Food allergens and plant-based foods

Table of Contents

How often do you prepare plant-based food at home? Do you need to think about food allergens when preparing foods?

Veganism, vegetarianism and plant-based diets have become very trendy lately. The number of vegans and vegetarians worldwide has increased significantly over recent years. Likewise, the number of food allergy sufferers is also on the rise. According to Allergy UK, around 11-26 million Europeans suffer from a food allergy.

Food allergies are when the body’s immune system reacts to a harmless food component. The food component, usually a protein, is mistaken as a threat.

Regardless of whether you follow a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, if you suffer from a food allergy or are preparing food for someone with a food allergy you should know what the food contains and how to prepare it safely.

The food industry is facing some big changes, thanks to consumers’ increased interest in eating healthier. In fact, according to the Good Food Institute, sales of plant-based foods have grown 43% in the past two years. This shift away from animal-based products isn’t limited to grocery stores, it’s also happening in restaurants. While there’s no doubt that people are becoming more conscious about what they’re putting into their bodies, plant-based innovation brings fresh challenges for people with allergies.

Vegan and vegetarians

The term “vegan diet” refers to a plant-based diet that excludes all animal products. This includes meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy and honey. A vegan diet is considered healthier than a standard omnivorous diet. It eliminates the saturated fat and cholesterol found in meats and cheeses.

Vegetarians avoid eating meat, poultry, seafood and eggs. Lacto vegetarians abstain from consuming dairy products. Lacto vegetarians often include dairy alternatives such as soy milk, rice milk, almond milk and hemp milk in their diets. Vegans and Lacto vegetarians often consume fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, herbs and spices.

The 14 allergens

People may be allergic or have an intolerance to other ingredients. But by law food businesses are only required to declare the ’14 allergens’. These 14 are the ‘major’ or most common food allergens. Those which cause the greatest number of food allergies.

They include:

  1. Celery
  2. Cereals containing gluten (such as barley and oats)
  3. Crustaceans (such as prawns, crabs and lobsters)
  4. Eggs
  5. Fish
  6. Lupin
  7. Milk
  8. Molluscs (such as mussels and oysters)
  9. Mustard
  10. Peanuts
  11. Sesame
  12. Soybeans
  13. Sulphur dioxide and Sulphites ( if the sulphur dioxide and sulphites are at a concentration of more than ten parts per million)
  14. Tree nuts (such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts)

Food businesses must tell customers whether any food they provide contains any of the listed allergens as an ingredient. Consumers may be allergic or intolerant to other ingredients, but the 14 allergens are the ones required to be declared as such by food law. When eating out, if you have a food allergy you must ask very clear questions about what is in the food. Don’t forget to check whether there is a risk of cross-contamination.

Which of the 14 allergens may be found in plant-based foods?

Let’s now explore which of the 14 allergens may be commonly found in plant-based foods.

Make sure you always check the label on any food items or if you are eating out make sure you ask clear questions because there is always the risk that the other (animal-based) allergens could still be present.

1. Wheat

Wheat Food Allergen

Someone who is allergic to wheat will react when they eat wheat or products containing wheat. However, a reaction can also be triggered by touching or breathing in wheat.

Gluten is one of the many proteins found in wheat. Someone allergic to wheat could actually be reacting to gluten and/or another protein.

When preparing food for someone with a wheat allergy check food labels carefully. Sometimes manufacturers change the ingredients they use.

Food that is labelled ‘gluten-free’ may not necessarily be suitable for someone with a wheat allergy. This is because, under EU law, products labelled as ‘gluten-free’ must contain no more than 20 parts per million of gluten. There is not enough evidence to determine what level of wheat is safe for someone with a wheat allergy. The advice of Anaphylaxis UK is that any wheat allergy sufferers should avoid foods labelled as ‘gluten-free’. Unless they can be certain that wheat is not an ingredient.

