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How to Decipher Allergen Warning Labels

How to Decipher Allergen Warning Labels

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.

My Mood

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 to decipher allergen ingredients labelling eat allergy safe

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.

It’s an allergen filled world and there is no getting away from it. Click To Tweet

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.

 

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‘Love Bites’ or ‘Love, Bites:’ Advice for Lovers and Allergy Sufferers on Valentine’s Day

Valentine's Day ingredients warning

How could I start a post about allergies without a product warning. It is a persistent factor in the lives of allergy sufferers. If you were unaware before, welcome to the world of allergies.

Allergies are on the rise and that means the number of people affected by allergies are also on the rise. Just because you don’t personally have an allergy doesn’t mean you won’t be affected.

As Valentine’s Day is fast approaching many of you might be wondering how can I celebrate and still stay allergy safe? Or, what do I do when my boyfriend/girlfriend has an allergy but I don’t?

Having an allergy, however mild or severe, is not as difficult to manage as you might think. Think about it this way:

If you have ever shared a flat or house before I’m sure you will remember the person who didn’t do their dishes. The mountain of crockery rising to epic proportions as it became populated with flying creatures settling on the moist furry mould. While they may have been exercising their botanical interest, you were probably exercising you patience to it’s last straw. Another common one is replacing the toilet roll if you finish it. Using the toilet is quite a relief, but this sense of satisfaction sinks like a lead balloon when all you see is the brown cardboard innard,..Worse still, there’s probably no one home…

Allergies are much the same. It is common courtesy to wash your dirty dishes and replace the toilet roll. If you know someone with an allergy, washing your hands and mouth, and not putting allergens (dirty dishes) in their path is just common courtesy. The main difference is this time you’ll save a life, and not just your house mates patience.

Love frog on bed

Advice for lovers and non-allergy sufferers

In the last few years there have been a number of parodies of allergic reactions.  From Will Smith’s elephant face in Hitch and Jennifer Lopez botox lips in Monster in Law. These actors the cartoon-like gag of the allergic reaction scene: freaking out, running around like a crazy people or getting a little woozy on antihistamines.

I suppose these movies do have a point, they highlight the quickness of allergic reactions and so you have to be equally quick. Unlike the scenes in these movies, if your special someone starts to swell up like a balloon, go straight to hospital!

Yes, it will most likely put a dampener on the romantic mood. Rather than candles you’ll have the fluorescent strip lighting of the hospital A&E (ER for any readers across the pond). Rather than sweet caresses, you’ll most likely be holding their hand as they have injections or holding hair back while they’re throwing up. There is one upside though, you would get to spend lots of time together, maybe even the night, but perhaps not quite as you imagined…

If you really want your magic night to happen the way you planned then do all you can to avoid an allergic reaction.

Here are 5 pieces of advices to start you off:

1. Ask about your special person’s allergies

Forewarned is fore-armed. The best way to know what to do and what to avoid, is to ask. Asking the allergy sufferer is the best way to learn how to keep them safe. Find out what they’re allergic to and where to find allergens in every day items so you can avoid them.

If you’re unsure still then have a google. The NHS website, Anaphylaxis Campaign and Allergy UK all have useful information to help you too.

2. Don’t go somewhere likely to have the allergens

If you’re deciding where to spend your Valentine’s Day activity use common sense. Avoid places where the allergen is likely to be present with a high risk of cross-contamination. Some examples:

(This list is non exhaustive, but it will give you an idea of some of the more obvious places or things to avoid. If in doubt, ask!)

Allergens and where to avoid

3. Check the label on everything!

Whether you are buying a gift or making a romantic dinner at home, check the label for allergens on everything. This includes all the things you assume wouldn’t have a warning too, items such as cooking oils, snack bags, dips, lotions, shampoo, cologne/perfume, drinks, everything. There are warnings on the most unexpected items. Always ask your date about what he/she thinks about a warning. They will have final say. But, if in doubt, leave it out (N.B. doesn’t apply to ‘protection’ but even those can be a problem… keep reading to find out, or skip ahead here).

4. Avoid coming into contact with allergens

I make a few assumptions about you because you are reading this article: 1) you are going on a date, 2) your date has an allergy, 3) you like who you are going on a date with, and 4) you would like to get to know them better. 

In order to achieve number 4 you need to keep yourself available. You will make yourself unavailable if you contaminate yourself. Contamination can occur through eating, touching, using or generally coming into contact with an allergen. The allergen you will need to avoid will be whatever your date is allergic to. You will have found this out by talking to your date. (See tip 1 for more.)

Needless to say, contamination will most likely inhibit or entirely prevent activities such as hand holding, kissing, canoodling and other romantic gestures. You will have successfully transported yourself back to in time to when even holding hands was a saucy move.

5. Don’t panic

Yes, even after all this information don’t panic. You are going on a date with someone you like! Get excited! Let them guide you through their allergy. Don’t worry or be insulted if they ask you not to eat or do something, they are asking you because it may contain something they are allergic to. It’s not about being difficult or making a fuss, they are just doing what they need to to stay healthy and keep the romantic mood flowing, allergy free.

6. Bonus point: Take you mind off trying to impress

One good thing about allergies are that you’ll most likely be so worried about potentially killing your date, that you’ll forget about trying to impress him/her. Goodbye first date nerves! (Hello ohmygodI’mgoingonadatebutIreallydon’twanttokillmydateormakethemsick nerves, I’m only joking! It will be fine!)

What to do now?

The good stuff

Have a read of the rest of this article. You’ll get to understand what allergy sufferers think about and some very important information regarding safe sex and dairy and latex allergies.

