How to communicate allergen information more effectively on food labels

Food labels are often assessed for compliance with food allergen labelling requirements, but researchers in the Netherlands have recently taken a different approach: they have assessed the effectiveness of allergen labels as a form of communication. This new perspective has resulted in several recommendations for improving how allergen information is presented on food labels.

Close to 300 food labels were collected in 2018. Assessment was undertaken in relation to the 14 EU-regulated allergens and included the way in which allergens were presented in the ingredients lists, use of precautionary allergen labelling (PAL), icons, and whether/how an allergen information section was used. Results of the quantitative assessment can be found in the Open Access article.

The effectiveness of communication of allergen information was also qualitatively assessed, using principles of Gestalt and Cognitive Load theories. This included readability, grouping of allergen information, cohesion of different topics and consistency in the order of topics.

The labels assessed in this study showed a large variety in the way in which allergen information was presented. While the name of the product was almost always at the top of the label, and allergens were predominantly written in the ingredients list using bold font, all other mandatory and optional topics were presented inconsistently.

The authors proposed six labelling recommendations for the food industry that would improve the communication of allergen information for consumers:

  1. Ensure all food information is readable
  2. Present allergens in the ingredients list in bold
  3. Provide grouping of related topics and a uniform topic order on the label
  4. Provide an allergen information section
  5. Use one standardised statement for PAL
  6. Use allergen icons.

Reference: Blom et al. 2021. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Allergy. Doi: 10.1111/cea.13830. Available with Open Access.

Disclaimer: Author Geert Houben is a member of the Allergen Bureau VITAL® Scientific Expert Panel. See VITAL Science.