Here are some ingredients which might contain wheat (bear in mind this is not an exhaustive list and you should always check the label):

  • All types of bread including rolls, pitta, naan, croissants, chapatti and paratha.
  • Processed foods such as gravy, salad dressings, soups and sauces
  • wheat-based breakfast cereals
  • pasta, couscous, spelt and semolina
  • Desserts including cakes, crackers, pastries, ice cream cones, biscuits, doughnuts and batter
  • Beers will almost certainly contain gluten and they may also contain wheat and barley
  • Hydrolysed vegetable protein (HVP) is used to give a savoury flavour to sauces, gravies and soups. Bear in mind it may be derived from wheat.
  • Modified wheat starch and raising agents such as baking powder. Check the label to ensure they are wheat-free.

2. Sulphites

Sulphite Food Allergen

Sulphites are preservatives. They are added to foods to extend their shelf-life. ‘Sulphites’ is a general term for chemicals including sulphur dioxide, potassium metabisulphite and sodium.

Here are some plant-based ingredients which might contain sulphites (bear in mind this is not an exhaustive list and you should always check the label):

  • Dried fruits
  • Pickled foods and vinegar
  • Alcohol such as beer, cider and wine
  • Fruit/ vegetable juices and some fizzy drinks
  • Bottled sauces and condiments
  • Guacamole
  • Coconut milk
  • Tofu/ bean curd
  • Maraschino / glace cherries
  • Dehydrated vegetables
  • Frozen or dehydrated, pre-cut/ peeled potatoes

Make sure you check the label of pre-packed foods. By Law, if pre-packed foods have added sulphites at a level of more than 10 parts per million this must be declared. They are not required to be declared when they naturally appear in foods.

3. Celery

Celery Food Allergen

Celery may be used in plant-based foods in the form of celery sticks, leaves, spice, seeds or salt.

Celeriac must also be considered. This is because it is a type of celery where the root (rather than the stalk) is the edible part. Someone with an allergy to celery should also avoid celeriac.

A stick of celery is easy to spot but don’t forget other forms of celery (such as celery salt) that are not so noticeable. For example, celery may be found in:

  • Stock cubes
  • Salads
  • Soups and stews
  • Crisps
  • Spice/ seasoning mixes
  • Condiments such as Marmite
  • Tomato juice and smoothies

4. Lupin

Lupin Food Allergen

Lupin is a popular garden flower but it has other uses. Seeds from certain lupin flowers are used to make lupin flour. Lupin is generally found in European bakery and pasta products, some of which may be imported to the UK.

When checking product labels for lupin be aware that lupin may sometimes be called lupine, lupin flour, lupin seeds or lupin bean. Lupin beans are even being used to make plant-based meats.

The following products may contain lupin:

  • Pies
  • Pastry cases
  • Pancakes/ crepes
  • Pizzas
  • Batter-coated vegetables
  • Some vegan food products where lupin is used as a substitute for milk
  • Some gluten-free products

5. Mustard

Mustard Food Allergen

When we think of mustard the first thing that comes to mind is jars of mustard. However, there are other foods derived from the mustard plant that are likely to affect people with a mustard allergy. These include mustard leaves, seeds, flowers, sprouted mustard seeds, mustard oil and mustard cress.

Mustard can be found in many products and dishes including:

  • Mayonnaise
  • BBQ sauce
  • Ketchup/ tomato sauce
  • Marinades
  • Salad dressings/ oils/ vinaigrettes
  • Pickles, chutneys and pickled onions

Mustard seeds and mustard oil are often used in Indian cooking.

6. Tree nuts

Tree Nuts Food Allergen

Tree nuts include:

  • Almonds
  • Hazelnuts
  • Brazil nuts
  • Walnuts
  • Cashews
  • Pecans
  • Pistachio
  • Macadamia nuts.

A person who is allergic to tree nuts should also avoid tree nut oils. These may be used for baking, frying or in salad dressings.

Tree nuts can be used in many different foods and dishes including:

  • Breads
  • Cakes and biscuits
  • Breakfast cereals, cereal bars and muesli
  • Sweets and chocolate
  • Ice cream
  • Salads and salad dressings
  • Vegan food and gluten-free food alternatives
  • Various types of Asian cuisines

7. Peanuts

Peanuts Food Allergen

Peanuts are a common cause of food allergy, they can cause severe reactions. You may find it interesting to know that the peanut is a legume, related to foods such as lentils, peas and beans. Peanuts are in a different botanical category to tree nuts.

