Is food packaging doing enough to communicate allergen information?

By Natasha Spencer

- Last updated on GMT

©iStock/piotr_malczyk
©iStock/piotr_malczyk
As high profile media coverage looks at the misguided, and as witnessed, dangerous consequences of unclear allergen information, we spoke to global intelligence agency, Mintel, about how big the problem of allergen labelling is.

The UK free-from market is estimated to have hit the £837 million mark in 2018; representing total sales growth of a staggering 133% between 2013-2018. As such, consumers demand assurance, trust and reliability in the product selections they make based on their allergen requirements.

Emma Clifford, Associate Director of Food and Drink at Mintel, emphasises how there have been calls for the government to impose changes relating to allergen labelling.

After the recent death of Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died after suffering an allergic reaction to a Pret baguette, the “perceived lack of clarity and the dangerous health implications that ambiguous allergen labelling can have on consumers”​ is an area that must be addressed to ensure the presence of allergens is not ambiguous.

What do existing regulations require?

"Current allergen labelling regulations on pre-packed foods require that the major 14 allergens must be declared in the ingredients list and emphasised,”​ Alice Baker, Food & Drink Analyst at Mintel, explained.

Using bold print or contrasting colours are examples of how food manufacturers can package their products to adhere to these regulations. However, with guidance on uniformity in food labelling missing, how food companies display information to consumers can vary considerably.

Case study: gluten

The most commonly-purchased free-from food type is gluten-free. However, only 12% of respondents state that they have a condition that requires them to avoid gluten-based products and 27% of consumers reported to have either bought or eaten gluten-free foods in the past six months.

Free-from diets are good for digestive health — that’s what 26% of Mintel respondents believe. Of those asked, 44% say that it is difficult to identify the health benefits of free-from foods when these are unrelated to an allergy or intolerance, but instead, an active purchase choice. In addition, 40% are concerned that selecting a free-from diet without an allergy or intolerance may result in a lack of nutrients.

Nutrient fortifications claims on food products such as gluten-free items are one way food manufacturers can overcome this potential “missed opportunity” ​to provide reassurance to consumers opting against certain food groups or ingredients. 

New government proposals

“The government is currently consulting on changing the regulations in regards to products prepacked for direct sale (PPDS), which are considered as non-prepacked foods, so for instance, in-store bakery items, sandwiches made in cafés,” ​Baker shared.

Commenting on how producers can build trust and confidence in consumers that the information they are receiving is correct, Baker added: "Certification from a relevant body is one way for food companies to reassure consumers.”

Mintel’s research supports these insights as it found that “22% of free-from users/buyers would find it useful to have a certification from a relevant body (e.g. The Vegan Society, Coeliac UK), rising to 39% of those who report avoidance of certain foods/ingredients in their households due to an allergy/intolerance,” ​Baker highlighted.

Lack of clarity

Only 37% of British people asked agreed that it is easy to identify which allergens a product is free from by its labelling. These findings, therefore, suggest that the majority of those purchasing free-from foods are confused by what food products contain.

Mintel’s latest research has found that 48% of British buyers cannot be sure whether allergen labels communicate necessary information clearly when picking up food items. Furthermore, 15% of those said that they actively oppose the idea that allergen labels on food packaging are clear.

Purchasing decisions

While 48% of consumers report that themselves or a person in their household avoid a particular ingredient or food type, this rises to 61% amongst the 16-24-year-old demographic.

Only a fifth of these individuals who steer clear of specific foods or ingredients do so because of an allergy or intolerance. A higher number of people, 22%, avert certain food types or ingredients to support a healthy lifestyle.

British buyers do avoid certain food groups and ingredients due to other reasons such as ethical choices and environmental worries, leading to vegetarian and vegan diets. This amounts to 30% of British consumers in general, increasing to 38% of under-25s and 41% of females.

When it comes to the type of foods or ingredients that consumers do not buy, dairy is the most popular with 17% of shoppers avoiding a purchase. Soya and fish or shellfish follow at 16%, with red meat and lactose at 15%; making up the top five food types that consumers bypass.

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