How to Understand Food Labels if You Have Coeliac Disease or an Allergy

Whether you have coeliac disease, a food allergy or intolerance or you are just sensitive to a particular food, it’s important to understand food labels. This post has advice about food labels in the UK, but other countries have similar laws and standards.

If you are new to a health issue that requires you to follow a special diet you will need to be able to read and understand food labels at the supermarket. Keep your reading glasses at the ready and ensure you have plenty of time to spare because your shopping trip will take longer than normal.

I remember my first few shopping trips after I was diagnosed with coeliac disease. I knew what I had to avoid, but it was easier said than done.

If you have coeliac disease, you must avoid
Wheat, Barley, Rye and Oats
(unless the oats are labelled as gluten-free)

Also check the label for a
'may contain' warning

It was a bit overwhelming initially, especially when I realised that I needed to check absolutely every item of food (apart from fresh produce like fruit, vegetables and non-processed meat). Everything from small jars of spices, tinned soup, frozen chips, crisps and drinks needed to be checked. I couldn’t even slip a bar of chocolate into my shopping trolley without reading the label.

However, I soon got used to it. It is now second nature to check everything I buy and my shopping trips really don’t take that much longer than normal.

Hopefully, this simple guide will help you to understand food labels.

To Understand Food Labels, First Understand Allergens

In the UK, we have 14 foods or food categories that are considered allergens. You only need to worry about the allergen(s) which affects you. The 14 allergens are:

  • Celery
  • Cereals containing gluten – including wheat, rye, barley and oats
  • Crustaceans – such as prawns, crabs and lobsters
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Lupin
  • Milk – including all dairy products such as cream, cheese, whey etc
  • Molluscs – such as mussels and oysters
  • Mustard
  • Nuts – including almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pistachios and walnuts
  • Peanuts
  • Sesame seeds
  • Soybeans
  • Sulphur dioxide and sulphites (if they are at a concentration of more than ten parts per million)

Gluten – Wheat, Barley, Rye and Oats

If you have coeliac disease and no other allergies or intolerances, the only allergen you need to look out for is gluten.

Products containing gluten sometimes say, ‘Contains Gluten’ on the packaging but in the ingredients list, the allergens will always be written individually to say that the product contains wheat, barley, rye or oats.

Coeliac disease sufferers cannot eat any type of gluten.

Gluten Free Oats

Technically, oats are naturally gluten-free. However, they are grown and processed beside other grains, therefore they are contaminated with gluten.

Read more about gluten-free oats here.

Some oats are grown and processed to ensure they are gluten-free. Those oats are safe for coeliacs. Products labelled as ‘Gluten Free’ that contain oats will contain gluten-free oats so they will be safe.

Legal Requirements Regarding Food Labels

When a food contains any of those allergens, UK law requires that they must be shown in the ingredients list and they must stand out from other ingredients.

The food label must be written clearly so that the consumer understands exactly what is in the product. The allergen is most often written in bold, but it can also be written in a different font, style, colour or size so that people can see it clearly.

This law applies to all businesses which produce any type of food. Restaurants, cafes and takeaways must also clearly show allergens on their menus.

Additives in Food

If additives contain any of those fourteen allergens, the label will say so.

May Contain Warnings

There is often a warning on a food label that indicates that the product ‘may contain’ an allergen or that it has ‘been manufactured in a factory that also handles some of those allergens.

It is not a legal requirement in the UK to add either of these warnings. (I personally think it should be)

As there is no legal requirement, there’s also no legal requirement as to where the warning appears on the packaging and it doesn’t always stand out. Therefore you have to train your eyes to study the whole label.

Is it Worth Taking a Risk?

In my opinion, if a company doesn’t need to add that label, but they do, they believe there is a risk. Otherwise, why would they potentially lose customers?

When I was first diagnosed with coeliac disease, my dietician told me to avoid any ‘may contain’ products. Coeliac UK advises the same.

I avoid them completely.

Would I eat an apple which may or may not have been sprinkled with poison? No, I wouldn’t take the chance. I feel the same way with gluten. I won’t take the chance.