When checking food labels be aware that peanuts could be listed under any of these alternative names:

  • Beer nuts
  • Cacahuete
  • Chinese nuts
  • Arachis hypogaea
  • Earthnuts
  • Groundnuts
  • Monkey nuts
  • Madelonas
  • Goober nut/ pea

Anyone with a peanut allergy should also watch out for these foods:

  • Satay sauce
  • Pesto
  • Marzipan
  • Praline
  • Salad dressings
  • Curries and Asian dishes
  • Peanut shots (can be used in stir-fry’s and salads)

Also, peanuts could be found in any of the food items listed under ‘tree nuts’ above.

8. Sesame

Sesame Food Allergen

According to Allergy UK, sesame seed allergy is now one of the top 10 causes of food allergies.

Sesame can be found in many food products including:

  • Dips such as hummus and tahini
  • Confectionary such as Halvah
  • Bakery products, biscuits, crackers, breadsticks and rice cakes
  • Pies
  • Museli
  • Noodles
  • Soups
  • Samosas
  • Veggie burgers
  • Chutneys
  • Mixed spices

Sesame oil is made by cold-pressing sesame seeds. As such is it not refined, unlike other oils such as peanut oil. Peanut oil is refined to the point where there is no allergenic protein left. As such, if unrefined sesame oil is used it must be avoided by people with a sesame allergy.

9. Soya

Soya Food Allergen

Soya is a food derived from the soya bean. Soya is also known as ‘soy’. Soya beans are often called edamame beans when fresh or frozen.

According to Allergy UK, as many as 60% of manufactured foods contain soya.

Soya is used in a whole range of food products. Including but not limited to:

  • Tofu which is another name for soya bean curd which is used widely as a meat alternative
  • Soya flour which is widely used in breads, cakes, biscuits and ready meals
  • Textured vegetable protein which is used in some foods as a texturiser
  • Soya lecithin which is an emulsifier derived from unrefined soya oil
  • Soya sauce (also known as soy sauce)

The Food Standards Agency has advised that refined soya oil, the main component of vegetable oil, should be safe for people with a soya allergy. This is because the allergenic proteins have been removed during the refining process. However, cold-pressed soya oil can still contain soya protein and should be avoided by anyone with a soya allergy.

Preparing an allergy-safe, plant-based meal

Ask your guests about any allergies or intolerances they might have. This way, you can plan. For example, if someone is allergic to nuts you need to avoid serving products containing nuts. Even those containing traces of nuts.

Check the ingredient lists on pre-packaged foods to see what allergens they contain.

When preparing food for someone with a food allergy, avoiding cross-contamination is important. Remember, allergic reactions can occur with only a tiny amount of an allergen. So when preparing plant-based foods, ensure no cross-contamination from the 14 allergens occurs.

Here are some steps you can take to control allergen cross-contamination:

  • Clean utensils between each use
  • Wash your hands between preparing dishes
  • Storing ingredients and prepared foods separately in closed and labelled containers
  • Keep ingredients containing allergens separate from other ingredients
  • Use separate equipment, utensils and preparation areas for food containing allergens
  • Don’t forget if you are frying foods use separate fryers for certain foods. For example; to cook gluten-free chips you cannot use the same oil that was used to cook battered fish.

Want some plant-based recipe ideas and inspiration? Check out Plant-based chef Lisa Marley.

What have we learnt?

We have learnt that there is an increase in the number of people eating a plant-based diet. Also, there is an increase in the number of people suffering from food allergies.

When buying or preparing food for someone with a food allergy check the label. You must also take steps to prevent cross-contamination.

We have looked at the common allergens associated with plant-based foods. Also, the most common foods they are likely to be found in.

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Want to know more about allergens for food businesses? Check out our other Allergen blog:

Want some more training in food safety?

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Food Standards Agency

Anaphylaxis UK

Allergy UK





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