Allergies are something that most people are familiar with. In fact, research has found that 1 in 5 people are affected by some form of allergic disorder.
Among these, food allergies are some of the most common and cover a whole range of different food hypersensitivities. While it’s possible to be allergic to practically any food substance, there are several that appear to be more prevalent than others.
The effects these allergies can have depends entirely on the individual, covering anything from skin rashes to potentially fatal reactions. Because of the potentially serious consequences of an allergic reaction to food, it's good to understand what the most common triggers for these reactions can be.
In this article, we explain the 14 most common food allergies and the kinds of dishes they’re most likely to be found in. We also cover relevant legislation that covers how these ingredients should be labelled, which is important for businesses to know if they’re selling products that contain allergens.
Our bodies can develop an allergy to all kinds of ingredients, but there are 14 main food allergens that people tend to react to the most. Each of these is outlined below, along with some of the most common products that the allergen is found in.
People with celery allergies can be allergic to celery leaves, seeds and stalks. Whilst avoiding the vegetable as a whole can be relatively easy, plenty of products, with some brands of tomato ketchup as a common example, have celery seeds in them as a seasoning, which is what can catch people out.
Celery root, which tends to be referred to as celeriac on food labels, also falls under this category in the list of common food allergies. Celeriac is typically found within salads, soups and stock cubes.
Wheat, rye, barley and oats all contain the allergen gluten, which is quite a common food intolerance as well as an allergy that many people suffer from. These cereals are each normally found within foods containing flour, which can make it quite a tricky ingredient to avoid when eating out or shopping for groceries.
Products that contain cereals include but are not limited to; batter, breadcrumbs, bread, cakes, pasta, pastry, sauces, soups and many fried foods. Many food retailers now offer at least one gluten-free option for customers that want to avoid this ingredient, so if you work in a cafe or a restaurant this is an ingredient you’re likely to get asked about.
Crustaceans are a type of animal that mainly have a hard shell or a crust. The types of crustaceans used within the food industry are typically crab, lobster, prawns and scampi, which are relatively easy to avoid as they tend to be a clear or main ingredient in seafood dishes.
However, crustaceans are also sometimes found as pastes in Asian cuisine, such as shrimp paste. If you work in an establishment that serves crustaceans, make sure that these pastes are clearly labelled as containing allergens.
Eggs are used in a whole range of dishes and sauces, from cakes to quiches to the common condiment – mayonnaise. Because eggs are commonly used in a lot of dishes, this is one to pay particular attention to.
Some people have a specific egg allergy and may be able to eat it when it has been cooked, but if egg is present in a product it still needs to be labelled, no matter what.
Fish as an allergen might seem quite straightforward, but it often gets used as an ingredient within dressings, relishes, and even Worcestershire sauce. It’s often easier to avoid using products that have fish as a minor ingredient where possible, but if this can’t be avoided then make sure everyone is aware that this allergen is present.
One of the lesser known allergens on this list, lupin flour and seeds are used in certain bread, pastries and pasta products. It can also be found in some meat products like burgers or sausages.
Lupin often appears in products that don’t contain gluten, so you should be especially careful of this allergen in gluten-free dishes.
Allergies and intolerances to milk are incredibly common in the UK, given how many dairy products we consume as a country. Not only is milk present in common ingredients like cheese, ice cream, chocolate and butter, but milk powder is also often found in desserts, so is a very common allergen.
Mussels and squid are arguably the two main ingredients which you’ll encounter within this category, but molluscs are also found in things like oyster sauce or as part of fish stews for extra flavour. If you work somewhere that serves seafood, it’s these sauces and flavourings that can cause issues for people with allergies.
This common allergen encompasses all types of mustard out there and has a range of applications. Although you will find mustard as a condiment almost everywhere, it’s also incredibly common as an ingredient in curries, marinades, dressings, sauces and soups, whether the seeds are used or the whole condiment, so needs to be properly labelled if used in other dishes.
