Every day I am checking ingredients labels. With a nut allergy it’s just part of my food habits. I don’t think about it that much any more, because as I said it’s one of my habits to double and triple check.
But how do you figure out which warning label is ok and what’s not? I get asked this question a lot and recently I’ve been finding some funny product labelling. So I decided it was time I wrote up how I think about this stuff.
Disclaimer: This post is what I do and how I decide. You must continue to use your discretion and common sense when you check ingredients labels! If in doubt don’t eat the food. If you have further query call the company and ask for their product allergen specification sheet. You are responsible for your food choices because you are responsible for you allergy safety.
How do I actually decide which foods I’m willing to eat?
To be honest it comes down to a few things: what the warning label says, the company and my mood. I’m talk about these is reverse order and show you how I come to a decision.
Although this might sound strange, how I feel really does shape how I decide on whether to eat a food or not. I mean we all have that but mine, having a severe food allergy, could have further reaching consequences. So I acknowledge and make sure I know when my mood is having more of an influence on my decision.
Let’s talk about when I’m in a good, energetic mood when my work is going well and I’m at the shops looking for a snack. At this time I’m less likely to eat something with a warning. This is because I can think past the hunger, the food isn’t going to make me feel anything different or more than what I’m already feeling. So I am more willing to feel like I am “giving something up,” and that’s exactly it. When I’m happy I feel like I’m not missing out on anything.
Now what about if I’m sad, stressed and or tired. I can tell you straight away I’m a comfort eater. Any or a combination of the afore mentioned emotions, I feel like I want sugar and carbs usually in the form of biscuits. Unfortunately for me if I want gluten and nut free biscuits there are only a few brands I can have which don’t have nut warnings (Schar being the most widely accessible at the supermarkets). When I am in a mood I am far more willing to risk a warning for that satisfaction of sugar. It is not rational. It is emotionally fuelled. But knowing this and accepting it as my choice, is important for owning my allergy. For taking responsibility of my allergy and accepting the risk.
Although I know my mood dictates some of how I choose a warning label, it is not the whole story. Although I may be fuelled emotionally, I still always look at the packets, the ingredients and make a calculation of the risk. Although the driving force behind some decisions may be emotional, I want the risk to be calculated.
How I make a quick risk assessment of product packets for allergens
The company is one factor when I decide what to eat. It comes down to how well do these companies understand and follow the rules for food production?
To the best of my understanding large food companies have stricter rules within their factories for food production. As such I am more likely to trust big company on what they say their factory processes are on the packet than a small packet.
On the other hand, small businesses are exactly that, small. This isn’t to say that all are bad. I just find with some small business, perhaps they are bakeries or home businesses, that unless they have experience dealing with allergies I don’t always trust them. This is because they are making lots of different things in one place. If there are nuts or peanuts in the kitchen, how do I know for sure that they haven’t been contaminated. How do I know that machinery has been cleaned properly. Do they have the same structures in place as a big factory? Being a small business may mean no protocols and procedures or they think they understand the seriousness of allergies but in their newness to the food business their naivety could make them think they understand when they don’t.
Some small businesses are great on the other hand. Being small means that you can often talk to the people who make the product because you are buying directly from them at a market. When it comes to this, it comes down to your allergy sense and you have to make your own decision of whether to trust them or not.
There’s no hard and fast rule about this, you have to trust your gut in many of these situations.
Searching the Ingredients List For Allergens
Every product in Europe is required by law to list their ingredients. There is a specific way in which they are supposed to be listed and according to the current regulations, allergens are required to be highlighted in bold.
Every food I want to consume from, I check. This includes the ingredients of drinks as well by the way (and to justify this I recently found a peanut butter drink while on holiday in the Caribbean and it was at the supermarket…). If I see one of my allergens listed on the label, this is an obvious no. I am not going to eat something that could make me sick or potentially kill me, that would be stupid.
If the ingredients list does not contain my allergens I next scower the packet for allergen warnings and any free from claims.
Now before I go on I must say I am seeing an increasing number of companies claiming “free from [insert allergen] and then putting a may contain warning on the back of the pack too. I even saw it on an entrant to the Free From Food Awards when I was judging in January 2018. It infuriates me because it is so misleading, and untrue. However, as there are no formal agreements on what constitutes free from, it is currently up to a companies judgement and common sense, which is sometimes lacking. So be careful and always check the packet.
