One of my many hats is managing a Coeliac UK group on Facebook for my local area. It’s a supportive community where people often post local restaurant recommendations, ask questions, or share recipes they are particularly proud of. One such post showed the most amazing looking chocolate cake cake, which was (alarm bells) covered in Terry’s chocolate orange segments. These innocuous little nuggets spawned a lot of festive debate among the coeliac twitter community a while back as unfortunately they are not considered gluten free. Terry’s put a ‘may contain wheat’ statement on the packaging, and they are not included in the Coeliac UK Food & Drink Directory. (Although some of their more recent products – popping candy orange segments – are now!).
I responded to the post with this information and was surprised to find that actually, many people on the group with coeliac are happy to eat products with a so-called advisory statement on the label. Personally, through trial, error and experience I am strict about avoiding products with such statements; having moved from a position of “oh, they’re only covering themselves” by glutenings from one too many chocolate bars or crisps over the years. Am I in the minority? I set up a short twitter poll to satisfy my curiosity:
I was surprised, but not astonished that so many gluten-free people will eat products with the warning. Reasons varied from the feeling I recognise that “manufacturers are just covering themselves” to “my reaction isn’t severe so it doesn’t worry me” (lucky silent coeliacs compared to those with life-threatening allergies) plus a couple of folks who check directly with the manufacturer themselves to establish if they are comfortable with the level of risk – fair dos – those simple words ‘may contain’ can hide a multitude of manufacturing practices.
I’m not going to come over all preachy on whether you should or shouldn’t avoid products with advisory statements – how you assess and manage risk to your own health is entirely your business; however if you think (like I once did) that “manfacturers are just covering themselves”, I would like to share the following pieces of information, in case you were not aware of them:
1. Manufacturers should not be adding a ‘may contain’ statement unless there is a genuine risk to the consumer
The use of advisory statements like ‘may contain’ is voluntary but the Food Standards Authority in the UK has clear guidance on the use of advisory statements and say: “Precautionary allergen statements should only be used after a thorough risk assessment and where there is considered to be a real risk to the consumer. The use of precautionary allergen labelling, when there is not a real risk, could be considered to be misleading.” They work closely with the industry to make sure this happens.
2. ‘May contain’ often does contain
In 2014 the FSA published some research into the presence of allergens in food, to assess whether the labels effectively convey the level of risk to consumers. It found that of the products sampled, 81% of those with an advisory statement about gluten (e.g. ‘may contain gluten’) did contain detectable levels of gluten. What the advisory statement said e.g. ‘may contain traces’ or ‘made in a facility that handles’ didn’t reflect the levels of gluten contamination – so you need to pay equal attention of all of them.
3. Coeliac UK advise that you avoid items with a ‘may contain’ statement
In case you needed to know the party line, I asked Coeliac UK for their take on it too:
So now you know, it’s up to you what you do with this information!
<Public service announcement ends here>
I think the ‘may contain traces of gluten’ doubly problematic in so much that in a gluten free product which has tested at say 8ppm …. there are indeed traces of gluten there, at that level. A free from product can be (and I imagine usually is) gluten free AND contain traces of gluten. This is not an ideal situation. Precautionary labelling terms / wording need to be chosen very carefully, in my view – but not sure that always happens.
Certainly not in terms of the weight the consumer places on a certain choice of words. Personally I would consider a warning like ‘not suitable for coeliacs’ to carry more weight than ‘packaged in a facility that also handles…’ Or ‘may contain…’ As it is more targeted, but the FSA study seems to show that it doesn’t seem to bear relation to level of risk/contamination.
Michelle of Free From Food Awards / Food Matters has written compellingly about the problems with Precautionary Allergen Labeling (PAL) including “may contain” and has a campaign underway seeking to address it, long term. More at http://www.allergensafe.org/
I am a silent coeliac. This means I do not suffer any immediately observable symptoms if I accidentally consume gluten but I do suffer the auto-immune reaction and damage to villi, so it is still critical for me to minimize risk of accidental consumption.
If I am interested enough in a product I always try engaging the producer / manufacturer to enquire about the actual risk. Sometimes, I do discover that the risk is genuinely negligible or even zero and that therefore the label should not be applied but at least the food is safe for me to eat. Other times I learn about the source or sources of risk and sometimes, tellingly, Companies are not able or choose not to provide me any response or useful information.
Missing Terry’s Chocolate Oranges? Willie’s Cacao has a ‘Luscious Orange’ product which is far nicer and definitely gluten-free :-)
This is a tricky one isn’t it…as Alex points out most things probably contain a trace of gluten even if gluten-free (less than 20ppm). We avoid anything that says may contain gluten…since that generally means that the factory has gluten in it. When it comes to the manufacture of my flour…I am going for a gluten-free facility and will be carrying out tests to ensure it is under 20ppm…
That’s great! Obviously comes at a cost I expect? Have you managed to find one?
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