Have you ever bought granola thinking it was vegan, then realised it had a minute amount of honey in it? But you gave the label a quick glance too — nothing was flagged up.
It’s surprising, but honey isn’t an ingredient that food manufacturers are required to highlight on their product packaging. It’s a common conundrum for people following plant-based diets — owing to the involvement of bees, honey, like dairy, isn’t considered vegan. But it’s an even bigger issue for people with honey allergies.
Allergies are a top trend for food safety in 2022, but most guidelines on food labels don’t cover honey allergies. In the US, milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts are the eight food groups accounting for the most serious food allergies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Similarly, honey isn’t present in the UK Food Standards Agency’s 14 main allergens: celery, cereals containing gluten (such as barley and oats), crustaceans (such as prawns, crabs and lobsters), eggs, fish, lupin, milk, molluscs (such as mussels and oysters), mustard, peanuts, sesame, soybeans, sulphur dioxide and sulphites (if the sulphur dioxide and sulphites are at a concentration of more than ten parts per million) and tree nuts (such as almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, pecans, pistachios and macadamia nuts).
If you look at the list of ingredients for product labels of packaged foods in the UK, any of these 14 allergen groups present would be highlighted — either in bold, caps, underlined, a different colour, or a combination of these. But honey is written in plain English, in the same format as the rest of the non-allergic ingredients.
Why honey is not listed as an allergen
In simple terms, it’s merely because it isn’t part of the top 14 identified allergens. So while people with food allergies within those 14 groups are helped by the law, consumers who are allergic to (or avoiding) honey are left ignored.
Of course, when buying honey itself, there are separate guidelines for its labelling. But none of them — whether it’s the US’s Food and Drug Administration or the UK’s The Honey (England) Regulations — have any requirements for a food company to warn consumers about honey as an allergen.
But when it comes to food safety, allergen labelling for honey is paramount. While honey allergies are relatively rare, it’s still an important allergen, given its widespread use in various products. You can find honey in products like salad dressings, cereal, spreads and dips, baked beans, soups, breads, cookies, and, of course, granola — among many others.
More commonly, people who don’t consume honey for dietary or lifestyle reasons, such as vegans, would consider it extremely helpful for honey to be highlighted on product labels. Vegans already have to consider label-checking more than people following other diets, so having honey listed in bold would make their shopping journeys a lot easier.
Why labelling honey as an allergen is important
Even when it comes to cross-contact with other ingredients, whether in processing plants or distribution lines, manufacturers are not required to declare the ingredient’s proximity to one of the 14 top allergens. The same applies to product recalls: if, say, a vegan, nut-free granola with cross-contaminated with tree nuts, it would be recalled; but if it were honey that it was in cross-contact with, it’s unlikely to have the same effect.
As with all other non-top 14 allergies, any processed food ingredients — like hydrolysed vegetable protein — used in food don’t need to have honey labelled as an ingredient. Similarly, food products that have “natural flavouring” as an ingredient don’t need honey flagged up as an allergen on the food product’s listing.
This poses a threat to people — however few there may be — with honey allergies. You only need to look at case studies to see the potential grave consequences of improper labelling. In 2017, British chef Fran Hillman went into anaphylactic shock after eating a honey-containing capsule to treat her cold. A year later, the same thing happened to her after eating a pub meal that contained Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey bourbon.
While she thankfully recovered both times, she now carries an EpiPen with her for such incidents. People like Hillman have to be extra careful about what they eat — or even use, in case their honey allergy is sensitive to products with beeswax — and go beyond product labels to see if certain foods are suitable for them to eat. In many cases, the only option to be certain is to contact the manufacturer.
Hilman is now campaigning for awareness around lesser-known allergens. In an age where tackling allergies are a major priority for food businesses, and a year after Natasha’s Law finally came into effect, non-common food allergens must be paid attention to in product listings.
Honey is only one of many such allergies. Corn, mushroom, kiwi, banana, tomato, onion, garlic, chilli, potato, legume and meat allergies are among the many lesser-known, yet equally important, allergens. And for some of these ingredients, the number of people avoiding them is actually higher than some of the top 14 allergens.
Taking note of this with proactive steps is a must for businesses that want to stay ahead of the curve and cater to all consumers’ needs, while avoiding any potential mishaps and unhappy buyers. Listing honey and other non-common food allergens is key for a safer public health landscape.
Through Foods Connected’s Specifications and New Product Development (NPD) solutions, we offer an easily shared system of specifications for complex ingredients, which includes allergen management. Our team of specialists offer food businesses a fully managed, end-to-end NPD process and projects with enhanced allergen management.