So now what if there is an allergy warning?
How Do I Understand Allergen Warning Labels?
Well for me, it depends on what the warning says. I will not go near one that specifically mentions peanuts. This was an unconscious decision at first but I’ve realised I do this because I had a severe reaction to peanuts (read my reaction story here) and ever since I have been incredibly careful. A warning label of any kind specifically saying “may contain….,” “made on a line using…,” “made in a factory handling…,” or anything else with ‘peanuts’ I stay well clear. It stresses me out too much and because I know I react within 5 minutes I just don’t want to take that risk.
When it comes to tree nuts on the other hand I am not so strict. I have a feeling it is because I’ve never had a reaction to tree nuts before, and my tests when I was a kid told my parents that peanuts and Brazil nuts were my most sensitive allergies. The rest of the tree nuts I couldn’t have but weren’t as bad.
So here is where the other factors come into play; how I’m feeling, the company and what the warning says.
As I may have mentioned, there isn’t a hard and fast rule for what is a good warning and what’s a bad warning. They are all food allergen warning labels and must be given their due amount of caution at all times.
That said here is how I interpret what allergen warning labels might mean.
“Made in a factory using…”
This warning could mean a number of things. One thing is for sure is this product was made in a factory that uses any of the allergens they list. Where and how it is handled is unknown. It could be made is a separate part of the factory floor with a partition. It could be made in a totally separate part of the factory with a door as the only connector between the allergen free side and the contaminated side. Or, it could be made right next to or on the same line as the allergen containing product.
“Made on a line handling…”
What you have to know about this is “how does the equipment get cleaned and how thoroughly?” As we all know using the same equipment is risky business when it comes to cross contamination. The smallest amount could cause a really severe reaction. For this reason I usually stay clear of these warnings. They are there for a reason and I’d much rather not take that risk.
A general “may contain…”
These “may contain…” warnings I am never sure whether a company actually means it or whether they’re putting it on to cover the their legal butts. Most times I’ve been in contact with a company the may contain is something along the lines of “there are no nuts in the recipe but we can’t guarantee its nut free.” Usually meaning they can’t be bothered to check their supply line, don’t know or just want to put a warning just in case.
So how do you know whether you can eat it or not?
As I mentioned before, I won’t go near a may contain peanuts. The memory of my reaction will always be far too vivid. When it comes to a general may contain nuts, it depends on the company and the other products they make in their range. If the company makes other products which contain nuts I will be more wary because I assume they are made in the same factory that could mean greater risk of cross contamination. I also avoid “made on the same line as…” warning because I can’t trust someone would clean down the equipment as well as I would.
Also a quick side note before I wrap this up. When it comes to factory or wrapped fresh food, I usually go for the factory packed. This is because I personally trust the protocols put in place by large companies over something wrapped but some random person working in a bakery or on a deli counter. Especially when my allergens are present in that small space.
For every food consumption decision, I try to make sure my logical brain rather than emotions (or hungry stomach) make the final decision. In the end it all comes down to what are you comfortable with. I wish I could tell you there is a hard and fast rule, but there isn’t.
It’s an allergen filled world and there is no getting away from it. When it comes to deciding which allergen warnings are ok for you, I view it as a calculated risk. I personally choose as much as possible based on the way the warning is worded, what I know about the company, and what other products they make. These logical factors coupled with how I’m feeling usually are the way I come to a decision. But it all comes down to “am I willing to risk it?” And only you can make that decision for you own allergy.
Do you eat foods with warnings? If so, how do you decide which ones to go for? Leave a comment below and share your views.
GIVEAWAY!: How to Enter
Win a copy of my debut recipe book “Chocolate treats: decadent delights free from the top 14 allergens”!
To enter, all you need to do is leave a note in the comment section at the bottom of this post with your answer to this question:
What is the number 1 allergy-related problem that you wish you could solve tomorrow?
Deadline: Sunday 29th July at 23:59 GMT
*Entry is open for international participants. The winner will be emailed upon close and then I’ll post out your prize!
