Culinary ingredients
Health & wellness

Allergen awareness: Don’t put your mustard where your mouth is

Friday, December 2, 2016

The rise in awareness of allergens has led to a revolution in consumer understanding and, due to the introduction of Food Information Regulation (2014) which focused on providing food information to the consumer, chefs have more clarity about what allergens need to be identified to avoid potentially triggering an allergic reaction in diners.

Mustard seeds on a spoon

The number of people suffering from allergies is increasing by a worrying 5% every year1 but the legislation on allergen labelling, which came into force in 2014, aims to help food businesses display allergens in ingredients in a clearer and more consistent way, making it easier for consumers with allergies when eating out2. Yet, whilst many chefs are thinking twice about ingredients such as wheat, nuts, fish and eggs, what about the lesser known allergens such as celery, mustard, lupin and sulphur dioxide?

Whilst allergies to celery and lupin (a common garden plant which is crushed to make lupin flour) are rare in the UK3, reactions can be quite severe.  With the trend for gluten-free products and dishes, lupin is one to look out for as it is often used as an alternative in gluten-free goods4 such as pasta, pastries and pies.

Mustard is another of the 14 allergens that must be clearly labelled and communicated. A staple product in most chefs’ store cupboard for adding extra punch to sauces, sausages, marinades and much more, it’s not just jars that chefs need to watch out for. Mustard leaves, seeds and flowers are all used in a range of foods, including salads and even cocktails, and if a person is allergic to any of these, symptoms may appear in as little as a minute.

Perhaps the least well known of all the allergens is sulphur dioxide, which needs to be highlighted if it’s at levels above 10mg/kg, or 10 mg/litre. Many chefs may not realise that sulphites are used as a preservative and can be found in many products, from jams, gravies and fresh or frozen prawns to beer, wine and cider.  Those suffering from asthma are most likely to be affected (between 5-12% of the UK’s population)5.

Whilst many operators have ramped up their vigilance since the new legislation was introduced, the key is to make sure they are always able to provide information on menu items that may contain any of the 14 known allergens or traces of them.

Training for all waiting staff is also crucial, as when each order is taken they need to be able to provide the low down on the allergens in all food and drinks served.  One pub in West Sussex came up with an innovative solution by installing an interactive touchscreen so customers can browse menu items and find out about allergies themselves. Simple, yet effective and with a one-off cost, perhaps technology is the future.

Let’s be honest, this remains a huge challenge for the industry. While some have speculated that the allergen labelling laws could be revoked following Brexit, we can’t be 100% sure what will happen to the allergen laws in future. In the meantime, allergen labelling is here, so whether it’s via thorough staff training, menu innovation or new technologies, chefs must find a way to ensure that all allergens can be communicated.