Are Vegan Foods Safe for Food Allergies?

May 15,2024

Nutrition And Diet

The "Vegan" Label: A False Sense of Security for Allergy Sufferers? 

The vegan lifestyle is gaining traction globally, propelling the vegan food market to surpass US$27 billion in 2023. The term "vegan" traditionally suggests a diet free from any ingredients sourced from animals (including meat, poultry, eggs, milk, fish, and seafood). 

Beyond the perceived health advantages, vegan products offer a compelling option for individuals motivated by environmental concerns, sustainability, and animal welfare. However, there's another, often overlooked, consumer group choosing vegan products: those with allergies to animal proteins like cow's milk and eggs. 

As a team specializing in Canadian food allergen risk analysis, we sought to explore two pressing questions: 

Do those with animal protein allergies wrongly believe "vegan" products guarantee safety? 

And if so, do these products truly pose no risk to this vulnerable group? 

The Dire Consequences of Food Allergies 

Addressing these questions is paramount for individuals living with food allergies. Inadvertent consumption of a trigger food can result in severe and potentially life-threatening reactions (anaphylaxis). Food allergies affect a significant portion of Canadians, with approximately six per cent reporting allergies, including 0.8 per cent with egg allergies and 1.1 per cent with milk allergies. 

While immunotherapy and allergen desensitization offer hope, the most dependable way to prevent allergic reactions remains meticulous avoidance of potential allergens. 

Consumers with allergies heavily rely on the ingredient lists of pre-packaged foods to make safe choices. Regulatory bodies responsible for food safety acknowledge the crucial role accurate labeling plays for those with allergies. As such, it's mandatory to disclose any intentionally added allergens within a pre-packaged product. 

Unfortunately, a regulatory gap persists regarding ingredients that might be accidentally present – perhaps due to shared equipment or cross-contamination during manufacturing. Companies often voluntarily (and inconsistently) use the "may contain" warning to address these potential traces. 

Critically, the term "vegan" lacks a standardized legal definition in Canada. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency indicates that businesses might apply additional standards beyond ingredient composition when choosing to label a product as "vegan." This ambiguity hampers the ability to enforce clear labeling requirements. 

The most concerning aspect is that recalls of "vegan" products often stem from the unexpected presence of animal-derived ingredients, with milk and eggs being the prime culprits. 

 Food Allergies

The Consumer Perspective 

Against this backdrop, we collaborated with Food Allergy Canada to survey consumers with allergies. We questioned participants who identified themselves or their children as having milk or egg allergies about their purchasing patterns for "vegan" products. 

Out of 337 responses, a significant 72 per cent admitted to occasionally buying these products, with 14 per cent always including them, and 14 per cent steering clear. These findings indicate that many allergy sufferers do, in fact, associate the "vegan" label with the absence of animal proteins – a safety assumption that current regulations do not support. 

What Can the Food Industry Do? 

In the interim, food manufacturers have the power to implement several proactive measures to mitigate the risks associated with vegan products, especially for individuals with allergies. 

First and foremost, it would be beneficial for food producers to use the voluntary "may contain..." declaration with greater precision and discernment. This statement should be reserved for scenarios where even the most stringent cleaning procedures between production runs cannot completely eliminate the possibility of cross-contamination. 

Secondly, since the risk of cross-contamination can never be fully eradicated, implementing a preventive allergen control plan is paramount. These plans, complete with validation and verification steps, are internationally recognized safeguards. Interestingly, they've been a mandatory component of Canadian food regulations since 2011. 

Thirdly, clear and unambiguous wording within a product's primary claims would go a long way in transparently communicating the level of risk to allergy sufferers. For example, a statement like "vegan flavour" would signal that the "vegan" aspect relates to taste rather than an assured absence of specific allergens. 

Where Do Regulators Fit In? 

From a regulatory standpoint, establishing a precise, legally binding definition of "vegan" would furnish food processors with a clear set of standards. This would empower them to adjust their labeling practices and claims accordingly. 

Moreover, mandating the declaration of all priority allergens while simultaneously requiring the implementation of preventive control plans (with cleaning validation as a core element of good manufacturing practices) would considerably strengthen risk management across the board. 

The Scientific Community's Role 

Researchers must continue to refine methods for the detection and quantification of allergens. These advancements would assist in gauging risk levels more accurately, allowing food manufacturers to make better-informed decisions. 

 Food Allergies

Where Do We Go From Here? 

Ultimately, it appears the most promising solution lies in fostering open dialogue and collaboration between industry stakeholders, healthcare professionals specializing in allergies, organizations advocating for allergy sufferers, regulatory bodies, and, of course, the scientific community. 

These types of discussions would cultivate common ground and facilitate the development of an acceptable framework. Most importantly, this framework would empower allergy sufferers to make informed decisions about the risks they face when purchasing foods – even those labeled as "vegan." 

Consumer Awareness: A Vital Component 

While changes in labeling practices and regulations are important, food allergy sufferers themselves carry a heavy responsibility in managing their own safety. It is essential to raise awareness within this community that "vegan" primarily represents a dietary preference, not an allergy safety guarantee. 

The majority of "vegan" product recalls stem from undeclared animal-based ingredients (especially milk and eggs). An educational campaign emphasizing this fact could prove invaluable in preventing potentially serious allergic reactions. 

What Can Consumers with Food Allergies Do? 

Allergy sufferers must continue to exercise unwavering vigilance. They should always thoroughly scrutinize ingredient lists, even on products labeled "vegan" or "plant-based." Being aware of the potential for cross-contamination and the voluntary nature of "may contain" warnings is also crucial. 

Individuals with highly sensitive allergies might consider contacting the food manufacturer directly to clarify production practices. Inquiring about cleaning protocols between product runs can provide helpful insights beyond the information on the label. 

