How to safely navigate vegan food allergens

We all know that veganism is a popular lifestyle choice that many people make based on ethical, environmental and nutritional factors. But 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.

Vegan Food Labels and Allergens

The first step is to know the difference between vegan food labelling and ‘free-from’ or ‘allergen-free’ labelling.

There is no agreed definition for ‘vegan’ or ‘plant-based’ in UK food law. This means that vegan food labelling is not food safety labelling. Food safety labelling, like ‘free-from’ or ‘allergen-free’, are a guarantee that the specified food will be absent from the product. But vegan food labelling simply indicates that no animal-based ingredients were intentionally used.

Understanding this difference is crucial for individuals with food allergies, as the unintentional presence of allergens in a product labelled vegan can still pose a risk.

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has published guidance on ‘Allergen’-Free and Vegan Claims for consumers. This guidance has information on the difference between ‘free-from’ or ‘allergen’-free claims (e.g. milk-free) and vegan claims.

Cross contamination and Precautionary Allergen Labelling

If you have a food allergy to an ‘animal’ allergen such as dairy, fish, crustacean, mollusc or egg remember that a vegan or plant-based product may still have a ‘may contain’ warning for your allergen. This is because unintentional cross contamination can occur when vegan or plant-based food is produced on the same line or in the same factory as non-vegan food. This means some vegan or plant-based food may contain allergens, posing a hidden danger to those with allergies.

If a food business has labelled a product as vegan, but has identified a risk of cross-contamination with an ‘animal’ allergen, it should communicate this risk with a precautionary allergen labelling statement such as ‘may contain’ alongside their vegan claim.

ALWAYS check the labels!

The most important advice we can give to help you navigate your vegan journey is to ALWAYS check the allergen label. It’s important never to rely on vegan food labelling to mean allergen free. Many vegan or plant-based alternatives include ingredients that are common food allergens. The 14 major allergens must be emphasised on the packet so it’s important to always read the labels and double check the ingredients to make sure vegan or plant-based products are free from your allergens and safe for you to eat.

You  should also be very clear about your allergies when ordering vegan food while eating out.

Vegan or plant-based alternatives to watch out for

There are many vegan or plant-based alternatives available, but many of them contain ingredients that are common food allergens. Here are just a few examples of vegan or plant-based alternatives to watch out for. This list does not feature all ingredients. Please remember to check the ingredient label to see if the food is safe for you.

  • Tofu

    Tofu is made from soya bean and so it is an important ingredient to avoid for anyone with a soya allergy. Tofu is used in a wide variety of dishes, often as a meat replacement but can also be found in desserts, such as ice cream, or as a scrambled egg alternative.

    Read our Soya factsheet here.

  • Tempeh

    Similar to tofu, tempeh is also soya-based and a versatile meat substitute. It can be found in a variety of products including vegan bacon.

  • Seitan

    Seitan is sometimes regarded as a good alternative to tofu or tempeh if you have a soya allergy. However, this replacement comes from gluten and is unsuitable for anyone with a wheat allergy. It is often used as a meat alternative and commonly used to replicate chicken.

  • Meat Substitutes

    If swapping meat for a substitute, be aware that some alternative ingredients might cause allergic reactions. Concentrated pea, soya and wheat protein is often used in meat substitutes.  Because the protein in these foods is very concentrated, they might cause a more serious reaction if you eat them when you have an allergy to that food. Peas and soya belong to the legume plant family which includes peanuts, chickpeas, lentils and beans. Peas are not in the top 14 UK food allergens so won’t be highlighted in ingredients lists, although they should still be listed.

    Read more about allergy to Legumes

  • Quorn

    Quorn is a popular meat substitute made from mycoprotein. There is not very much information about allergic reactions to Quorn, but some people have reported symptoms.

    Read our factsheet about Quorn here.

  • Plant-based milk

    There are so many alternatives to dairy milk, however, they often include other potential allergens such as almond, soy and coconut. If you are visiting a café or coffee shop, remember to ask staff about the risk of cross contamination. Unfortunately, some venues will not be able to guarantee an allergen free beverage if they are using the same equipment for all drinks.

  • Vegan butter, cheese and yogurt

    Like plant-based milk, butter, cheese and yogurt also comes in dairy-free alternatives, but these can also include other allergens. Be vigilant and double check ingredients and ‘may contain’ labelling.

  • Egg replacers

    There are lots of different replacements for egg available made from a variety of different ingredients including aquafaba (chickpea water), nutritional yeast, corn starch and pea protein. Always double check the label for allergen information.

By understanding vegan food labelling, recognising the risks and paying close attention to all food labels and ingredients, people with allergies can still enjoy a vegan diet without compromising their health.

Want to learn more? Check out our extensive range of evidence-based factsheets.

See our factsheets