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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

In Australia the Food Standards Code requires the following common food allergens to be declared on packaged food labels (including imported products):

  • 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

The Food Standards Code also requires that added 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  (for example, if milk chocolate is present as an ingredient in a biscuit).
  • 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 - Plain English Allergen Labelling (PEAL)

On 25 February 2021, there was a change in the Food Standards Code about the way food allergen information is provided on labels. The new Plain English Allergen Labelling (PEAL) law means that the common names of food allergens must be listed on a food label. For example, the word 'egg' must be used rather than just the name of the protein in the egg, which is 'albumin'.

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 as either wheat, barley, oats or rye. Where wheat is present, it must also be included in the summary statement.
  • ‘Gluten’ must appear in the summary statement whenever gluten from wheat, rye, oats or barley (or their hybrids) is present. The term ‘Cereals containing gluten’ cannot be used.
  • Fish, crustacea and mollusc must be separately declared in both the ingredients list and summary statement. 

Under the new Code (PEAL), the foods shown in the image below must be declared in the statement of ingredients using their plain English name:

Food Allergens

 

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, but separate from, the ingredient list. This could be above, below or on either side of the ingredient list.

There is a transition timeline for food companies to make these changes to product labels. Most products will comply by 25 February 2024 but it will not be until 25 February 2026 that all products will reflect this change. You will need to know how to read labels that comply with both the new and old labelling requirements. 

To help you understand food labels that are not yet consistent with the new labelling laws, Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia has Food Allergen Cards listing other words for the common allergens and foods the allergens may be in.

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

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 that they don't eat 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 a milk (dairy) allergy.

  • Milk (dairy) allergy should not be confused with lactose intolerance. They are different.
  • People with a 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 (such as butter, yoghurt, cheese) have to be avoided.

What about dairy free products?

  • Dairy free products are derived 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 a 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 unless they are marked 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 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 July 2022

A food allergy education project supported by

Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia
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.
www.nationalallergystrategy.org.au

This project received funding from the Australian Government Department of Health.

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