It's also advisable to familiarize oneself with alternative terms or phrases that might hint at the presence of animal proteins. Ingredient lists often warn consumers about processing on shared equipment or in facilities that also handle milk or eggs, signaling a cross-contamination risk. 

Furthermore, exploring online resources and support networks offered by organizations like Food Allergy Canada can be empowering. These platforms provide valuable information, advocacy, and a sense of community for those navigating food allergies. 

The Prevalence of Milk and Eggs in "Vegan" Products 

To investigate the actual presence of allergens in products marketed as "vegan," our research team tested a selection of "vegan" and "plant-based" products sold in Québec, Canada. We were specifically looking for traces of egg and milk proteins. 

No evidence of egg protein surfaced in any of the 64 product samples analyzed. However, we detected milk proteins in five items: four dark chocolate bars carrying a "certified vegan" designation and a supermarket brand chestnut cake. 

Fortunately, each of these five products displayed a "may contain milk" warning. We then combined our findings on the concentration of milk proteins in these items with estimated consumption quantities for a single eating occasion to calculate potential exposure doses in milligrams of allergen protein. 

Our risk assessment models suggest that these doses could trigger reactions in approximately six per cent of milk-allergic consumers for the chocolate bars and around one per cent for the cake. 

Looking Ahead: A Need for Change 

While these risk levels might seem relatively low, they are subject to unpredictable fluctuations, potentially changing without warning for allergy sufferers. This lack of consistency will persist until regulatory changes are put in place. 

Importantly, the detected levels of risk are more likely a reflection of generally good allergen management practices within the North American food industry than a reliable consequence of "vegan" or "plant-based" claims. Therefore, even if the presence of a "may contain milk" advisory seems contradictory on a "vegan" product, those with milk allergies should interpret it as a definite health risk warning. 

Beyond Allergen Content: Ingredient Quality and Substitution 

It's important to note that choosing "vegan" alternatives doesn't automatically equate to healthier food choices. Scrutinizing the ingredient list remains vital for those striving for a balanced diet. Highly processed foods, even those devoid of animal products, may contain high levels of sugar, saturated or trans fats, and sodium. 

Furthermore, "vegan" products often rely on substitutes to mimic the flavors, textures, and functionalities of their animal-based counterparts. Some of these replacements may fall into the category of ultra-processed ingredients, raising questions about potential long-term health implications. 

Consumers should also be aware of potential nutritional deficiencies when adopting a strictly vegan diet. Nutrients commonly obtained from animal-sources, including vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids, may require supplementation or intentional inclusion from fortified plant-based foods to prevent deficiencies. 

The Environmental Impact: Not Always Clear-Cut 

While the environmental benefits of veganism are often touted, the reality can be more nuanced. Locally-sourced animal products may have a smaller carbon footprint than some plant-based foods that travel long distances to reach consumers. Additionally, the production of certain vegan staples, like avocados or almonds, has been linked to water scarcity and ecological damage in specific regions. 

This underscores the importance of conscious consumerism for those seeking an environmentally friendly food system. Opting for locally-grown, seasonal produce, whether plant-based or not, can significantly enhance the sustainability of one's diet. 

Ethical Considerations 

Animal welfare is a driving factor for many who embrace veganism. However, it's important to acknowledge that even plant-based agriculture can have ethical considerations. Concerns about fair labor practices, pesticide use, and deforestation are valid points in the broader discussion of food ethics. 

Choosing local, sustainably-produced foods or supporting brands with ethical commitments in their supply chains can help address these concerns, regardless of whether the food itself contains animal products. 

A Personal Choice to Be Informed About 

Ultimately, the decision to embrace a vegan diet, or to incorporate "vegan" products for specific reasons like allergies, is a personal one. As in any dietary preference, being well-informed is essential for consumers to make choices that align with their health, values, and concerns. 

Understanding that the term "vegan" has limitations – both in terms of food safety for allergy sufferers and the broader implications for diet and ethics – is crucial for navigating this complex landscape. 

In Conclusion: A Call for Better Standards and Informed Choices 

Our findings highlight a clear disconnect between the perception of "vegan" among some allergy sufferers and the current regulatory landscape. The lack of a precise legal definition for this term, along with inconsistent use of precautionary allergen labeling, creates a potential for serious health risks within this vulnerable population. 

While our analysis suggests that this risk is presently manageable due to widespread good manufacturing practices in North America, reliance on this alone is untenable. Changes in both regulation and consumer awareness are crucial. 

The development of a clear "vegan" definition would provide the food industry with the guidance needed to adapt their labeling, while empowering consumers to make informed choices. Simultaneously, targeted educational campaigns addressing the food allergy community would ensure they are accurately informed about potential risks associated with this product category. 

However, the conversation shouldn't center solely on allergen safety. Consumers opting for vegan products due to dietary preferences, ethical considerations, or environmental concerns deserve transparency regarding the ingredients, nutritional profiles, and overall impact of these foods. 

The Path to Responsible Food Systems 

Fostering open communication and collaboration among all stakeholders is the cornerstone of improving food safety for allergy sufferers, as well as creating sustainable and ethical food systems overall. Consumer advocacy groups, regulatory agencies, healthcare providers specializing in allergies, dedicated scientists, and the food industry all have critical roles to play in this dialogue. 

Balancing food allergen risk management with the need for clarity and consumer choice ultimately demands a comprehensive approach. Only by working together can we ensure that everyone, regardless of allergies or dietary preferences, feels safe and confident in their food choices. 

Looking Forward: Progress Through Collaboration 

The path forward must involve the co-creation of guidelines and regulatory frameworks that balance all the factors involved – from ingredient selection to clear labeling and effective risk management. It's a responsibility we all share in ensuring a safe, informed, and sustainable food system for everyone. 

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