By Kristen Chandler
Since there is currently no cure for food allergies, the best way to prevent an allergic reaction is to completely avoid the allergen. Sounds easy enough, right? Except allergens are not always obvious. Some foods you would not even think contained a certain allergen do in fact contain that allergen. Even small amounts of an allergen can trigger an allergic reaction. That is why reading food labels is necessary for people affected by food allergies.
Allergen Warning Labels
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) of 2004 requires that the Top 8 allergens be clearly identified on food labels in the United States. The Top 8 allergens are: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts and tree nuts. According to the FALCPA, allergens must be listed in bold either in the ingredients list or after the ingredient list following the word “contains.” Furthermore, items containing tree nuts, fish and shellfish must list the allergen (walnut, pollock, shrimp).
It is especially important to remember that the FALCPA only requires that the Top 8 allergens be identified. Although there are many other foods that are known to cause allergic reactions, they will not be listed in bold or after the word “contains.” So, these allergens could be listed anywhere in the ingredient list and may not be listed plainly. For example, some food products containing spices may list “spices” or “herbs and spices” in the ingredient list rather than listing what specific herbs or spices are used. Therefore, if your child is allergic to a spice, such as nutmeg or cinnamon, and it’s not listed specifically on the label, the best thing to do would be to avoid that product completely.
While the FALCPA requires that food manufacturers list the known presence of an allergen on labels, they are not required to list the possible presence of an allergen, although most manufacturers do. These warnings will appear as “may contain,” “manufactured in the same facility as” or “processed on the same equipment as.” These advisory labels can be confusing because there could be very small traces of the allergen, or none. However, the complete absence of the allergen cannot be guaranteed. And since even a small amount of an allergen could trigger a reaction, it is best to avoid foods with advisory labels as well.
Also keep in mind that the advisory labels are voluntary. There may be possible exposure to an allergen and no advisory label present. If a product is not made in an allergen-friendly, or dedicated, facility then you should contact the company and ask about their processing, cleaning and packaging methods.
When and How to Read Food Labels
When should you read the ingredient label on a product? The answer: each time you plan to purchase that product. If you’re at someone else’s home, or someone else brought food somewhere, don’t just ask if is safe—read the label. If the product in question does not have a label, then do not eat it or give it to your food-allergic child.
Even if it is something that your child has had many times in the past, ingredients can change at any time. The manufacturer can change its processing and handling procedures. My son used to be able to eat the prepackaged Ritz peanut butter crackers. Then one day I checked the label when I was about to buy them and noticed that it read “may contain milk.”
Some brands of food will contain an allergen while another brand of the same food item will not. Golden Flake Pickle Chips contain milk; Lays Pickle Chips do not.
Foods are recalled frequently for undeclared allergens. Some foods that you wouldn’t think contain certain allergens, do. For example, milk can be found in a lot of taco seasonings. Egg can be found in some candies, such as Nerds. A lot of sauces may contain peanuts, tree nuts, soy or wheat. And while the FALCPA states that FDA-regulated foods must clearly list the allergen on the ingredients label, there are some exceptions. Foods that aren’t FDA regulated, cosmetics, soaps, shampoos, medications, craft items, toys and pet foods all may contain allergens but are not required by the FALCPA to list the allergens in plain English. These allergens may be listed under hidden names, so it is important to know what names to look for when reading labels.
Click on each allergen to read more about where the allergen could be found and other names the allergen may be listed as:
In the past, I have grabbed something quickly in the store, thinking I’ve bought this before and it’s fine, or there is NO way that this contains milk, only to get home and look at the label and see that it did indeed contain milk. So, I’ve had to constantly remind myself to check every label, every time. Now, I catch myself checking labels before I open something at home, even though I know I already checked the label at the store.
How often do you check labels? Have you noticed something that you bought in the past has now changed its ingredients? We would love to hear from you!