Food allergies are an immune system reaction
A food allergy happens when a person's immune system overreacts to a protein in food. The immune system produces too many antibodies, and you have an allergic reaction. Symptoms usually appear within minutes after eating the food, or can begin up to 4 hours later. They range from mild discomfort to life-threatening reactions that need immediate medical attention.
A food that causes an allergy is called an allergen. For some people, only a tiny trace can trigger a reaction. Once diagnosed with a food allergy, you need to identify and avoid consuming all sources of that allergen.
For more advice, talk to your doctor. Children should be referred to a paediatric service.
A food intolerance is an adverse reaction to a food
Food intolerance is when a body has difficulty digesting certain foods. Unlike a food allergy, a food intolerance reaction does not involve the immune system. Reactions can be immediate, or they can be delayed up to 20 hours after eating the food. Symptoms of a food intolerance probably won't be life-threatening.
Coeliac disease is an immune system reaction to gluten
A person with coeliac disease can react to a protein called gluten. Gluten is found in wheat, barley, rye, and oats. The small intestine becomes inflamed and damage occurs. This can lead to poor absorption of nutrients.
Food allergens on labels
There are 10 common food allergens. They must be listed on the food label if the food contains them, or if they were used when making the product. These are:
- tree nuts
- sesame seeds
- shellfish (crustacea and molluscs)
Other cereals containing gluten (like rye, barley, oats, spelt, and triticale) must be listed on food labels.
Sulphites must be listed if added at 10 (or more) milligrams per kilogram of food.
Royal jelly is a bee product that can cause a severe allergic reaction. Food that contains royal jelly must contain a warning statement.
Label statements saying "may contain traces of" are not required by law. Manufacturers can include this if a food might unintentionally contain allergens (for example, from cross-contact).
How food businesses keep you safe from allergens
Food businesses (including food manufacturers, restaurants, and cafés) must make sure food allergens don't accidentally get into a product. This can happen through cross-contact with any food or food ingredient that contains allergens.
Food businesses keep allergens separate when making or preparing food by:
- using different spaces and equipment (for example, chopping boards, knives, and utensils)
- processing different foods at different times and cleaning in between
- thoroughly cleaning and sanitising surfaces
- changing protective clothing (for example, aprons) between the handling of different foods
- labelling all food that could cause an allergic reaction and storing it separately
- checking labels on all ingredients
- training staff on allergens and allergen-related procedures in their food business
- eliminating any potential risks of cross-contact as much as possible.
Food businesses, such as cafés, restaurants, and takeaways, often sell food that is not in a labelled package. This means that you can't identify what allergens may be in it. But the business still needs to know what allergens are in the food they sell. They must be able to tell you if the food contains any of the listed allergens.
Foods with undeclared allergens may be recalled
Food manufacturers, distributors, or importers may recall a product if the label does not declare an ingredient that could cause an allergic reaction. This is to keep allergic consumers safe.
You can make a complaint to the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) if you suspect or find an undeclared allergen in food sold by a business in New Zealand.
Keeping yourself safe when you have a food allergy
- Read the labels (ingredients and warning statements) to check if the food contains anything you may be allergic or have an intolerance to.
- Read menus carefully.
- Ask staff what's in the food they are serving if the food is not clearly labelled.
- Ask how the restaurant minimises the risk of cross-contact with the food you are allergic or have an intolerance to.
- Do not order food if you are unsure it is safe.
- If you need one, always carry your adrenaline injection (EpiPen) when eating out.
Prepare food carefully at home when you have food allergies
- Keep food allergens separate from other food.
- Clean surfaces and equipment such as chopping boards and utensils to remove allergen residues. Wash them well with hot, soapy water or in a dishwasher. Peanut butter residues and wheat flour, for example, can stick to chopping boards, plates, and surfaces such as bench tops.
- Do not re-use frying oils in case of contamination with fish or peanuts, for example.
If someone has an allergy, make sure others in the household know what foods they can or cannot eat, and how to prepare food, so you won't put them at risk.
Find out more
Eating safely when you have food allergies [PDF, 5.6 MB]
Who to contact
If you have questions about food allergies or intolerances, email email@example.com