The federal government is proposing new guidelines that will require manufacturers of packaged foods to indicate if the product contains common allergens, such as gluten or sulphites.

Health Minister Tony Clement said Wednesday that under the new guidelines, labels would also have to indicate if individual ingredients are made from an allergenic substance.

"For some Canadians, it could be a matter of life or death," Clement told reporters at an Ottawa news conference. "For all those living with food allergies and for the parents of children with allergies, it is important information that they need every time they reach for an item on the grocery store shelf."

It is estimated that food allergies affect between 3 per cent and 4 per cent of Canadian adults, and as many as 6 per cent of children.

Current food labelling guidelines do not require the components of certain ingredients to be listed. For example, seasoning could be listed on an ingredient list, but the label would not have to indicate what went into making that seasoning.

The new guidelines would affect common food allergens such as tree nuts, gluten, shellfish, milk and eggs. Sulphites, which are preservatives that hold food colour and prolong shelf life, would also need to be clearly marked on labels.

"There is no cure for food allergy at this time, or on the horizon," Dr. Charles Frankish, president of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, told reporters. "Therefore, avoidance of the responsible food allergens is key to staying safe."

Clement also announced a new Health Canada study that will examine how prevalent food allergies are among the Canadian population. The findings of this study will indicate to the government if further changes to food labelling requirements are necessary.

The new guidelines are several months away from becoming law. This week, Clement will submit the guidelines for a three-month public comment period, which could lead to further changes before they can continue through the approval process.

In the meantime, Clement has asked food manufacturers to review and change their labelling practices ahead of new guidelines becoming law.