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Food Allergens: Labels and Healthy Substitutes

Spread of common food allergies
Spread of common food allergies

If you are confused by product allergen labels, then welcome to the club. Canadian manufacturers may use precautionary statements such as “may contain”, but they are not required or regulated by Health Canada.

Some companies voluntarily use these statements on pre-packaged food labels if the food comes into contact with other products containing allergens, which may contaminate the original food. Individual food companies add “may contain” statements at their discretion but when they do, these statements are legally required to be truthful and not misleading.

This means that even though a product does not have a precautionary statement, there could still potential for cross-contamination with the allergen. In addition, the claim “made in a facility that has nuts” and may “contain nuts” are equivalent statements, in that they alert the consumer to a potential risk for that product. If you have severe allergies, it is best practice to read the full ingredient list, including any precautionary statements.

Even though a product does not have a precautionary statement, there is still potential for cross-contamination with the allergen.

For example, Wowbutter packaging states “Made in a 100% peanut, nut, gluten, dairy and egg free facility.” Consumers can rest assured that there is no cross contamination with other allergens in this product.

Fortunately, Health Canada has made major improvements to food labelling in 2012 with the passing of the of the enhanced allergen labelling regulations, requiring plain simple language for the priority allergens on pre-packaged food products. Further, in 2016, Health Canada provided label improvements for easier to read ingredient information.

Graphic showing how to read new ingredients labels

Companies have 5 years to comply with the new format. Therefore, these changes can take approximately 5 years to completely implement all new labeling as inventory depletes and gets replaced.  If you are unsure whether a product may contain an allergen, call the company to inquire.

Healthy Substitutes

Peanut

Number one substitute that teachers and parents look for is peanut butter. Peanut butter is banned in most schools across Canada, so we recommend using WOWBUTTER instead which is a soy-based butter that tastes just like real peanut butter. The consistency and stability for cooking also resembles peanut butter so it is great for baking or making a nice satay sauce

Recipe: Black Bean Brownie (Gluten Free, nut free, no bake)

Ingredients

  • 14 oz can black beans, rinsed & drained
  • 13 dates, pitted
  • ½ cup WOWBUTTER (optional)
  • ¼ cup cacao powder
  • 3 tbsp coconut oil, melted
  • 3 tbsp honey
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp chocolate chips or cacao nibs (optional)

Directions

  1. In a blender or food processor, mix all ingredients except mini chocolate chips or cacao nibs until very smooth.
  2. Add mini chocolate chips or cacao nibs and pulse a few times.
  3. Pour into lined with parchment paper 8″ x 8″ square dish. Sprinkle mini chocolate chips or cacao nibs. Level with spatula and refrigerate for at least 3 hours. Cut into 16 squares and enjoy.

Milk

For milk allergies, I much prefer soymilk over almond or coconut milk. Soy naturally is a complete protein and offers approximately 8g protein per 250ml, which is as close as you can get to cows milk protein quantity. Almond milk and coconut milk have minimal amounts of protein, and usually a heavy amount of added sugar and sodium. In addition, we cannot use almond milk in schools due to the nut restriction. Note: soy is also a priority allergen that affects children as well. 

Gluten

For gluten intolerances be sure that if you are purchasing bread, that the bread is produced in a gluten free facility, otherwise even though it does not contain gluten, it may still be contaminated. For example, there may be bakeries that contract their space and equipment out to companies that make corn tortillas. Also, always read the full ingredient list.  Even though corn tortillas are gluten-free and advertised as such, take caution as to where it is manufactured. One of my personal favourite GF bakeries is Care Bakery in Calgary. If allergies are severe, it is best to make your own bread using GF flours like tapioca flour and a binding agent (to replace the gluten), like guar gum.

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