I was reading a blog posting about someone who visited Google's cafeteria and noticed the picture of a sign labeled 'Menu Labeling Symbols'.

As I occassionaly participate in pot lucks and similar, and end up bringing index cards or post-it notes & a sharpie so that I can mark whatever it is that people bring, I've often thought about need some standards for marking things.

There are some things that have been around for years, such as a capcicum (chilie pepper) to mark spicy, or a the various markings for Kosher food (in which most of the letters only are claims by the manufacturer/packager, unless there's also a certification group mark as well).

But are there standard symbols out there for 'contains dairy' or 'doesn't contain dairy' or any of the other items on this list?

I'm thinking that the assertion of 'this is safe' for a given group is generally more useful for potlucks and such than more controlled food sources (catered events, cafeterias), as you always have those unknown items where you can't make an assertion if it's safe or not. (or it's put out without getting labeled).

So, the question is -- is anyone aware of any symbol standards for this sort of labeling, other than spelling it out (I'd like to avoid the "may contain nuts" and "processed in a facility that processes nuts" ... it's either safe, or it isn't) or the Kosher markings which may not be sufficient for allergies and intollerances?

update : okay, the question's a bit rambling ... take a look at this picture, and it'll hopefully make sense.

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    I'm not going to post an official reply, but as a vegan, I find I always have to read the ingredients, because there really aren't many labels, and they aren't used consistently. I read labels until I am comfortable with the food item, then i feel OK skipping it.
    – lemontwist
    Commented Oct 24, 2012 at 14:08
  • @lemontwist : I'm actually interested more in cases where it's not packaged food with an ingredient list; eg, someone brings a pasta salad to a potlock -- is it vegetarian? dairy free? vegan? Someone's prepared it themselves, so we have to go and ask to figure out who brought it, what's in it, etc, so that we can label it for those with restrictions.
    – Joe
    Commented Oct 24, 2012 at 14:33
  • Oh OK, I see what you mean. I could see using a v for vegan, but it could also mean vegetarian. I think people could get nitpicking with it.... Like tree nut free vs just nut free, or refined sugar free, etc. I actually know of a vegan ice cream shop that has a menu with a chile pepper for hot, a nut for includes nuts, a pictograph of wheat for contains gluten, etc. then you have to be clear that the symbol = has it, or with a X doesn't have it so its not ambiguous.
    – lemontwist
    Commented Oct 24, 2012 at 18:52
  • A green V is very common for vegetarian food. I'd suggest a cow with a cross over it for non-dairy. Not sure about vegan - how does one symbolise incredibly boring food? ;) Commented Oct 25, 2012 at 11:43
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    @ElendilTheTall : no cow could be 'not beef' (which might make it more suitable for Hindus or those avoiding red meat (as in the U.S. people forget there are other meats)), so has some ambiguity to it. And the milk-carton used by Google is less useful when it may not be the common packaging for milk for all areas. (I know around here, it's typically plastic jugs)
    – Joe
    Commented Oct 25, 2012 at 12:18

4 Answers 4


The only true specifications for allergies that I know of are medical ICD-9 diagnosis codes used for medical bracelets and billing at hospitals. However, these codes are not easy to understand, and therefore many people who have food sensitivities or allergies may not actually be aware of them. I would use a listing of common allergens and "-free" after them. (Ex: "gluten free"/GF, "dairy-free"/DF, "peanut-free"/PF, "nut free"/NF, "egg free"/EF, etc). As someone with severe food allergies, I would be able to comprehend this or any obvious images or icons. As long as you make it explicitly clear, you should be okay.

You can find the ICD-9 & 10 codes here:

Specific ICD-10 Codes for Allergies

Specific ICD-9 Codes for Allergies

  • ICD-9 is being supplanted by ICD-10...
    – SAJ14SAJ
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 10:22
  • And that will not need to occur until October 14, 2014.
    – Chalise
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 13:56
  • Actually, it has already occured some places outside the US.
    – SAJ14SAJ
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 14:05
  • ICD-10 codes are now also listed.
    – Chalise
    Commented Jan 14, 2013 at 16:22

Here are some more Allergy signs: http://www.compliancesigns.com/allergy-warning-signs.shtml. The site encourages 'restaurants and hotel, office, factory, school or church kitchens and cafeterias' to use their signs (in exchange for a certain amount depending on the size of the sign).

The signs include warnings aimed at kitchen personnel warning of latex and peanut allergies, and other food related warnings for customers. Many signs are text-only which means they would be less suitable for establishments that are likely to serve non-english speakers.

Most of the food-allergy signs are of the form "our food may contain..." which isn't exactly what the OP asked for, but there are two (text-only) signs which state unequivocally that they do not contain gluten and another which might possibly be used to indicate that peanuts are not used.

Use this drug forum to discuss more about allergies.

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    Welcome to Seasoned Advice. Link-only answers are likely to be down-voted or deleted since they rely on external sources that may move, change or disappear. You can edit to improve your answer, perhaps providing a summary of the linked sources. Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 10:53
  • @ChrisSteinbach: it's a bit harsh, considering that the answer requires pictures, and his reputation is too low to directly include them. And descriptions of pictures aren't all that useful.
    – Joe
    Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 14:01
  • @Joe Yeah, I can see that now. I couldn't undo my down-vote until the answer was updated, so I've done that. Commented Jan 11, 2013 at 15:05

There's a proposal to get allergens into Unicode as emoji.

Unfortunately, this might only work for digital usage, as you could then compare code-points, as in the printed version, different fonts might render the symbols dramatically differently. Even if there were standard forms for the new code-points, the proposal recycles a few existing characters (cow, octopus, chicken, apple, orange, etc.), so it's more likely that there would already be significant variation.

(and this would only cover allergies and intolerances due to ingredients, not restrictions based on processing (eg, Halal, raw vegan, fruitarian))


This doesn't directly answer the question, but I thought I'd provide what we did for our situation:

  1. Sent a message to all of the people, asking them if they had any food restrictions.
  2. Made up a bunch of cards with icons for the various food restrictions we were concerned with listed on them, with a space for writing the name of the dish.
  3. Assigned someone to watch the pot-luck table, and quiz people on what they brought so it could be labeled. (crossing out 'vegetarian' if it had meat, etc.)

As all of the label cards listed all of the restrictions, people could work off of either the pictures or the position on the card. (I'd share our card, but the person who made it got images off the internet, and I don't know if we might have copyright issues)

Some problems with the approach:

  • As space started getting tight, we had to re-arrange the table. It was tricky making sure that the label stayed with the appropriate dish. (rather than a 'tent' style fold, might be better to have it the fold at the bottom + tape the label to the bottom of the dish?)
  • We tried screening for Kosher and Halal but started running into problems as there are different degrees of Kosher. (We either crossed it out, or put a question mark when it fit the general criteria but wasn't made in a blessed kitchen)

Emailing everyone in advance to let them know that we had made plans for dealing with vegan / gluten free / soy free / dairy free / kosher / halal / etc. meant that we had participation from lots of people who normally wouldn't have even bothered coming to our departmental picnic. (and many of them were grateful enough that they also volunteered to help out).

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