HomeAsk the dietitian: Food allergy and grocery shopping

Ask the dietitian: Food allergy and grocery shopping

January 13, 2021

Mun Cho RD
Mun Cho, RD

In this series, we ask dietitians across Canada to answer your questions on nutrition and dietary support. We recently spoke with Mun Cho, a registered dietitian and food allergy mom of two based in Ontario.

This month, Mun answers a question on grocery shopping when someone in the family has food allergy.

How do you recommend families, particularly those who are newly diagnosed with food allergy, approach grocery shopping?

It’s always helpful to create a grocery list before you start shopping, you can use paper, your phone or an app to do so. Reading labels to check for the food allergen(s) you need to avoid is essential, and this task can be especially daunting for those who are newly diagnosed. 

Couple In Shop Buying Groceries Wearing Face Mask

The good news is that in Canada, the common names of the “priority food allergens” (i.e., crustaceans and molluscs, egg, fish, milk, mustard, peanut, sesame, soy, tree nuts, and wheat and triticale) must be declared on the labels of pre-packaged foods. In fact, Food Allergy Canada led the consumer advocacy effort for improved labelling regulations that require manufacturers to list common food allergens in plain, simple language. 

Practice first

If you are just beginning to learn how to read labels for food allergens, start by reading the full list of ingredients and any precautionary allergen labelling (like “may contain”) of the food products that you already have at home. This allows you to practice in a relaxed environment and can help limit the time you’ll spend in the grocery store, something that many of us are trying to do during a pandemic. As you gain experience reading labels, it will become easier to know what to look for.

Do the “triple check”

Make note of products, including brand names, that are free of your allergen(s). Always read the label before purchasing a product, even if you have bought the same brand for years. Food manufacturers can change the ingredients any time without notice. Food Allergy Canada recommends the “triple check”, that you read labels: once at the store before buying, once when you get home and put it away, and again before you serve or eat the product.

Tips for shopping online:

Shopping cart and carton boxes on laptop. Online shopping during Covid-19 pandemic.
  • While you can sometimes view the food label of a product online, the information on a website may not be complete. Always read the ingredient label again once you have the product in your hands.
  • If available, check off the “no substitution” option if you are looking for a specific brand name.

Having food allergens in your home

You’ll need to decide if you want to have foods containing the allergen(s) you need to avoid in your home. This is a personal choice and in some households, it’s not a workable option. For those sharing a pantry or fridge with other household members who eat foods containing these allergen(s), have a system to help you easily identify foods that need to be avoided (e.g., make a highly visible mark on the packaging of the product that contains the allergen with a red permanent marker, have a dedicated shelf or cupboard for these products). 

Always ensure any products that are not safe for young children with food allergy are stored in a designated area/cupboard that is not within reach or accessible to them.

Contact the company

If you’re unsure if a product contains your food allergen(s), you can contact the food company. Many have customer service options that you can connect with to ask questions related to ingredients and food allergens. If you still have doubts about a product, do not eat it.

Learn more from our website about reading food labels and grocery shopping during COVID-19. For parents of children recently diagnosed with food allergy: register for one of our free webinars on managing food allergy and anaphylaxis, if you’ve not already done so.

Do you have a question you’d like to ask a dietitian in the months to come? If so, please send it along to us at info@foodallergycanada.ca. Please note: The dietitians featured in this series answer questions on general topics, please talk to your doctor if you have questions about your own health or the health of your child.

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