Reading food labels

food labelsIt is important to check the food label when buying food every time you purchase the product. Even if it has been a ‘safe’ food in the past, manufacturers can change ingredients and processes at any time without notice.

Allergen information on food labels

The Food Standards Code requires the following common food allergens to be declared on packaged food labels:

Food Allergens

The Food Standards Code also requires that sulphites in concentrations of 10mg/kg or more must also be declared on food labels of packaged foods.

These allergens must be declared if they are included as:

  • An ingredient.
  • Part of a compound ingredient.
  • A food additive.
  • A processing aid.

When a food does not have to have a label (such as food made and packaged on the premises from which it is sold), then the Food Standards Code requires the seller to provide accurate information about food allergens to customers on request.

New labelling laws in Australia

The new Plain English Allergen Labelling (PEAL) law means that the common names of food allergens must be listed on a food label. (e.g. the word 'egg' rather than just the protein in egg which is 'albumin'). Food companies need to make these changes by 2026, so up until then you will need to know how to read labels that comply with both the new and old laws. Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia has Food Allergen Cards listing other words for the common allergens and foods the allergens may be in.

How to read food labels that meet the old Food Standards Code

Even though there is a change to the Food Standards Code in place, foods with labels that meet the old Code can still be available for up to 5 years. The old Food Standards Code requires the following allergen information to be labelled and available to customers:

  • peanut
  • tree nuts, (e.g. almonds, cashews)
  • egg
  • cow’s milk (this includes all dairy foods)
  • fish
  • crustacea (e.g. prawns, lobster)
  • sesame seeds
  • soy/soybeans
  • cereals containing gluten and their products, namely, wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt and their hybridised strains (e.g. triticale)
  • lupin

How to read food labels that meet the new PEAL law

Under the new PEAL law, common food allergens are to be listed with the plain English name alongside the actual ingredient name. This is shown in the label example below.

food label summary

In the statement of ingredients, declarations must:

  • Be in bold font.
  • Have bold font contrasting distinctly with other text.
  • Have the same size font as other text.

The allergens must also be listed in a summary statement beginning with the word ‘contains’ next to the ingredient list. This could be above, below or on either side of the ingredient list.

Some other important changes under the new PEAL law include:

  • The name of the specific tree nut (almond, Brazil nut, cashew, hazelnut, macadamia, pecan, pine nut, pistachio and walnut) must be included in the ingredients list and summary statement.
  • The specific name of the cereal must be stated in the ingredients list and summary statement as either wheat, barley, oats or rye. ‘Gluten’ must appear in the summary statements whenever gluten from wheat, rye, oats or barley (or their hybrids) is present. The term ‘Cereals containing gluten’ cannot be used.
  • Mollusc and crustacea are separate categories that replace ‘shellfish’.

While the transition to new labelling laws is taking place, make sure you check the packaging carefully because plain English names may not have been used yet. Read all ingredient information on the packaging, not just allergen summary statements as under the old law, summary statements are voluntary and not regulated.

Further information about the Food Standards Code is available from the FSANZ website: www.foodstandards.gov.au/code/Pages/default.aspx

Confused about wheat and gluten?

What is gluten?

  • Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, rye, barley, oats and hybrids of these cereals (such as triticale).

Wheat allergy and gluten

  • A person with wheat allergy can have an immediate allergic reaction to any of the proteins found in wheat, including wheat gluten.
  • Therefore, people with wheat allergy need to avoid wheat, but they may be able to eat other gluten containing cereals, such as rye, oats and barley.
  • For a person with wheat allergy it is important to check for wheat ingredients on a food label, even in those foods that are labelled gluten-free.

Coeliac disease and gluten

  • Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition, not a food allergy.
  • People with Coeliac disease must avoid all gluten and grains that contain gluten.
  • If someone with Coeliac disease eats gluten, it will not cause a life-threatening reaction, but it can cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea and may cause long term health problems.
  • Even though people with Coeliac disease won’t have a life-threatening reaction, it is still important to make sure they are not given foods containing gluten, or cross contaminated with gluten.

Confused about milk (dairy) allergy and lactose free products?

What does lactose free mean?

  • Lactose free products have only had the lactose (a type of sugar in milk) removed.
  • Lactose free products still contain the milk protein and therefore can still cause an allergic reaction.
  • People with lactose intolerance are not at risk of anaphylaxis unless they also have a milk allergy.

Lactose free products contain milk protein and must not be given to people with milk (dairy) allergy.

  • Milk (dairy) allergy should not be confused with lactose intolerance. They are different.
  • People with milk allergy are allergic to the protein in milk and are at risk of anaphylaxis if they drink milk, even if the milk is lactose-free. Remember - milk allergy means all dairy products have to be avoided.

What about dairy free products?

  • Dairy free products are dervied from nuts or plants and should not contain any dairy protein at all. However, the ingredient list and any precautionary allergen labelling (e.g. 'may contain') should always be checked to see if they contain any milk products.
  • Some coconut milks, drinks or creams contain milk, so they would not be suitable for people with milk (dairy) allergy. 
  • Be aware that vegan foods can sometimes contain small amounts of milk and egg. Never presume they are completely milk or egg free. 

What are precautionary allergen labelling statements?

