Why Food Labels Matter

This post was originally written in 2016 and has been edited to remove extraneous details.

I can get a bit steamed up about food labelling, which, unless you understand the reasoning, can, I suppose, mean that I come across as a pedantic so and so.

Personal integrity is something that, for me at least, is very important when it comes to food. This is particularly so around food that’s being sold as ‘healthy’,’clean’, allergy safe or as being acceptable for particular food philosophies.

Food labelling matters.

As a producer of products for allergy sufferers, it goes beyond personal integrity. For allergy sufferers it can be a matter of life and death, and so it’s absolutely crucial that my customers know that they can trust the information I give them.

Apart from wanting to give them a good experience, I don’t want to end up in prison!

People have died as a result of producers knowingly cutting corners and giving false information.

Eating anything not prepared from scratch, in your own kitchen, can be a terrifying experience for an allergy sufferer.

When they purchase your products, they are quite literally putting their life in your hands. They are relying on you to give them correct information so that they can make a truly informed choice.

Here in the UK we have laws regarding allergy labelling. Whilst this should be great news for allergy sufferers, the reality is that businesses are still getting it wrong.

Let me briefly recount an experience I had in an ‘allergy friendly’ cafe:

I asked for the ingredients in a soup, the waiter went off to ask the chef and came back with a list of ingredients, all of which were safe for me, yay!

However, when it arrived, the soup had been sprinkled with sunflower and pumpkin seeds, something I can’t eat. When I expressed this to the waiter I was told:’they’re not nuts, you can just scrape them off’.

Yeah. It doesn’t work like that!

If this lack of training occurred in a cafe that oriented itself towards being allergy friendly, I dread to think what would happen in a ‘standard’ cafe!

I think that one of the problems is that people still don’t have an understanding of the seriousness of allergies, and the diversity of foods that people are allergic to.

There is a top 14 list which has to be labelled for here in the UK, but there are many more foods that cause allergic reactions. The top 14 is just the tip of the iceberg.

Now when you have diverse allergies (or any allergies) it just goes with the territory that you check the ingredients. This is easy if the food you are buying is prepacked and labelled. It’s obviously not so easy when you’re trying to decide what to eat in a restaurant, or when buying from a market vendor.  

If a customer expresses an interest in my products because they have allergies, or are buying for someone who does, I will take time to check out exactly what their particular allergies are.  I want to be as sure as I can be that what I sell them is safe for their particular circumstances.

Perhaps it’s because of the nature of my business that I’m so on the ball about this, but in my opinion, my approach should be the gold standard for all food manufacturers and vendors.

When you’re talking about food sensitivities it’s not as crucial, but it is still important to get it right. People’s health matters, and you have no idea how a particular food affects them.

Because it’s not exactly the most joyful experience to have to check every label, and ask a million questions, people will look for short cuts: paleo, vegan, vegetarian, gluten free being just a few. If a product is labelled with one of those, the customer SHOULD be able to expect to be able to eat that product if it fits with their dietary needs.

However, if a product is mislabelled a customer could quite easily consume something that doesn’t align with their ethics, or which will make them unwell. Let’s take my paleo and allergy friendly rocky road as an example. When I sold this at a recent market I made sure to label that it wasn’t suitable for vegetarians as it contained pork gelatine.

Several customers informed me that vegan marshmallows were available. I am aware of this, but the ingredients don’t fit into my ingredient specifications, which are that they be free from the top 14 AND paleo friendly.

Now I could label the gelatine containing item vegan, or if I chose the vegan marshmallows I could label them paleo. Both incidences would be outright lies, highly unethical and surely illegal. I’d sooner lose sales than lie to people about what they’re eating. I’m old fashioned like that!

Now imagine if I hadn’t clearly labelled the rocky road. I have a sign on my stall that says my products are vegan and paleo friendly, because until this particular market, they always were. If I left my stall with another vendor whilst I nipped to the loo, and a vegan customer came along in my absence, they would have quite rightly assumed that this item was ok for them to eat.

Without any clues as to the ingredients, the temporary vendor would have assumed that the product was vegan too.

The driving force behind this post came as a result of a debate I got into on the internet (never a good idea!) regarding a brownie made with kidney beans. It was hashtagged and labelled paleo, and the poster had bought it from a company geared towards paleo and primal friendly products. Whilst there is some debate in primal and paleo circles around the legitimacy of removing legumes from the diet,  that is really besides the point. Many people, myself and my son included, have really quite severe reactions to pulses and legumes that aren’t limited to ‘just gas’.

For many people who can eat the wealth of foods included within a paleo diet, seeing a paleo label would give them a sense of security that they were safe to eat such a product.

This is important.

It doesn’t matter what you as an individual chose to eat. N=1 is where it’s at after all; work out what works for you and go for it, regardless of what a particular food philosophy says.

BUT if you’re a food producer, it is of the utmost importance that you make sure that your label adheres to the philosophy or dietary requirement you are gearing it towards.

What’s more, you MUST make sure that your label clearly lists each and every one of the ingredients.

If you don’t, you could be the cause of someone’s death.


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