ALLERGEN information, especially in food products, could be difficult for consumers to interpret, says a new study carried out by a team from the Netherlands Institute for Health Services Research (NIVEL), Utrecht, The Netherlands. Food allergy negatively impacts the quality of life of an individual, especially if an allergen is ingested accidentally. European Union law since 2016 has required that allergy information is provided and presented clearly on pre-packed food; Furthermore, it mandates that food outlets should clearly provide this information to consumers of non-prepacked foods.
Precautionary allergen labelling (PAL), although not formally modulated in the European Union, is voluntary and is utilised by food producers to warn consumers of the risks from the unintentional presence of specific allergens such as nuts in their products. Allergic reactions still occur frequently regardless of legal labelling obligations, with a study demonstrating that 46% of adults reported to suffer from allergic reactions, and 41% of the reactions materialised from consumption of pre-packed food.
In order to evaluate how individuals with allergies and those without allergies interpreted the allergy label information, the team assessed the consumer comprehension of allergy information in three scenarios within a controlled environment. Firstly, they carried out an ingredient experiment on products containing allergy information on 102 individuals, mean age of 33.9 years. Even though 48 individuals had no allergies, the results showed an overall similar risk eating the food that contained an allergen. The second test was a PAL experiment involving 99 individuals using a set of 18 products, some of which with allergy information such as may contain nuts and peanut as an ingredient. Some products had no mention of peanut as an ingredient. They established that the individuals without an allergy (82%) had a higher score in the risk assessment compared to than those with an allergy (58%). Lastly, they asked the individuals to confirm the preference between three PAL labels: ‘may contain peanut’, ‘may contain traces of peanut’, and ‘produced in a factory which also processes peanut’. Overall, 65.7% of the participants preferred the ‘may contain nuts’ label and only 26.3% favoured the ‘produced in a factory which also processes peanuts’ label.
In conclusion, the authors stated that consumers play a role in the risk of eating food that contain allergens, but also emphasised the importance of clear guidelines for allergy information in products to ensure risks are understood.