Frogs in love

Don’t let allergies get in the way of your love life.

Advice for allergy sufferers

On a day to day basis we allergy sufferers have our guard up. We dearly want to relax not having to explain what we’re allergic to and that “yes, it does matter if the same chopping board was used,” and “yes a little will send me to hospital and seriously inconvenience my health and my day.”

I’m sorry to tell you that Valentine’s Day is no different, you have to be equally vigilant. However this does not have to stop you from getting your flirt on with your hot date.

Want to know how? It’s easy, you just have to keep being you. You stayed alive and healthy long enough to read this article and to be going a date. So you just need to keep doing what you’re doing. 😉

The following 5 tips are cheering you on on your allergy journey and rooting for your hot date!

1. Be confident

The reason you are going on this date is because your date likes you! Allergies are just a part of the package so they will just have to get used to it. (If they don’t, or complain, which I very much hope they won’t, seriously consider whether you want to go on this date.) Your life is more important that impressing someone or making them feel better just because you have an allergy and it may be inconvenient.

2. Tell your hot date about your allergies

You’ll feel less pressure if your hot date knows about your allergies before hand. Try dropping your allergy facts into conversation when you’re talking at work, texting, emailing, or on social media. This way your date is forewarned. You’re also giving them the opportunity to ask you questions (which means more talking to each other – wahey!) and help keep you safe – if they do, they’re probably a keeper!

3. Eat in or eat out? Make sure you are aware of possible allergens.

There are always risks with allergies. If you decide to eat out be sure to avoid high risk restaurants.

E.g. If you’re allergic to peanuts avoid south east asian restaurants, if you’re allergic to shellfish avoid fish restaurants. I mean come on, you might be in love, but you haven’t lost your brain cells!

If you’re going out, call the restaurant before to let them know you’re coming and what you’re allergies are. When you’re there make sure the waiters and kitchen know about your allergies and they write them down when they take your order.

The other alternative is eat in. Not only is it more cosy, you can keep a closer eye on what is being cooked and how. You can offer to do the cooking or suggest cooking together. If you do cook together this is a perfect opportunity to teach your hot date about your allergy in a safe and friendly environment.

4. Ask your hot date to remain attractive by avoiding allergens

Cross contamination is a big issue and it doesn’t just occur in the kitchen. Cross contamination can happen when in contact with another person, for example holding hands, kissing and allergens on clothing can also pose risks of allergic reactions.

I don’t know about you but the possibility of swelling up like a balloon is a complete turn off. So keep yourself safe by asking your date to avoid allergens the day you’re going to see them.

5. Make sure you have your medical kit!

The one thing you are probably never without, your medical kit. Whatever yours includes (adrenaline auto-injector pens, inhalers, piriton etc), make sure Valentine’s Day is a day like no other. When you’re on your date, your allergy will probably come up at some point. This is a perfect time to show your medical kit and show them how to use it. By getting them involved you are showing that you trust them with you, from they’re reaction you’ll definitely know whether you want to go on a second date with them or not.

Whatever happens, remember to have fun and enjoy yourself, it’s a hot date after all!

What to do now?

The good stuff

Have a read of the rest of this article. You’ll get to understand what non allergy sufferers are worried about and some very important information regarding safe sex and dairy and latex allergies.

Frogs in love in bed

For the adults: Safe SEX! 

Dairy and Latex Allergies Beware

Should you have got through the meal with no hiccups, had a little smooch and are ready to move to the next level, make sure you are prepared. Now I do not just mean make sure your bedroom is tidy, clean sheets, housemates are out (my boyfriend says male equivalent is ‘sock on the door’) and you’ve got breakfast in the fridge. I mean make sure you use protection. If you are using condoms as protection and one of you has a dairy or latex allergy take note: condoms are usually made from latex (rubber) and many contain dairy. Always read the ingredients label!

In the introduction to this article I mentioned how ending up in A&E can be a mood dampener, or extinguisher. But the inconvenience of an allergic reaction to latex or dairy, apart from possible anaphylactic shock and death, (readers I may seem flippant, but you should know I take anaphylaxis very seriously; my EpiPens, piriton and inhalers are with me at all times), is the possibility of sitting for many hours in the hospital uncomfortably… If your throat swells, you fear for your life. If your…down there…swells, I imagine you will fear for future lives*…

So, be pre-prepared.

Post-Coital Allergic Reactions*

Not that I am trying to scare you readers, but just for your information, there have been a couple instances of allergic reactions after sex. These reactions, the doctors can only surmise, have come through allergen proteins in semen. It will be up to the consenting adults to decide on what to do in this case.

For information, please refer to articles here, here, and here for more information.

Despite what may seem like a lot of information to digest, living with allergies is manageable. It is very possible to live happy, healthy, normal lives.  We are capable of loving, we are capable of being clumsy, we are very capable at looking after ourselves. We just ask that care is taken over us because every day items can be the difference between life and death. But who knows when our time is at an end, it could be today, it could be tomorrow, it could be in 100 years. Who knows!

And I’ll be damned if I get killed by a peanut.

After all, we allergy sufferers like the same things you do; going to the movies, eating treats, playing games, seeing our friends,

We’re just ordinary people

 

 

*Please note I am not a doctor nor have any medical training (apart from how to use my EpiPens on myself. Allergies affect different people in different ways. It is always better to be safe than sorry. All advice in this article is based on personal experience, friends experiences, and research on living with allergies. Please always consult a medical professional.

 

I hope you enjoyed this article. I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts on the subject. Please leave a comment below 🙂

 

Nina

 

 

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