Half of us will have food allergies in 7 years time. How can we stay safe?

You might not have a food allergy now, but you could do one day.

Allergies aren’t necessarily present from birth, and can develop at any time. A recent study found that almost 52% of American adults with reported food allergies developed one or more allergy after the age of 18.

The European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology has predicted that half of the EU’s population will have an allergy by 2025. This dramatic rise in allergy sufferers puts a burden on food manufacturers to keep consumers safe by clearly highlighting all allergen information on their packaging.

But in some cases, foods—particularly processed foods—can have hidden ingredients and allergens that may not be made clear to consumers. In other cases, the labelling can simply be misleading, with “diet” products not necessarily having health benefits, for example. Here, we’ll go through some of the biggest problems with allergies and food labels, and what we, and food manufacturers, can do to keep us safe.

Food labels must include clear allergen information

Governments around the world have implemented strict rules in order to protect consumers and food companies. All food sold in supermarkets must be labelled with a list of any ingredients derived from the most common food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy.

However, in some cases these labels may only include the particular ingredient that is derived from an allergen, which can be highly confusing. Albumen, lysozyme, ovalbumin, and surimi are all proteins derived from egg whites. If a food product was to label these instead of simply “egg”, this could be very dangerous for sufferers of egg allergies.

Similarly, high-fructose corn syrup is often used as a sugar substitute in a huge number of processed foods, including many which are marketed as being low-fat or healthy. Sodas, sweetened yogurts, breads, fruit juices, and even salad dressings can all contain corn syrup, and are readily available at all supermarkets. However, sufferers of corn allergies may have a reaction to the syrup, especially if a high concentration is used in recipes.

To address this, food labels must be clear and transparent about the ingredients within. At the moment, allergy sufferers have two options: educate themselves about the various different proteins and derivatives that they may not be able to eat, or turn to food companies that already have clear and transparent labelling.

Independent food manufacturers are leading the charge

The best way for allergy sufferers to stay safe is to only purchase foods with ingredients clearly stated on the packaging, as simply as possible. Transparency between manufacturer and consumer is key for those with allergies, and this is something smaller brands are tackling from the get go. More and more healthy food brands are cropping up with a clear focus on being as clean as possible.

Irish-based company Strong Roots, for example, are on a mission to revolutionise frozen food, with a strong focus on an “honest conversation” with consumers. Using minimal ingredients and no added chemicals, the brand are able to offer some allergen-free products.

Similarly, the British-based company Huel offer nutritionally complete products that are entirely plant based and nut-free. A detailed breakdown of ingredients and nutritional information is available on the Huel website, meaning everyone who orders it can see exactly what they are eating. Huel also sells a gluten-free version of its powdered food which is free from all of the main allergens. This transparent approach has helped propel Huel to sell over 15 million meals worldwide.

Now even supermarkets are taking notice of this trend, and making an effort to follow in these independent brands’ footsteps. In 2017 alone, the free-from range available in UK supermarkets surged by a massive £230 million, forcing supermarkets to make more changes and expand their product ranges. In these cases, the biggest allergens are taken into consideration and are clearly displayed on the front packaging. Even chain restaurants around the world are following suit, and now it’s not unusual for them to offer vegan and gluten-free options.

Allergen-free foods need to be more common

As the number of allergy-sufferers rises, scientists are trying to find ways of curing or lessening the impact of allergies. Some experts are encouraging breastfeeding mothers to snack on peanuts to reduce the chances of their child developing an allergy. There is some evidence that this could have an impact, but there is little research available for other allergens, and many mothers are hesitant to try this method for fear of causing an allergic reaction. This research also doesn’t explain allergies developed in adulthood, or how they can be prevented.

Since scientists may never find a cure for food allergies, the rising number of sufferers around the world suggests that allergen-free foods need to be more easily accessible. This burden lies with businesses launching their own free-from products, and clearly stating what ingredients are present on labels. There is a responsibility for manufacturers to ensure that the food being produced has no risk of cross contamination, and the food is as “clean” as possible. If they do this, all of us will be able to tuck into our meals with a little more knowledge about what it is we are eating, whether we suffer from an allergy or not.