Living with a food allergy
The advice below is primarily written for parents of a child with a food allergy but much of it will also apply to you if you are an adult with a food allergy.
Your child’s diet
There is currently no cure for food allergies, although many children will grow out of them. The most effective way you can prevent symptoms is to remove the offending food (the allergen) from their diet.
However, it’s important to check first with your GP or the doctor in charge of your child’s care before eliminating certain foods.
If their allergy is to eggs or peanuts than removing either from them is not going to have much of an impact on their nutrition. Both types of food are a good source of protein but there are many other alternative sources of protein.
A milk allergy can have more of an impact as milk is a good source of calcium, but there are many other ways you can include calcium in your child’s diet, such as green leafy vegetables.
Many foods and drinks are fortified with extra calcium.
If you are concerned that your child’s allergy is affecting their growth and development then contact your GP for advice.
It is very important that you read the list of ingredients on the label of any pre-packed food or drinks your child has.
Under EU law, any pre-packed food or drink sold in the UK must clearly state on the label if it contains the following ingredients:
cereals that contain gluten (including wheat, rye, barley and oats)
crustaceans (including prawns, crabs and lobsters)
lupin (lupins are common garden plants and the seeds from some varieties are sometimes used to make flour)
molluscs (including mussels and oysters)
tree nuts, such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts
sulphur dioxide and sulphites (preservatives that are used in some foods and drinks) at levels above 10mg per kg or per litre
Some food manufacturers also choose to put allergy advice warning labels (for example, “contains nuts”) on their pre-packed foods if they contain an ingredient that is known to commonly cause an allergic reaction, such as peanuts, eggs or milk.
However, these are not compulsory. If there is no allergy advice box or “contains” statement on a product, it doesn’t mean that none of the 14 specified allergens are used as ingredients.
Look out for “may contain” labels, such as “may contain traces of peanut”. Manufacturers sometimes put this label on their products to warn consumers that they may have become contaminated with another food product when being made.
To find out more about the rules on allergen labelling, read the Food Standards Agency advice.
Some non-food products contain allergy-causing food:
Some soaps and shampoos contain soy, egg and tree nut oil.
Some pet foods contain milk and peanuts.
Some glues and adhesive labels used on envelopes and stamps contain traces of wheat.
Again, read the labels of any non-food products that your child may come into close physical contact with.
Currently, unpackaged food doesn’t need to be labelled in the same way as packaged food, and therefore it can be more difficult for to know what ingredients are used in a particular dish.
Examples of unpackaged food include food sold from:
bakeries (including in-store bakeries in supermarkets)
“ready-to-eat” sandwich shops
If your child has a severe food allergy, you will need to be careful if you want to eat out with them.
The following advice should help:
Let the staff know. When making a booking at a restaurant, make sure that the staff are aware of your child’s allergy and ask for a firm guarantee that any food they will be served will be free from the food to which they are allergic. If the staff can’t offer such a guarantee, choose another restaurant. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) offers chef cards that provide information about your child’s food allergy, which you can give to restaurant staff. As well as informing the chef and kitchen staff who are involved in cooking your food, let waiters and waitresses know so that they understand the importance of avoiding cross-contamination when serving you.
Read the menu carefully and check for “hidden ingredients”. Some food types contain other foods that can trigger allergies, which restaurant staff may have overlooked. Some desserts contain nuts (such as a cheesecake base) and some sauces contain wheat and peanuts.
Prepare for the worst. It’s a good idea to prepare for any eventuality. Always take your child’s anti-allergy medication with you when eating out, particularly if they have been given an auto-injector of adrenalin (read more about treating food allergies with a auto-injector).
In older children you can use what is known as a “taste-test”. Before your child begins to eat, ask them to take a tiny portion of the food and rub it against their lips to see if they experience a tingling or burning sensation. If they do, it suggests that the food will cause them to have an allergic reaction. However, the “taste-test” doesn’t work for all foods, so shouldn’t be used as a substitute for following the advice above.
The Food Standards Agency has produced a factsheet about buying food and eating out with a food allergy.
Further advice for parents is provided below.
Notify your child’s school about their allergy. Depending on how severe your child’s allergy could be, it may be useful to provide the staff at their school with an emergency action plan in case of accidental exposure. Arrange with the school nurse, or another appropriate staff member, to hold a supply of adrenalin and to administer it if necessary. Food allergy bracelets are also available, which explain how other people can help your child in an emergency.
Let other parents know. Young children may easily forget about their food allergy and accept food that they shouldn’t have when visiting other children. Telling the parents of your child’s friends about their allergy should help prevent this.
Educate your child. Once your child is old enough to understand, it is important that you provide them with clear, simple instructions about what foods to avoid and what they should do if they accidentally eat them.