Why I hate the term “Allergy Friendly”

I hate the term “allergy friendly” *. I say this as someone who has used it, and as someone who has been impacted by it.

*This post specifically refers to “allergy-friendly” labeling on food products. The meaning behind a restaurant that says they are “allergy-friendly” is much more clear.

Long story short: nothing is truly “allergy friendly”.

Allergies are different, and impact the people that have them differently. What is safe for one person may not be safe for another (not even if they are allergic to the same substance!) and people can be allergic to everything from peanuts to water (aquagenic urticaria). Some people may have oral allergy syndrome and have low likelihood of anaphylaxis to a food, other people may go into anaphylactic shock from airborne proteins.

What does this mean? It means that the chocolate bar labeled “allergy friendly” isn’t safe for someone with a cacao allergy, just like an “allergy friendly” gluten free flour mix made with potato starch isn’t safe for me.

What harm does it actually do?

“Buzzword” Marketing is Dangerous

I see this one fairly often. Imagine that you’re at the grocery store, and you see a product that is labeled as “allergy friendly!”.

Best case, you are an ingredient-list reader, and when you turn the product over you notice that although it doesn’t contain the top-8 allergens, it is manufactured on the same equipment and “may contain” them.

Worst case, you are shopping for someone else: you have a friend with food allergies, you are a teacher shopping for class treats, you are trying to buy snacks for a kids birthday party. You don’t know to check the label for a may contain statement, and purchase (and serve) an item under the impression that it is safe.

So what does this mean? That the term “allergy friendly” is not regulated, means essentially nothing, and is just being used as a marketing tactic.

Although most people in the allergy community I know are avid ingredient list readers, mistakes do happen. Grocery stores are busy and loud, and my grocery trips in the pandemic tend to be somewhat rushed. I’ve accidentally purchased quite a few products with “allergy friendly!” labeling in the store, and then came home to see a small “may contain” that I completely missed.

Confusing and meaningless “allergy friendly!” labeling can be a dangerous game.

I don’t care if it helps a product get sold if it means I can’t actually eat the product.

Public Opinion & Perception of Allergies

The language we use to describe the world around us is extremely important. It impacts opinion, how we interact with the world, and how we interact with the people around us.

The general public’s knowledge of allergies and their effects is minimal at best. Often people with allergies are seen as a problem (rather than the allergies themselves). In response to this trend, a lot of advocacy work has been done to change the narrative and instead call out the real villains (the allergens themselves, lack of labeling, cross contamination, etc.) as the problems.

So, when food get touted as “allergy friendly!” the general public tends to read it as “problem-solved!”. The issue?

The problem isn’t solved.

If you’re someone (like me) who is still allergic to something that is considered “allergy friendly”, then the cultural standard once again prevails, and the person is treated as the problem (instead of the food).

What to use instead

Preferably, always specify the type of allergy that specific protocols are in place for (think: peanut allergy friendly, tree-nut allergy friendly, egg allergy friendly, top-8 allergy friendly, etc.).

If you are making something for a specific person, you can refer to it as “allergy friendly” in the context of their needs (as seen in the title of this blog, my friends and I like to use “Sam Safe” in reference to food for me).

Just…explain your protocols. Or your process. I’d much rather see “made in a facility that is dedicated free of ________” than a vague “allergy friendly :)” label.

A made-in-a-facility label has meaning, “allergy friendly “does not.

Conclusion

“Allergy Friendly” labels DO raise food allergy awareness- which is the major benefit of their existence. The increased revenue from products that are made with allergen protocols in place has a huge impact on what products continue to be available to the allergy community (and I am extremely appreciative of that fact).

My main wish is that the label is regulated and standardized- so that it can actually be helpful for people with allergies. I love that it helps drive product development and safer manufacturing practices- but as it stands, it does not help me manage my allergies. Please, give it a meaning.

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