I can’t believe after over a years worth of work my debut recipe book “Chocolate Treats: Decadent delights free from the top 14 allergens” is now available on Amazon.co.uk AND Amazon.com!! I am SO excited proud and thankful to everyone who had a hand in getting this book published and that includes you EAS community!
Thank you to the very first people to email in with recipes requests and suggestions, it was you who got me on this path and inspired me to create more. Thank you to those of you who bought the first edition back in December 2017! I couldn’t quite believe it when the first orders came in.
As a thank you, in today’s post I am going to give you a little preview of what you will find in the book including: the key things to make great chocolate treats that are free from the top 14 allergens, a little bit about my favourite recipes as well as a GIVEAWAY!!
The Key To Working with Dairy Free Chocolate
Dark chocolate naturally shouldn’t contain dairy but you will often find that it has a warning label due to cross-contamination risks. As such dairy free dark chocolate works in basically the same way as ‘normal’ dark chocolate. Dairy free ‘white’ chocolate on the other hand is a complete diva! The number of times I have ruined a batch during melting or thinking that I could leave it for a bit like I do the dark chocolate is unbelievable! The dairy free white chocolate requires constant attention, hence the Diva tag.
The key to melting dark, and especially white chocolate is to use the Bain Marie method. A Bain Marie is when you melt chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. The rising steam from the water gently heats the underneath of the bowl. While you stir the chocolate it will melt evenly without getting too hot. If chocolate gets too hot it will separate. This is especially true when it comes to dairy free white chocolate, it has to be stirred constantly! It’s lack of cocoa solids is part of the reason for this, it is more unstable than its dark counterpart. So, being the diva she is, she must have constant attention (I.e. stirring) to keep her silky smooth once melted.
In my recipe book I have a whole section talking more in depth about the characteristics and techniques for working with chocolate and how to get the most out of it for your bakes.
Using Gluten Free Flours
In many of the recipes I use a combination of gluten free flours in various recipes. Each gluten free flour has its own properties, some are starchy, others are sticky when mixed with water, others are just thirsty little things. However when mixed in a various combination they create different textures in the bakes. For example, in my Chocolate Fudge Cake I use combination of rice flour and tapioca flour. Tapioca is a starchy flour made from the cassava root, when mixed with water it can be used as a thickener in savoury foods such as soups and stews, but for baking it can create a sticky texture in a batter when baked. Perfect when you want your fudge cake to be a thick chocolate sponge!
In many of my cakes I like using coconut flour. In the UK, coconut is not included as a nut in the top 14 allergen list. It is also one of the gluten free flours I can eat (as I am allergic to peanuts and tree nuts). I like that it has a sweetness all of its own which means I don’t have to add a huge amount of sugar to cakes. Not only is too much sugar not good for you, I found in a lot of store bought free from cakes the amount of sugar is horrendous! I also find you get a clawing after taste when there is too much sugar in the recipe and it just tastes a bit fake…not pleasant at all! The coconut flour also has a very light texture, almost fluffy. I mix it with rice flour or tapioca flour in various recipes to add texture to the cake. I find the sponges come out lovely and light! Even my non-allergic friends think so!
Baking with No Eggs…How do you get cakes to rise??
Now this is something that wasn’t actually as hard as you may think. I use a combination of gluten free baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and vinegar to create the rise in my bakes. A bit confused as to how or why this works? Well, think back to your school science projects, particularly how you get a volcano to erupt. The ingredients you would use are vinegar and bicarbonate of soda. The vinegar and bicarb react and create a fizzing and this is what happens in the bakes too, hence the rising.
I always like to find the natural way to make food and my general food philosophy is you should be able to eat each ingredient individually, so random replacers are not my favourite. Vinegar and raising agents on the other hand are a good option and they work. I use different quantities depending on the size of the cake, but don’t worry I’ve specified exactly how much in each recipe.
My 3 Favourite Recipes
I have a couple recipes in this book which are my favourite: Sweet Potato Brownies, Date Orange and Chocolate Truffles and the American Style Chocolate Chip Cookies.
In reverse order, the Chocolate Chip Cookies took quite a few tries to get the recipe right (I burned quite a few batches and some others just fell apart). I had a real sense of triumph when I got it right! Not to mention the taste is brilliant! They are crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside, my version of an American Cookie.
