Tips for avoiding common allergens in food

It is estimated that between 1.8 and 2.1 million Canadians may be affected by food allergies. The foods or allergens from food the most frequently linked with severe allergic or allergic-type reactions in Canada – also known as priority allergens – are:

  • Peanuts
  • tree nuts
  • sesame seeds
  • soy
  • fish
  • crustaceans and molluscs
  • wheat and triticale
  • eggs
  • milk
  • mustard
  • added sulphites (sulphites are food additives that do not cause true allergic reactions but sensitive individuals can react with allergy-like symptoms that can be severe. These people must apply the same precautions as those with food allergies).

Allergic reactions

Allergens can cause a reaction in your respiratory system, stomach and intestines, skin or cardiovascular system. The most severe allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis. Symptoms can include breathing difficulties and a drop in blood pressure or shock. These may result in loss of consciousness and even death. Severe allergic reactions aren't predictable. You or your child may have a mild reaction one time and a severe one the next -- or vice versa. Allergic reactions are triggered when your body's immune system mistakenly identifies a food protein to be harmful. Exposure to even the smallest amounts of allergenic protein can cause a serious allergic reaction in sensitive individuals. This is why it's important for you to understand and manage the risks associated with food allergens.

How to avoid allergic reactions

If you have a food allergy, avoiding the ingestion of the allergen is the only effective way to prevent allergic reactions. There are many important steps you can take to help protect yourself or your child. Some general tips include:

1. Read food labels carefully

  • Always seek out products that have an ingredient list.
  • Make sure you read the ingredient list on both the inner and the outer packaging if applicable.
  • Check the label every time you shop — manufacturers sometimes change the ingredients used in familiar products; different varieties and sizes of the same brand and product may also contain different ingredients or may have been produced in different facilities.
  • Avoid food products that don't list their ingredients, that contain an ingredient that you don't recognize or if you don’t understand the language written on the packaging.

2. Watch out for cross-contamination

Cross-contamination occurs when an ingredient (such as a food allergen) is unintentionally transferred to a food product that doesn't normally contain that ingredient. Manufacturers can use a precautionary statement to indicate that foods could have been unintentionally exposed to an allergen some time during the manufacturing process.

  • Avoid food products that bear a precautionary statement such as “May contain X” where X is the name of the allergen that you are allergic to.
  • Avoid bins of bulk food where ingredient lists may not be available and where there may be a risk of cross-contamination between bins.

3. Don't take chances

  • When someone else is preparing food for you, whether at a restaurant or a friend's home, make sure they know about your food allergy, so they can take steps to avoid cross-contamination (for example, through careful use of utensils, cooking pans, cutting boards, counters) and alert you to any ingredients of concern.
  • When in doubt about whether or not a food product contains allergens, obtain more information on the product (e.g., contact the manufacturer) or don't eat it.

4. Carry an epinephrine/adrenaline auto-injector device at all times

  • If an allergist prescribes an epinephrine/adrenaline auto-injector, learn how to use it properly and carry it with you at all times. It could save your life.
  • Practice using it regularly and train other family members and caregivers (e.g., babysitter) as well.
  • If it is your child who is affected, teach them how to use the device, and stress the importance of always having it with them.
  • Use the auto-injector at the earliest sign of a reaction. You must always seek medical attention immediately after the use of an epinephrine auto-injector.
  • You or your child may wear a MedicAlert identifier so that, in case of an accident, others know about your or your child’s allergies and reactions.

5. Be informed

  • In the past, food allergens  were sometimes declared on food labels under different names. Today, other names for priority allergens are permitted only if the common name of the allergen appears at least once on the food label (either in the list of ingredients or in a separate “Contains” statement).
  • The Government of Canada has developed a series of pamphlets with information on each of the priority food allergens, including lists of other names for each allergen, food and food products that  often contain them as well as non-food sources of each allergen.
  • Sign up for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's (CFIA) e-mail“Food Recalls Warnings” notification service.

What the Government of Canada does to keep our food supply safe

The Government of Canada is committed to providing Canadians with the information they need to make safe and healthy food choices.

Health Canada establishes regulations and standards relating to the safety and nutritional quality of foods sold in Canada. Through inspection and enforcement activities, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) verifies that food sold in Canada meets Health Canada's requirements.

More information on the regulations that enhance the labelling of priority allergens and gluten sources can be found on the Health Canada’s  Food Allergies and Intolerances webpage.

If you come across a food that you think is improperly labelled, contact the CFIA and provide information about the product.

Report a food safety or labelling concern

For more information

 Advisories and Warnings

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