How to Avoid Hidden Food Allergens while Grocery Shopping

Updated: Nov 6, 2019

The possibility of food allergens hiding in packaged foods can be a source of stress and worry making trips to the grocery store stressful, especially when newly diagnosed. It can be tough to decipher food labels as ingredient names might not always be crystal clear.

Tip #1 Always read the label.

Food labeling in Canada thankfully has improved over the last few years. The top 8 common food allergens such as wheat, dairy, eggs, peanuts & tree nuts, soy, fish & shellfish must be called out in plain English below the ingredient list. On February 16, 2011, the Food and Drug Regulations Act was passed, requiring enhanced labeling requirements for food allergen, gluten sources, and sulphites beginning on August 4, 2012. Some labels are also starting to show some additional allergens including mustard and sesame.

When an allergen is not a listed ingredient but is processed in the same facility that contamination with the allergen is possible, a precautionary statement is often given near the ingredient list ("may contain traces of . . . "); this is not required, but Health Canada "considers the use of allergen precautionary statements to be a useful tool in mitigating adverse reactions to priority food allergens if the statements are used appropriately."

In the US however labels may not be as clear. It's important to learn the alternative names of your allergies and what ingredients they might be hiding in. Corn for example can be found in a wide variety of ingredients and can go by over 50 different names.

Companies also can change their recipes or manufacturing processes so it's important to read the label every time.

Tip #2 Try a label reading app.

Some of my clients use apps to help make reading labels and avoiding food allergens easier. “It takes the guesswork out of understanding labels. You can enter your food allergies and it does the rest. Fooducate, Ipiit, and ShopWell are some examples of label reading apps.

Tip #3 Avoid processed foods. One way to avoid common allergens is to buy ingredients rather than packaged processed foods. While cooking meals from scratch can be more time consuming, this can be helpful as you will know what goes into your meals will be safe for you.

One method to avoid processed foods includes making sure that 80% or more of your groceries comes from the perimeter of the store as the processed goods tend to be in those center aisles.

Tip #4 Try Free-From products. Some brands such as Enjoy Life have dedicated themselves to providing quality goods which are free from the top 8 allergens. These can be helpful if you are allergic to common allergens as you know that they follow strict regulations and guidelines to ensure that their products don't come into contact with those foods.

Tip #5 Visit local farmers markets

Farmers markets are a fantastic way to get fresh groceries while supporting your local community. You are also able to talk to the directly to the vendors about whether or not your items have come into contact with your allergens. Farmers markets also tend to have a variety of goods which aren't available anywhere else and many stalls are beginning to focus on allergy friendly foods.

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