Use of a common symbol to indicate the presence of individual allergens in food and personal care products could help allergy sufferers identify products to avoid – especially in multi-lingual communities, say specialists from Imperial College.
Incidence of allergy has been increasing. In the UK some 1.8 per cent of children now have peanut allergy; in the US, 8 per cent of children and 4 per cent of adults have a food allergy. This means it is vital that people with allergies (or parents) can avoid products that are dangerous to them.
The allergy specialists from the UK suggested the development of a common symbol after conducting a survey amongst patients of children with nut allergies about how allergen wording affected their buying decisions.
Dr Lee Noimark and colleagues said that their clinic serves a multi-ethnic population, and parents who are unable to read English are “poorly served by warnings on products”. A common symbol, to be shown to the family at the clinic, would remove language barriers and difficulty in understanding ingredients.
It would also reduce shopping time – and, most importantly, increase the safety of the allergic patient.
Dr Noimark and colleagues conducted a survey of 184 parents of children with nut allergies, giving them a questionnaire to fill out while at the clinic.
They asked them what wording would discourage them from buying a product.
Eighty per cent of respondents said they would not buy a product labelled ‘not suitable for nut allergy sufferers’ or ‘may contain nuts’. However only about 50 per cent of parents would products with looser warnings, such as ‘cannot guarantee nut free’, ‘made in a factory that uses nuts’ or ‘may contain traces of nuts’.
They found that a large number of parents were not reading the labels at all, were ignoring them, or were assuming that there is a gradation of risk depending on the wording.
The specialists also identified some interesting habits amongst buyers that warrant further investigation. For instance, they may be more likely to trust a product from one manufacturer bearing ‘may contain’ labels than a similar product with similar wording from another manufacturer.
European guidelines from 2005 state that all foods comprising five per cent of the formulation need to be included on a product label; and any of the group of 12 major allergens (milk, egg, fish, crustaceans, peanuts, tree nuts, gluten, sesame, soya, celery, mustard and sulphites) need to be declared regardless of the quantity.
However not all possible ‘hidden’ allergens in ingredients – such as lecithin, which can come from soy or egg – are covered; nor is the possibility of cross-contamination by shared use of equipment.
The UK’s Food Standards Agency has developed guidelines for food firms to present allergy information in the most straightforward, non-confusing way.
But the specialists say that further tightening of legislation and better education would help decrease anaphylaxis risk.
One particular area of concern is non-food products. Dr Noimark and colleagues said the “hidden danger” of nut extract in self care products “remains poorly recognised”.
Some animal research has indicated that using peanut oil containing products on inflamed or broken skin could increase the risk of them developing a sensitivity to eating peanuts – even if they were tolerant to them before.
Such products are not included under European food allergy regulations, “and therefore remain an unknown menace,” the specialists wrote.
Pediatric Allergy and Immunology 2009: 20: 500-504
Parents’ attitudes when purchasing products for children with nut allergy: A UK perspective
Authors: Noimark L, Gardner J, Warner J.