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Allergy information can be difficult for consumers to interpret

27th July 2021

Effective food safety requires an understanding of allergy information but a study has revealed consumers found this difficult to interpret.

Self-reported food allergy is relatively common, with one European analysis identifying a pooled lifetime prevalence of 17.3%. Furthermore, the presence of a food allergy negatively affects an individuals’ quality of life across all ages, with one study finding that the risk of accidental allergen ingestion and limitations in social life are associated with a worse health-related quality of life. The provision of allergy information has been incorporated into EU law since 2016 and requires that there is a clearer and harmonised presentation of allergens such as nuts, soy etc, on pre-packed foods and mandatory allergy information on non-prepacked foods in outlets such as bars and cafes. The introduction of precautionary allergen labelling (PAL), is the voluntary way used by food producers to warn consumers of the risks from the unintended presence of specific allergens in products, though PAL is not formally regulated in the EU. Despite the legal labelling requirements, allergic reactions remain common, with one study finding that 46% of adults reported an allergic reaction and 41% of these reactions occurred to pre-packed foods. However, it has also been found that consumers find a wide and inconsistent range of ways in which allergy information is presented on labels.

In an attempt to better understand how both allergy and non-allergy sufferers interpret and assess allergen information, a team from the Institute for Health Services Research, Utrecht, The Netherlands, evaluated consumer understanding of allergy information on foods in a controlled, environment. The team looked at how consumers interpreted the information presented in three scenarios. In the first, consumers rated the risk of consumption by someone with an allergy from a mixed set of 18 products which contained the allergy information. Secondly, six of the 18 products were labelled “may contain peanut”, six had “peanut as an ingredient” and for the remaining six, there was no mention of peanut as an ingredient. Finally, individuals were asked to assess three different PAL labels, i.e., “may contain peanut” vs “may contain traces of peanut” vs “produced in a factory which also processes peanut”, using a 5-point scale.

For the ingredient experiment, 102 individuals with a mean age of 33.9 years (79% female) and 48 nonallergic consumers, similarly rated the risk of eating an allergen containing food. The PAL experiment involved 99 participants and found that those without an allergy judged the risk assessment to higher than those with an allergy (82% vs 58%, p < 0.01). The PAL for which participants expressed the highest preference was “may contain nuts” (65.7%), whereas the least preferred was “produced in a factory which also processes peanuts” (26.3%).

In their discussion, the authors noted how consumers appeared to attribute different risks, depending on the presentation of allergy information on a food label. However, overall, only around 50% of consumers judged that the allergy information was clear. They concluded by calling for allergy information guidelines to ensure that the information is much clearer and understood by consumers.

Holleman BC et al. Poor understanding of allergen labelling by allergic and non- allergic consumers. Clin Exp Allergy 2021