Understanding Food Labels – Shopping in the ‘Free From’ Aisles in the Supermarket

These are the aisles where you know everything will be safe from some of the main allergens.

However, it’s not as simple as going to those ‘Free From’ shelves and just lifting the products that appeal to you because ‘free from’ means a variety of things. It can mean free from gluten, free from dairy, free from eggs or free from nuts.

Therefore, you still need to double-check what you’re buying. The good thing is that on the ‘Free From’ shelves, the products are much more clearly marked as ‘Gluten Free’ or ‘Dairy Free’ etc.

Read Labels and Buy Products From the Normal Shelves

If you only buy from the ‘Free From’ shelves, your grocery bill will be very high and your diet won’t be very varied. But if you learn to read and understand food labels, you will be able to find plenty of alternatives that are safe and much cheaper.

Food on the normal shelves won’t often be marked as ‘gluten free’ or ‘dairy free’ etc, but much of it can still be safe. Look for the bold writing on the label, to ensure the product doesn’t contain any ingredient you cannot eat. And remember to check for a ‘may contain’ warning.

Deli, Rotisserie and Cold Meat Counters

Foods from these sections of a supermarket normally have no labels. However, by law, the supermarket has an allergen folder which you can ask to see.

By looking at the folder, you will be able to find out which products are safe.

Cross-Contamination

Cross-contamination of food is a big problem for coeliac disease sufferers and for many people who have certain food allergies. If cross-contamination is an issue for you, the products from the deli, rotisserie or cold meat counters are often unsafe.

  • Safe food may get crumbs or drips from unsafe food which is nearby.
  • Staff might handle safe food after touching unsafe food.
  • The same slicer or knife may be used to slice all of their products.

Unless you know that the food is safe, it is better to buy pre-packaged food which is labelled clearly.

Product Changes

It becomes easy to pick up favourites that you know are safe. However, they may not always be safe. Manufacturers often change recipes or even move factories and suddenly, something which was safe is no longer safe. Quickly check the label before putting anything into your shopping trolley.

Understand Food Labels or Use an App?

There are apps that you can use to scan a product’s barcode to let you know if the product is safe.

I know many people use them and rely on them but I think anyone with a food allergy or an illness that requires a special diet, needs to be able to read and understand labels.

  • The apps are not able to read labels on all food from all shops. For example, they don’t work on Aldi or Lidl’s own brand food.
  • Ingredients often change but the app might not have been updated, therefore could give an inaccurate result.
  • The product details may have been put into the app wrongly which could give an inaccurate result.

I used an app a few times when I was first diagnosed with coeliac disease but I found it was quicker to read the label.

Coeliac UK includes an app for shopping and eating out in their membership fee.

Food Label Errors

Occasionally, manufacturers make mistakes. They might omit an allergen in an ingredient list or write the wrong information. This can have serious consequences for customers.

You can stay informed by signing up to the Food Standard Agency alert system. Whenever they are notified of this happening, they will send you a text or email to inform you.

How to understand food labels if you have a food allergy or coeliac disease. The background is a supermarket aisle.

Understand Food Labels to Stay Well

Obviously, some allergies are so serious that they could pose an immediate risk and cause a life or death situation.

Others allergens such as gluten or dairy could trigger symptoms like stomach upsets, pain or fatigue which could last for hours, days, weeks or even longer.

Some allergens (such as gluten) could cause long term damage.

This is why it is extremely important to check food labels.

I hope this short guide helps you to understand food labels. For more information, please visit the UK Government’s Food Standards Agency website.

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4 thoughts on “How to Understand Food Labels if You Have Coeliac Disease or an Allergy

  1. Melissa

    Both my son and I have food allergies, so we have become experts at label reading. We have some of the “big name” allergies, but some odd ones as well, like apples and red food coloring, so we always do a close reading of ingredients. Thanks for such an informative post on allergens and food labeling. I’ve been doing a lot of online shopping and delivery, and I find that some shops are better than others when it comes to making it easy to find ingredients. One store even lists ingredients for deli items, so that’s super helpful!

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