orange_icon dairy cheese, butter, milk or cream with nothing added
  • right_arrow_orange_icon carbonated water
  • right_arrow_orange_icon single ingredient foods where the name of the food is the same as the name of the ingredient (for example, peanuts or eggs)

What is precautionary allergen labelling (PAL)?

Allergens can often still be in foods when they are not an intended ingredient. This can happen when foods share a production line, or factory space with other products and one product could end up contaminating another. This is called cross-contamination.  

PAL is extra written allergen information on food packaging to explain that an allergen may be in a food even though it is not an intended ingredient. PAL is commonly seen on many pre-packaged products in supermarkets and food shops. 

PAL includes phrases like:
  • right_arrow_orange_icon ‘May contain nuts’
  • right_arrow_orange_icon ‘May contain traces of egg’
  • right_arrow_orange_icon ‘Made in a factory that handles peanuts’
  • right_arrow_orange_icon ‘Not suitable for milk allergy sufferers.’

Many different phrases can be used as this type of information is voluntary. However, any PAL must not be confusing or misleading and should only be used if there is a real and significant risk to someone with that food allergy, and only after a risk assessment has been carried out.  

Sometimes people think one type of statement means there is more risk than another type of statement. For example, that ‘May contain nuts’ means more risk than ‘Made in a factory that handles nuts’, but this is not true. They all mean the same thing – that there is a risk of cross-contamination with the specified allergen.   

There is no set amount of allergen at which a PAL must be used, so this means the amount of allergen present could vary, even between similar products. 

Speak to your GP or allergy specialist about PAL labelling. Depending on your individual allergy diagnosis, some doctors may advise that you can include foods in your diet that have PALs for your allergen. Unless you have been specifically advised that it is safe for you to eat them, check labels carefully and don’t take the risk. 

Foods with a ‘free from’ label

Foods with a ‘free from’ label are foods made without the allergen they state they are free from e.g. ‘free from milk’. 

A ‘free from’ label does not mean the food is free from ALL allergens. A cereal bar labelled ‘free from peanuts’ may contain milk, eggs, soya or any other allergen, so always check labels carefully. 

If the label states that the food is ‘free from milk’ or ‘peanut free’, it has to be based on specific and rigorous controls.  

The controls MUST ensure that the final product is completely free of the particular allergen.  

The only exception to this rule is for gluten free products. Gluten free products can still contain a small amount gluten. They can have a maximum 20mg/kg of gluten because this has been shown to be a safe level for people with Coeliac disease (an autoimmune condition). Some people with wheat allergy may react to less gluten than this. There is not enough research to show what amount of wheat is safe for people with wheat allergy, so it’s safest to avoid gluten free foods unless you can be sure that wheat is not an ingredient.  

Vegan Food Allergens

Did you know that many foods labelled vegan or plant-based can still contain traces of ‘animal’ allergens which can make them unsafe for people with ‘animal-based’ allergies?

We don’t believe living with allergies should prevent you from adopting a vegan lifestyle, if that’s your choice. So, we’re here to help demystify vegan food labelling by highlighting some of the risks and giving you some handy tips on what to look out for, to ensure that your vegan choices are safe and informed.

What happens if a food label is wrong?

Sometimes mistakes happen and a food product might have missing or incorrect allergen information on the label.  When this happens, the Food Standards Agency or Food Standards Scotland in Scotland, work closely with the food manufacturer or supplier to issue a recall notice for the affected food. 

You can sign up for allergy alerts from Anaphylaxis UK here 

If you have any concerns about the information provided about allergens on food packaging, you can report this to your local authority trading standards, who are responsible for enforcing allergen labelling regulations.  


Preparing food

Preparing food with a serious food allergy can seem challenging. Sometimes, even a very small amount of allergen could be enough to cause an allergic reaction. Taking a few simple steps can reduce the risks and help you feel more confident.

You will need to be aware of the risk from cross-contamination when cooking and preparing foods.

Cross-contamination is when an allergen is moved from one surface or food to another. For example, if you use a knife to cut a cheese sandwich and then use the same knife to cut a chicken sandwich. Some of the cheese may be moved to the chicken sandwich. There could be enough cheese to cause an allergic reaction in someone with an allergy to dairy foods.

Soap and hot water followed by thorough rinsing works to remove allergen traces. Wiping away mess will not be enough. Antibacterial or alcohol-based sprays don’t destroy or remove allergens.

Some useful tips to help you reduce the risk of cross-contamination:

  • right_arrow_orange_icon Always wash your hands with hot, soapy water before preparing any food.
  • right_arrow_orange_icon If you are making different foods for different people, make the allergen safe food first.
  • right_arrow_orange_icon Don’t use the same utensils for different foods without washing them well first using hot, soapy water.
  • right_arrow_orange_icon Always clean preparation areas, utensils, hands and even aprons after handling allergens.
  • right_arrow_orange_icon Store allergenic foods separately from allergen safe foods if possible.
  • right_arrow_orange_icon Put allergenic foods on the bottom shelf of fridges, cupboards or ovens so they can’t drip or leak on safe foods below them.
  • right_arrow_orange_icon If other people use your kitchen regularly, consider popping a note on a cupboard or fridge that outlines the measures they should follow to control cross-contamination risks.
  • right_arrow_orange_icon Don’t fry with oils that you used to cook other foods that contain allergens.
  • right_arrow_orange_icon If you use a barbeque, be sure to fully clean the grill before cooking. Consider using foil or a clean grill pan to prepare allergen safe foods.
  • right_arrow_orange_icon Cover, wrap and label dishes once they have been prepared if you’re not eating them straightaway.
  • right_arrow_orange_icon Make sure everyone washes their hands with hot, soapy water after eating or touching allergens. This will help stop them spreading allergens around the house.
  • right_arrow_orange_icon Think about keeping all food and eating in one area of the house e.g., kitchen and dining areas.
  • right_arrow_orange_icon You may want to ban the allergenic food from home altogether, but this is not always necessary if cross-contamination risks are well controlled.
  • right_arrow_orange_icon If you’re making food in someone else’s house, store all the allergen safe food in a large container that can go in their fridge or cupboard and don’t forget to take clean washing up sponges or cloths with you!

In time, you will find your own way of doing things in your own home that works for you.  This will vary from home to home depending on your allergy and the advice you’ve received from your doctor or allergy specialist. You may want to follow all these tips or just some of them!