The Date Orange and Chocolate Truffles was a recipe I dreamed up 3 months before I actually finished it. It just kept going round and round until I actually finished making them. Then once I did the taste of the fresh orange came bursting through with the sweetness of the dates and the richness of the chocolate I could just keep eating them all day!
Finally the Sweet Potato Brownies, again took a couple tries to get right. The first time it just went hard and burned, the second was slightly better but still not great and then I got the ratios of ingredients just right and they were perfection! They were bouncy and SO chocolatey, even 3 days after I made them (because I couldn’t get to photograph them until then). My other half and his brother (who has no allergies) helped me taste test them and we finished the brownies in one sitting, they were that good!
Where You Can Buy the Book
If you are thinking of birthday or Christmas presents, or just a recipe book to add to your collection I would of course highly recommend my Chocolate Treats recipe book (how could I not?!).
I’ve aimed it at anyone who loves to bake, has multiple food allergies or wants to bake for someone with food allergies. All the instructions are easy to follow and you don’t need to buy any fancy equipment! I started off allergy free baking while I was at university so I wanted to keep it so that you could do it in any kitchen with just a bowl, a fork and an oven at the most basic level.
Along with the recipes I have also added lots of information about living with allergies, as well as links to resources that may be useful to you. Its about choosing to make allergy living your lifestyle choice rather than just something that was forced on you. I’ve found that making that choice makes it more manageable and absolutely more fun!
I wanted to make sure the book was as widely available as possible so I have published on:
Amazon.com (USA & Canada)
(You can get next day delivery if you have Prime too!)
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Q: I had an unexpected close call this evening. We went out to dinner with a couple we just met. We all met at Denny’s – as they have been awesome with us and my 16 month daughter’s pn allergy. I always bring food from home for my girl just in case, and was explaining to the other couple about my girl’s allergy and how severe it is, how we have to be so careful about foods prepped around peanuts and butter- you know the drill when you tell new people. Well we all go to order our food and this other lady orders PEANUT BUTTER PANCAKES. I can’t even. It’s got this peanut butter sauce all over it dripping everywhere. So I tell the waitress how my food needs to be cooked separately (because obviously) and was silently freaking out. I gave my husband THAT look and stared at this woman like, did she just not pay attention to what I just said? My daughter is ana to pn. I don’t know how to handle these situations with people and do not have the ability to be diplomatic sometimes when I’m in freak out mode. What would you have done? (Note- to complicate- they had two young boys sharing food with mom, who were very eager to play with my girl and I wouldn’t let them.)
If you want to ask a question, send an email using the contact form here.
If you are interested in having 1-on-1 coaching, find out more on my Allergy Coaching page.
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… Foods You Wouldn’t Know Had Tree Nuts & Peanuts In Them
- Chocolate Bars
- Beware of orange chocolate, it often contains almonds
- Pick ’n’ Mix
- Be aware of chocolate covered almond, Brazil nuts, peanuts etc
- Can contain pine nuts, cashews or almonds
- Bombay Sapphire Gin is made with almonds
- Ameretto (such as the brand Diserrano) is made from almonds
- Hand Creams (almond oil is a common addition)
- Bars of Soap (Pears soap used to use nut oils)
- Face Scrub often can use walnuts kernels as the scrub
- Massage oil
- Manicure cuticle softener often contains almonds, macadamia nut oil, or Brazil nut oil
- Oils used to fry or cook foods (Indian, Chinese, France have been know to cook chips in peanut oil)
- Salads can be topped with walnuts, almonds for example or have a nut oil on top
- Curry pastes, dishes and sauces (jars and at restaurants)
- Thai food
- Chinese food
- Jelly Beans (American brand have a peanut flavour with peanut extract!)
- Extracts (peanut extract, almond extract, pistachio)
- Gluten free breads, cakes, brownies, biscuits, snack bars
- Veggie and Vegan Foods: Stuffing, burgers, vegan cheese
- Deli cheese and meats (I’ve found packets of sliced ham with a nut warning!)
- Gourmet foods often garnish with nuts or use nuts oils
- Baklava is Turkish pastry dessert which contains pistachio
- Contraceptive pill can have nut warnings too!
These are the various places I’ve found nuts lurking, if you have other places leave a note in the comments below and let me know so I can add it to the list!