Voices: Companies are substituting the oil they put in foods – but what about kids with allergies?

·5-min read
Every day, I make decisions on what to feed my children  (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Every day, I make decisions on what to feed my children (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Global politics can affect our lives in the most unexpected ways. You may have noticed – or, more likely, you may not – that most supermarkets now have a sign explaining that, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is a global shortage of sunflower oil.

Ukraine was the world’s largest exporter of sunflower oil and now distribution supply chains have all but dried up. Here in the UK, cooking oil has become more expensive as supplies dwindle. Manufacturers are looking for alternatives everywhere: inside ready meals, cakes, biscuits and most packaged foods, even for binding together vegetarian and vegan meals.

The speed at which the shortage has accelerated means that food companies have had to act fast. They’re switching to soy, coconut, rapeseed or palm oils. That’s why the sign is there: to warn customers there may be unexpected changes to the products they usually buy.

So what? Why does it even matter if it all tastes the same? Because the Food Standards Agency has, in this moment of crisis, agreed to drop its usual rules around food labelling to help companies.

It’s a landmark decision that sets a troubling precedent – and it’s putting people at risk.

Thousands of foods for sale in supermarkets now contain soy or coconut oil products, both common allergens, without any evidence of their presence on the label. The FSA says it has conducted multiple tests to make sure that its decision doesn’t put customers with allergies in any danger. Oil is a refined product, meaning that most of the protein – the part of a food that triggers an allergic reaction – has been removed and the risk is negligible. If a reaction happens it will be mild, or as the FSA puts it “so mild they do not merit to be considered”.

Mild is such a loaded word. I am a parent of two children who both have multiple allergies. Everywhere we go, I carry a medical bag containing four epi pens (two each), bottles of antihistamines, and inhalers with spacers to deliver the dose. The youngest is still in nappies, so it’s not like we were travelling light beforehand. I look like a pack horse.

Every day, every decision I make about what to feed my children and where to buy their food is fraught with untold risk. It’s a risk you learn to live with, but it takes a lot of time and energy and it is loaded with anxiety. The usual pressure of parenting small children is amplified in the extreme. It takes a huge toll on parents’ mental health, and the one thing that people like me can hang on to is some vestige of safety: foods we know our children can eat safely, places (mostly our homes, honestly) where we know they can share meals without risk.

On social media, I am connected to other parents facing the same challenges. Now, suddenly many are reporting that previously safe foods are causing reactions. Children with soy and coconut allergies have started reacting to all manner of foods and – in many cases – parents had absolutely no idea why they were suddenly unwell. That is, until other social media users shared this information about the change in products.

The FSA is right that refined oils are unlikely to cause anaphylaxis, but children and adults who are sensitive to soy may still experience reactions. Living with allergies is far more complex than many people who are lucky enough to avoid them realise. Not all reactions are immediate and life threatening; others (known by doctors as non-IGE allergies) cause chronic issues such as coughing and asthma, severe eczema or stomach pain and bowel issues. Children who have spent years eliminating foods to get their eczema under control may now find themselves in pain and unable to manage the condition.

The FSA, whose job it is to balance food availability with safety, may consider this as not worth merit. It certainly won’t end up in a medical legal battle. Most likely, nobody is going to die. But for the families involved, the consequences are deeply damaging: lost sleep, fragile mental health and child misery. “Mild” allergic reactions can still destroy a whole family’s quality of life. And suddenly, overnight, there’s nothing parents can do to manage this risk apart from avoiding all products with any oil listed on it. That’s a lot of stuff. It means baking your own bread and biscuits, always cooking everything from scratch. It’s time consuming, exhausting and in the middle of a cost of living crisis, a huge additional financial cost.

To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment, sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here

It might be managing a crisis, but the FSA’s decision to accept that it is permissible for food labelling to simply be incorrect is a misguided one. It pulls away some of the few certainties that families living with allergies need about food, and introduces a terrible new layer of anxiety and complexity to their already difficult lives. It sets an example that says it’s OK to mess about with the information provided about food, undoing all the good work achieved by Natasha’s Law.

Worse, I fear that it helps buy into a common and still widely held misapprehension that allergies really aren’t that big a deal. Just carry an epi pen and you’ll be fine, right? Funnily enough, the FSA isn’t allowing the substitution of groundnut oil (a refined peanut product) even though – just like the other products – there’s little evidence that a reaction to peanut oil would be likely or serious if it were consumed by someone with a severe peanut allergy.

It’s all a matter of perception – and the perception is that children like mine just don’t matter.