There has long been a disconnect between terminology used by ‘experts’ and common parlance and for the most part this is a matter for humour rather than concern. But occasionally the disconnect can lead to confusion which can not only be dangerous but life threatening – and such is the case in the allergy world.
The term ‘allergy’ itself is interpreted very differently by the medical profession and the average man or woman in the street (more of this anon…) but ‘drilling down’ to specific allergies, the situation just become muddier. Take ‘dairy-free’, highlighted with reference to ‘ice cream’, on page 7 of the Food Standards Agency’s most recent newsletter.
To the average punter – well certainly to me – ‘dairy-free’ would suggest free of the milk of all animals. No particularly good reason, but it just seems logical. But no, ‘dairy free’ only refers to cow’s milk – so goat’s milk or buffalo milk is, technically ‘dairy-free’ even though it may have been ‘milked’ in a dairy… This could have implications for someone who was allergic to all animal milks (a not uncommon situation) but did not realise that a product marked ‘dairy free’ might contain goat, sheep or buffalo milk to which they could also react.
And then there is ‘milk’. To most people, milk is white and liquid and goes on cereals and in your tea. Whether it comes from a cow, a goat, a soya bean, an oat or a coconut, it looks the same and is, largely, used for the same purpose. So, would not the simplest way to differentiate between the different ‘milks’ be to require that they specify their origin e.g. cow’s milk, goat’s milk, soya milk, oat milk etc – which is how they are referred to in common parlance anyhow. But no. The term ‘milk’ can only be used in reference to the milk of mammals – cows, goats, camels, humans etc. ‘Milk’ made from anything else (a bean, a nut, a hemp seed) has to be referred to as a ‘dairy-free alternative to milk’ or as an almond or soya ‘drink’. Clumsy and inelegant as this may be, it does at least describe what is in the pack. But the situation with ‘ice cream’ is more risky.
As with milk, to the average punter an ice cream is a sweet food that is creamy and frozen, whether it is made from cow’s milk/cream, goat’s milk, soya, coconut or, as is the case with many of the cheaper ice creams, mainly from vegetable fats. They recognise the concept rather than the ingredients. So surely, as with milk, the trick would be to require the manufacturer to specify the origin of the product – cow’s milk ice cream, goat’s milk ice cream, soya ice cream, rice-based ice cream. But no – the term ‘ice cream’ can only, according to the Food Labelling Regulation 1996, be used for a product which contains a minimum of 2.5% milk protein. So no matter how creamy, decadent and delicious ‘alternative ice creams’ may be, they all have to be called ‘frozen desserts’ or ‘dairy-free frozen desserts’ (both of which could equally well refer to a cheesecake) or opt for some way out and totally unhelpful name such as BoojaBooja’s ‘Stuff in a Tub’.
Again, this is clunky and irritating but relatively harmless. Much less so is the possibility, highlighted by the FSA, that some manufacturers may make frozen ice cream-like products from dairy-free ingredients (such as soya) which would be safe for someone who was allergic/intolerant to animal milks, but include the minimum required amount of dairy protein (2.5%) to be allowed to call them ‘ice creams’ – so marketing them as ‘Dairy-free ice creams’. In the extremely unlikely event that you were familiar with the arcane intricacies of labeling law, your antenna would prick up when you saw ‘dairy-free’ and ‘ice cream’ together in the same title, but a ‘normal’ dairy allergic/intolerant person should reasonably expect a product that is labelled ‘dairy free’ to be just that. Yet, 2.5% milk protein in a food could cause a dramatic, potentially even fatal, reaction in someone who was seriously allergic.
Of course it is easy to carp and I am well aware that drawing up these kinds of regulation is a nightmare job but I cannot help feel that, especially in this area, we are making our lives unnecessarily complicated and creating even more unwelcome hazards for those who have a problem with animal milks.