This allergen refers to nuts which are grown on trees, such as cashew nuts, almonds and hazelnuts, which is why the allergen is sometimes also referred to as ‘tree nut’. This is an incredibly common ingredient in plenty of products and will be found in different types of bread and biscuits, pastries and nut powders, and lots of different desserts.
Having an allergy to nuts is relatively common, so this is one of the 14 most common food allergies that you’re likely to have to deal with if you work with food.
Unlike the general tree nut category, peanuts grow underground and are actually a legume – hence why they also belong in the groundnut category. Peanuts are another common ingredient in cakes, desserts and more, but can be found in the form of cooking oil, which needs to be carefully controlled so as not to trigger an unexpected allergic reaction.
Sesame seeds are typically seen sprinkled onto the top of burger buns, but are also occasionally seen in salads or some in the form of sesame oil which is used in dressings. In some cases, sesame seeds can contaminate other products because they are so small and light, so it’s an ingredient that needs to be carefully handled in a food preparation environment.
A major component within Asian cooking, soya is also becoming increasingly common as an alternative to meat-based products. Soya allergies aren’t massively common, but as the ingredient is used in more and more products, more people are becoming aware that they are allergic to it. This is an allergen to be particularly mindful of if you work in a vegan or vegetarian restaurant.
Although this allergen’s name might not ring any bells, sulphites are more common than you might think. It’s possible to find sulphites within dried fruits, some meat products, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages, so it’s an allergen to be particularly wary of as there’s no one food group you’ll tend to find it in.
When operating in an environment where food is prepared, whether that’s a shared kitchen within a flat, working as a waiter within a café or working within a production kitchen for a restaurant, it’s important to be aware of what the most common food allergies are. This ensures that there are procedures in place to avoid cross-contamination of allergens and that they can provide adequate guidance to customers who suffer from a particular food allergy.
Since December 2014, the Food Information Regulation has been introduced, which requires businesses to display information if these allergens are present in any of their foods. It’s important to be aware of the allergens if you do work within the food industry, as some of these will almost certainly be present within the foods you serve, and failure to display this information could lead to legal consequences.
The most important piece of legislation currently in force when it comes to allergens in food is the Food Information for Consumers Regulation (2014). This is an EU ruling designed to help make sure that people who suffer from allergies can quickly, easily and reliably determine which foods are safe or not safe for them to eat.
This critically important piece of law was put in place to reduce serious illnesses and deaths that result from consuming allergens - it is a critical health matter. Failure to adhere to this legislation can, in some cases, result in criminal prosecution, so it is very important that all relevant employees within the catering sector understand it.
The primary requirement for the Food Information for Consumers Regulation is that items containing any of the 14 primary allergens must be clearly labelled on pre-packaged food so that consumers know what they are purchasing. There are also some specifics around the way products are labelled, such as the requirement for allergens to be clearly distinguished from normal ingredients. These specifications can be read in official documentation on the subject.
Food allergies can happen on a severity level ranging from mild irritation to a life-threatening anaphylactic shock. Some of the most common initial food allergy symptoms include a rash on the body, face or around the mouth, breaking out in hives, wheezing and coughing, stomach pain or feeling faint and dizzy.
An allergy to cow's milk is perhaps the most common food allergy in babies and young children, affecting 2-3% of them. This allergy tends to go away by the time they reach adulthood however, where allergies to peanuts and tree nuts are some of the most common.
According to guidance from the Food Standards Agency, every food product label needs to include the name of the food, the ingredients, potential allergens, the quantitative declaration of ingredients, the net quantity, suggested storage conditions, best before or use by date, the manufacturer’s contact details, the country of origin, preparation instructions and the nutrition declaration.
There are other ingredients that people can be allergic to, but the fourteen that we have listed above are the most common allergens that you are likely to encounter when working with or around food. Exposure to an allergen could cost someone their life or really affect their health, so it’s always best to double check if you are not sure what ingredients a product has and be meticulous when it comes to labelling.
For further information on food allergies and the responsibilities that businesses within the food industry have in relation to them, check out our ‘Food Allergy Awareness’ course, or take a look at our wider packages which include allergy awareness, HACCP and food hygiene courses.