Having grown up with food allergies, I found that a special skill I acquired from a very young age was the ability to carefully read food ingredient labels. I sometimes joked that, as a child, I read more labels than I did books (which when I think about it is very true!). That being said, for people who don’t have food allergies, reading ingredient labels to make sure they don’t contain specific food allergens can be a complicated task to navigate.
There are helpful tips that can be given to those less experienced with reading ingredient labels; these can help them successfully identify what foods are or are not allergen free. The first important step is to identify what allergens need to be avoided. Canada has new labelling guidelines that require manufacturers to use simple language when referring to priority allergens. Become familiar with these new guidelines at http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/label-etiquet/allergen/index-eng.php
It can also be useful to have knowledge about what types of foods typically contain what allergens. For example, some ice creams, while typically a no–go for people with dairy allergies, may also pose a problem for some people with egg or nut allergies. Being able to identify what allergens are commonly found in what foods comes over time along with a general knowledge about what purpose different food allergens serve in different food products (i.e. egg as a binder or wheat flour as a thickener). That being said, the ingredient label is always the best way to verify what is in your food.
When instructing someone about how to read an ingredient label, after making sure they know what allergens they are looking for, ensure that the label is read VERY carefully. This includes ensuring that the person who is reading the label is able to identify EACH ingredient listed. If they are ever unsure, it is always a good idea to consult the person with the allergy to determine if listed ingredients are safe. It also is never a bad idea to re-read (or re- re-read!) the label so one can confidently say that the ingredient list doesn’t contain any allergens.
Another thing to look out for when reading food labels is to identify if the label lists any allergens that MIGHT be found in the food product. These food allergen warnings are most commonly listed directly below the ingredient list and commonly say something along the lines of “This product MAY CONTAIN” or is produced in the “SAME FACILITY” or on the “SAME MACHINE” as certain allergens. While it is not definite that these foods contain these allergens, eating these items still poses a huge risk (and why risk it, right?). It is also important to make sure that whoever is reading the ingredient label understands that any food that ‘May Contain’ an allergen should best be treated as if it still contains that allergen (and therefore avoided).
Last, but not least, while it’s important for those around to be educated about reading ingredient labels, you are still the primary person responsible for ensuring that you are staying safe and avoiding food allergens. Always personally ensure that you are able to eat questionable foods before taking a risk.