Decoding the Mystery of Food Allergen Labeling
Prior to having a gluten-intolerance, or being married to someone with a nut allergy, I only read the labels of my food to determine if what I was eating was healthy or not. Now, reading the labels has taken on a whole new meaning for me. It’s literally what helps determine if the food my husband eats will kill him or not. Serious stuff!
This week I was stuck in bed with an awful cold. My sweet husband went to the store to pick me up soup. As I examined the soup can he handed me upon his return, a warning caught my eye: “Food Allergic Customers, See Ingredient List for New Allergens”. Hmm..I’ve never seen that before, but thanks Progresso! A wave of frustration swept over me as I began to think about how reading food labels is like decoding a foreign language. This prompted me to go on an online investigation and learn more about what is legally required of food companies in the USA in terms of ingredient labeling.
My first stop was FARE, which provided a wealth of information:
Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), which took effect on January 1, 2006, requires that the labels of foods (including conventional foods, dietary supplements, infant formula, and medical foods) containing major food allergens (milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat and soy) note the allergen in plain language, either in the ingredient list or via: the word Contains followed by the name of the major food allergen for example, Contains milk, wheat OR in the ingredient list in parentheses“ for example, albumin (egg). Such ingredients must be listed if they are present in any amount, even in colors, flavors, or spice blends. Also, manufacturers must list the specific nut (e.g., almond, walnut, cashew) or seafood (e.g., tuna, salmon, shrimp, lobster) that is used.
Photo Credit: Allergy Home
Ingredients versus “Contains” and Food Allergies
What’s tricky with this language is if you’re quickly scanning a label, you need to read both the ingredients and the “contains” line an allergen won’t always be clearly labeled in both. I’ve had quite a few instances where I read a label and the ingredients list peanut oil, but there’s no mention of peanuts in the “contains” line.
Here are some other things to consider:
Major allergens that are ingredients must be declared on packaged goods sold in the United States.
Watch for major allergens either in the ingredient list or in a Contains statement after the ingredient list.
These allergens must be identified in plain language. For instance, companies can’t use a scientific name for a protein that’s a top allergen, since that might not be clear to the consumer. So milk is clearly stated rather than casein, egg for albumen, wheat for flour and soya for lecithin.
If these allergens are found within other ingredients, such as natural flavor or spice they must be declared, either in the ingredient list or afterwards, in a Contains statement.
The Mystery of “May Contain” on Food Labels
Note that precautionary warnings, or a May contains are not required, and are not governed by any regulations. They are helpful for identifying food that might be unsafe, but there are things to be aware of. Read this great article from Allergic Living What You Need To Know About May Contains for more information.
Thanks to Snack Safely for putting together this helpful chart.
In summary, read your labels, double/triple check the ingredient list, and if unsure about anything,Â always call the manufacturer of a product before consuming. Also remember that just because you’ve eaten a product before and it was safe doesn’t mean it was made in the same factory and has the same ingredients this time around.