How many times have you heard expressions like “so many people drink plant-based milk nowadays just because it’s fashionable!” or “unless you are diagnosed with coeliac disease, avoiding gluten is silly” ?!
People sometimes talk about ‘free from’ as a growing trend, but not much is said about the reactions that some food can cause in certain people, even if they haven’t been officially diagnosed with coeliac disease or an actual allergy. Some of us simply don’t feel our best when eating food like wheat or dairy. By avoiding these ingredients we are not being “fussy”, but showing kindness to our bodies – and, in the case of ingredients like milk, also kinder to the planet and the animals around us!
Furthermore, some people have allergies so severe that they don’t even have a choice. For some, having so much as a bite from a cake containing nuts could prove fatal.
But let’s understand food allergies a bit better, starting with the difference between an allergy and an intolerance.
Food allergies, intolerances, and coeliac disease
A lot of people are under the impression that the only difference between a food allergy and a food intolerance is that the first is much more serious than the latter. This may be true, but it’s not the only factor that distinguishes the two conditions. It’s not simply how much our body is affected, but also how. When we have a food allergy, our immune system mistakes the proteins found in certain foods for harmful microorganisms and subsequently attacks them, causing weird reactions in our body, like swelling, itching, feeling dizzy and, in the most severe of cases, anaphylactic shock. On the other hand, a food intolerance only affects the digestive system, usually resulting in much milder symptoms, such as a stomach ache, bloating and diarrhea (still not ideal!)
Coeliac disease is classified as a separate issue, and is defined as an autoimmune condition that affects the body’s ability to absorb nutrients when consuming gluten. The symptoms of this can be pretty serious, and someone with coeliac disease should avoid even the smallest trace of gluten.
Whether you have a food intolerance, allergy, or coeliac disease, it’s quite clear that none of the above reactions are a pleasant experience, and consuming anything that can cause them should be avoided. Sometimes certain foods are completely fine in small quantities, but can cause hypersensitivity when you surpass a certain limit. It’s up to you to listen to your body to understand where the threshold sits.
In the majority of cases, it’s pretty straightforward: only eat what makes your body feel good!
Food labelling and the 14 approved allergens
I’m sure that you’ve heard of people affected by the craziest food allergies. Some people may be allergic to peppers, some to rice… When I worked as a waitress I once had a customer who was allergic to sugar, and couldn’t have any of the dishes served because we couldn’t guarantee its total absence. In my case, I’m pretty sure that raw tomatoes give me a headache!
By law, there are only 14 approved allergens. These 14 ingredients are therefore the only ones that food packaging labels will warn you about. The 14 allergens include some well-known ones, such as milk, cereals containing gluten, nuts and peanuts, and others that sound a bit more niche, such as lupins, mustard and celery (who is allergic to celery?!)
So, let’s say that you’re allergic to sesame seeds, which is another one of the approved allergens. If you buy pre-packaged food containing sesame, this will be highlighted or written in bold on the label. However, if you’re allergic to sugar, like my restaurant customer, you will have to take care by checking the ingredient list thoroughly yourself, as sugar won’t be indicated as an allergen.
Here’s the full list of the 14 allergens (some of them are quite interesting; I always forget about the sulphites!): celery, cereals containing gluten, crustaceans, eggs, fish, lupin, milk, molluscs, mustard, nuts, peanuts, sesame, soybeans, sulphur dioxide and sulphites.
Cross-contamination occurs “when an allergen is unintentionally incorporated into another food that is not intended to contain that allergen”. It’s not something to take lightly, as it can go as far as causing someone’s death. Let’s say you’ve been eating salted peanuts with your fingers out of the pack. If, soon after, you met someone who had a severe peanut allergy and shook their hand, you could potentially put that person in hospital. That’s how dangerous allergen traces can be.
Cross-contamination can happen in professional restaurant kitchens, as well as in big food factories. That’s why legislation around food safety and labelling is of vital importance. Food businesses are responsible for taking every possible preventative measure to avoid cross-contamination from happening. Actions that should be carried out include training staff about the consequences of food allergies, providing them with protective clothing, washing production equipment thoroughly, and colour coding ingredients containing allergens. However, no matter how many hygiene measures are put in place, if there is still ANY risk of cross-contamination, the customer should always be warned, and words such as “gluten free” or “dairy free” should not be used.
Allergens and vegan food
Since 5 out of the 14 allergens are non-vegan foods, it would make sense to think that if you’re vegan you are at least safe from these (milk, eggs, fish, molluscs and crustaceans). Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, as any product made in a factory that produces non-vegan food (unless they have a separate vegan line) or are prepared in a restaurant that also serves non-vegan meals, may contain traces of these allergens. If you are vegan and have a severe allergy, you shouldn’t assume a product is safe just because of a vegan icon; you need to make sure that the product is also made in a vegan facility. Usually, pre-packed products that may have a risk of cross-contamination will have a warning on the pack that reads “may contain traces of… ” In the case of a restaurant, you are probably better off asking the staff what other products they make in their kitchen.
I think the most annoying food allergy for a vegan has to be soybeans. They’re a part of so many delicious plant-based meals (think about tofu, tempeh, soy yoghurt, and all the other delicious alternatives you can make with it!)
Another one is nuts, as the most common way to make a real delicious cheese alternative is to use cashews.. and what about nut roasts?!
Although having a nut or soy allergy may be pretty annoying (especially if you’re vegan), I have some good news for you! All Vivo products are made in a 100% vegan facility, and they are free from all the 14 allergens (even soy!), so with us you are completely safe : )
Listen to your body
My advice on all this? Yes, you should always listen to your doctor and there's no need to over-complicate your life by being unnecessarily scared of foods that are not harmful for you. Also, restricting your diet too much is never a great idea. Sometimes having a really small amount of something that you don’t usually digest well can be a good way to increase your resistance and help your body develop certain enzymes (this does NOT apply for food allergies, of course).
However, I am truly convinced that listening to your body is the best thing you can do. Your body knows what makes it feel good – so if your body is telling you that peppers are not a great idea, the best thing you can do is leave them aside, and have another delicious vegetable instead!