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Study provides insights into the food choices of allergy sufferers

New research published by the Food Standards Agency and conducted by researchers from Brunel University and the Universities of Southampton and Surrey provides insights on how people with life-threatening nut allergies use food labels when choosing what to eat and buy.

The study 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 will be used to help produce clearer allergy information and dietary advice for consumers and will help steer the development of food allergy labelling policy.    

The study found that when people were making choices about buying or eating a particular food, they adhered to the following principles:
  • 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. Most participants did not know that providing this information is voluntary, and some incorrectly assumed the absence of allergy advice 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 were 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 Julie Barnett, Principal Investigator and Reader in Healthcare Research at Brunel, said: “This research has provided important details about the complex decisions that people with nut allergies have to make when they are shopping or eating out. Labels about foods that contain or may contain allergens are often interpreted in ways that may not be intended. It is vital that both clinicians and manufacturers take this into account when developing advice, policy and practice in this area.”
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 full study report and further information on the resources available to help those with food allergies to make safer food choices can be viewed on the FSA website.
For further information contact:

Dr Julie Barnett


Brunel University Press Office