  • Statements such as “May contain…” and “Made on equipment that also produces products containing…” are examples of precautionary allergen labelling statements. 
  • These statements are voluntary and not regulated by the Food Standards Code. 
  • They are often used to explain that during growing, transport, storing and making the food, the product may have been unintentionally contaminated with an allergen and the product may be a risk to the person with food allergy.
  • You should discuss with your allergist or dietitian about whether foods containing precautionary allergen labelling statements should be eaten.
  • If you would like more information about the level of risk, contact the manufacturer of the product for more information. 

Food Labels

These short practical videos are part of a series developed to help you understand food labelling.

Reading labels – Part 1 | What information must appear on a food label

Reading labels – Part 2 | How to find allergens on food labels

Precautionary allergen labelling statements

Unlabelled foods

Content updated October 2021

Eating out

eating out

  • ALWAYS carry your adrenaline (epinephrine) injector and ASCIA Action Plan with you.

  • ALWAYS disclose your food allergy to staff. Tell them clearly that you have an allergy and do not just ask if something has milk/egg/peanut in it.

  • If after all your checks, you still are not confident the food is safe, don’t eat it!

  • Think about alcohol consumption as it may affect your judgement about appropriate food choices and then emergency care if a reaction occurs.

Restaurants

  • Look for suitable restaurants. View the menus online and avoid high risk cuisines/situations (e.g. buffet restaurants as there is a high risk of cross contamination; Asian restaurants if you have peanut allergy, seafood restaurants if you are allergic to fish or crustacea).

  • Call ahead to inform the restaurant about your food allergy and ask about possible menu choices.

  • Do not ask for a guarantee. You can minimise the risk of an allergic reaction but it can never be removed.

  • Consider an earlier sitting when the restaurant may not be so busy.

  • Discuss specific ingredients and the risk of cross contamination during storage, preparation, cooking and service of your meal with the chef.

  • Dishes with fewer ingredients are generally better options for people with food allergy.

  • Ask about food allergen content again when your food arrives.

  • Consider having an A&AA chef card to hand over when you make your order. This can then be handed to the chef by wait staff. The chef card should be returned with your meal.

The chef card can be downloaded for free from the Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia shop:

https://allergyfacts.org.au/shop/food-preparation-tools/chef-card-10-free 

Functions (wedding, work function, conference)

  • RSVP in writing, informing them of your food allergy and what foods you are allergic to.

  • Do not presume that because you complete a form about dietary requirements, that food served to you will be appropriate.

  • Follow up with an email to the function organiser reminding them of your food allergy. If possible, find out what food will be served at the function and how they plan to cater for your food allergy.

  • On arrival, let the event organiser know that you are the person with the food allergy.

  • On service, let the wait staff know about your food allergy and check they are providing you with the right meal each time a food is placed in front of you.

More tips on eating out:

Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia Eating out with Food Allergies

AAA eating out brochure

Content updated October 2021

Cooking

cookPreparation of food

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water and dry with paper towel or a clean cloth before preparing food.

  • Keep benches and utensils clean by using a clean cloth and hot, soapy water.

  • Use paper towel to wipe up spills/crumbs that contain the food allergen.

  • Make sure chopping boards are cleaned well in hot soapy water.  You may choose to have a separate coloured chopping board for food prepared for the person with food allergy.

  • Adapt meals to be suitable for all family members. If this isn’t possible, prepare allergen free meals first with clean equipment and utensils.

Serving food

  • Serve the meal for the person with food allergy first to avoid mistakes.

  • Educate family members and visitors not to share food and drinks.

  • Consider using a coloured plate or cup for the child with food allergy so there is less of a risk of children taking the wrong meal. This is especially helpful for some families who have multiple children with different food allergies.

Food Preparation

These short practical videos are part of a series developed to help you to choose, store and prepare foods if you or a family member or friend has a food allergy.

Cross contamination

Separation of time and space

Content updated October 2021

Cleaning

cleanCleaning tips

Hands

  • It’s important to always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before preparing food.

  • Hand sanitisers will not remove allergens – the allergens need to be washed off the hands with soap and water or wiped thoroughly using hand wipes if water is not available.

Equipment

  • Use hot soapy water to clean the kitchen benchtop and any other food preparation surfaces.

  • Use hot soapy water when cleaning food preparation equipment, such as bowls, pots and pans and utensils to prevent cross-contamination.

  • Some equipment (e.g. toasters) can be difficult to clean and you may want to consider having a separate one for those family members with food allergies. Always check equipment has no food residue and is thoroughly clean before using.

  • Clean trays with hot soapy water.  Baking paper or aluminium foil can also be used if required.  Note that oils can seep through wax paper or other liners and cause cross contamination.

  • Wash dish cloths and tea towels regularly.

Food preparation - Cross contamination

This short practical video is one of seven that have been developed to help you to choose, store and prepare foods if you or a family member or friend has a food allergy.

Content updated October 2021

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The National Allergy Strategy Food Allergy Education website is intended for use by the general public, including Australians living with food allergy and their families.

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Content updated October 2021

A food allergy education project supported by

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National Allergy Strategy

The National Allergy Strategy is an initiative of the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA) and Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia (A&AA), as the leading medical and patient organisations for allergy in Australia.
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