Nutrition and food entrepreneur , CEO of leading free-from brand Creative Nature, Julianne Ponan MBE, has warned about the dangers of misleading labelling on plant-based and vegan food products.
She has chosen Veganuary to raise the issue of misleading and ‘alibi’ labelling and the risks this poses for those living with serious allergies and intolerances.
Julianne, who founded Creative Nature just over a decade ago, lives with severe and life-threatening food allergies and says that too many manufacturers are using “vegan” and “plant-based” to market their products, but then adding “may contain” warnings in the packaging’s small print to remove the need for responsibility for stringent controls in the manufacturing process.
Julianne says this has potentially lethal consequences for people living with food allergies, who may believe they are buying “safe” products but are actually purchasing food containing the very ingredients they are unable to safely consume.
“If you see a food clearly labelled as ‘vegan’, it’s entirely reasonable to assume it doesn’t contain eggs or dairy products,” says Julianne. “Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case and some of these foods do contain eggs or dairy-derived ingredients. This is not just misleading: it’s potentially life-threatening for an increasingly large number of people in the UK.”
A 2023 survey conducted by the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) found that 76% of people believe products marketed as vegan are free from ingredients derived from animals. Half of the people surveyed also believed that “plant-based” and “vegan” were interchangeable terms. The increase in people choosing a plant-based diet has been accompanied by more manufacturers creating “vegan” and “plant-based” foods and also, the CTSI says, a surge in complaints from consumers who believe they’ve been misled into thinking they were buying a safe product, only to suffer an allergic reaction.
Julianne believes that part of the problem may be the current lack of any legal definition of “vegan,” meaning that food companies are free to market their products as such whilst still including animal-derived ingredients. She also thinks that, unlike with gluten, the medical implications of these kinds of food allergies have been forgotten or misunderstood by producers.
“There’s been a huge rise in the last few years of people choosing a vegan diet for health or ethical reasons,” says Julianne. “This is great. But I think perhaps it has led some companies to think of veganism as nothing more than a lifestyle choice. You’d never find ‘may contain glass’ in the small print of any food because it’s obviously a lethal ingredient. Misleading someone who has a dairy allergy that a food is safe for them to eat is no different — it’s very dangerous and potentially life-threatening.”
More than two million people in the UK suffer from food allergies. Symptoms range from an itchy mouth and throat to a severe reaction known as anaphylaxis where the airway swells and then closes preventing breathing. This can develop quickly and is a life-threatening medical emergency. You can be allergic to more than one type of food and you have a slightly higher chance of developing a food allergy if you also live with other allergies, such as asthma or eczema. The Food Standards Agency says there has been a 300% rise in food allergies since 2021.
In 2018, the Senior Coroner for Avon in the South West, Maria Voisin, produced a report following the death of Celia Marsh, who collapsed after eating a Pret a Manger wrap labelled as vegan but was contaminated with milk protein. Ms Voisin called for a “robust system to confirm the absence of the relevant allergen” in foods marketed as vegan or plant-based and for this to be reflected in food labelling, protocols and regulations. However, there is still currently no threshold requirement for animal-derived foods in the UK or in the EU.
“The fact there’s been no movement on this over the last six years is incredibly frustrating,” says Julianne. “It’s vital that people understand how vigilant they need to be when choosing these kinds of products and to know that not everything is how it at first appears. We just want people to be able to enjoy what they eat while remaining safe.”
Julianne’s own challenges with severe and life-threatening food allergies led her to set up Creative Nature ten years ago. Julianne and her team will be sharing stories around misleading and alibi labelling across their social media channels throughout the rest of January. The award-winning company produces foods that are completely safe for anyone living with the top 14 allergens.