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The University of Southampton

New research on food choices of allergy sufferers

Published: 24 June 2011

New research, published by the Food Standards Agency, provides insights on how people with life-threatening nut allergies use food labels when choosing what food to eat and buy. The research will be used to help produce clearer allergy information for consumers.

The study, carried out by researchers from the Universities of Southampton and Surrey, involved accompanying participants during a routine food shop and interviewing them at length to find out what they were thinking when they chose each food product.

The research found that when people were making choices about buying or eating a particular food:

  • The brand was important because participants trusted certain food companies more than others
  • The allergy advice box was used by many as a reliable source of information, often instead of the ingredients list, but most participants did not know that this information was voluntary. Some people incorrectly assumed the absence of an allergy advice box meant the product did not contain any of the main food allergens and was safe for them to eat.
  • 'May contain’ warnings, were not seen as credible or desirable and they are sometimes ignored. The majority of participants felt that it was almost impossible to avoid eating products with ‘may contain’ labelling. These precautionary warnings are used by some food manufacturers to indicate possible cross-contamination with a food allergen.
  • When eating out, some people did not tell restaurant staff about their allergy because of social embarrassment and the fear it would further limit their choices. For some this led to increased risk taking.
Dr Jane Lucas, consultant allergy paediatrician and senior lecturer in child health at the University of Southampton said: “The results of the study have important implications for allergists, the food industry and people with food allergies. The study has shown how difficult it is for people to avoid the food to which they are allergic. Food allergies have no cure; the only management is strict avoidance of foods that may contain allergens. Patients who are allergic to peanuts or tree nuts are often required to carry injectable adrenalin at all times in case they accidently eat a food containing hidden allergen. This has huge implications for patient’s quality of life.”

Sue Hattersley Head of Food Allergy at the FSA said: “This research shows the importance of clear allergy labelling on food products. Shopping for food can prove to be very difficult and time-consuming for people with food allergies and we urge food manufacturers and businesses to follow our best practice guidance when providing allergy information. This can make simple everyday tasks such as food shopping or eating out a safer, less stressful and more pleasurable experience for people with food allergies.”

The results are being used to inform dietary advice to consumers with nut allergies and to steer the development of food allergy labelling policy.

The full study report and further information on the resources available to help food allergic consumers make safer food choices can be viewed here .

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