How to Read an Ingredients Label for Food Allergies

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Ingredients labels can prevent accidental ingestion of food allergens.. Poba/Vetta/Getty Images

Knowing how to read an ingredients label can save your life. Literally. As one of the most basic management techniques for a food allergy, all individuals with a food allergy must know how to read an ingredients label.

What is an Ingredients Label?

An ingredient label is a listing of everything that is contained in a food product. The complete label will usually, but not always, be located near the Nutrition Facts panel.

On an item that is marked "Not Labeled for Individual Sale," such as in big box store products, the complete list of ingredients may be on the larger container from which the individual item was taken.

The Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA)

The Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) became effective in 2006 and requires the top 8 food allergens (milk, soy, egg, wheat, peanut, tree nut, fish and shellfish) be highlighted separately on the ingredients label in plain, easy-to-understand language. These top 8 allergens account for the majority (90%) of food allergies in the United States. FALCPA applies to all packaged foods subject to regulation by the FDA, including foods made in the US and those that are imported.

FALCPA also requires the label to identify the type of tree nut (cashew, almond, hazelnut), the type of fish (bass, cod), and the type of crustacean fish (crab, lobster) included in the product.

Allergens included in food products must be declared in plain English in one of two ways:

  • With the statement “Contains” followed by the name of the food source from which the major food allergen is derived immediately after or adjacent to the list of ingredients, in a type size no smaller than that used for the list of ingredients (e.g., “Contains milk and wheat”); or
  • By placing the common or usual name of the allergen in the list of ingredients followed in parentheses by the name of the food source from which the allergen is derived (e.g., “natural flavoring [eggs, soy]”).

If you are allergic to an allergen other than one of the major allergens (such as apple, sesame seeds or poppy seeds), your allergen is not required to be identified in the “Contains ” statement that will appear on some packages — you must read the full ingredient label.

Furthermore, the name of the allergen needs to appear only once in the ingredient statement. 

Outside the Jurisdiction of FALCPA

Some foods do not fall within the jurisdiction of FALCPA, such as:

  • Foods placed in a wrapper, a carryout box or other container after being ordered by a customer. A sandwich purchased at the deli is a good example of this.
  • Raw agricultural commodities, such as fruit and vegetables.
  • Meat, poultry, and egg products regulated by the USDA.
  • Highly refined oils made from one of the top 8 allergens or food groups identified in the law.

    Noteworthy Concerns

    Refined Oils: Some oils are not highly refined and may contain contaminants of allergenic protein, which can be dangerous for individuals with food allergy, especially those susceptible to anaphylaxis. The current recommendation is to avoid oils derived from their allergenic foods.

    Precautionary Labeling: Statements like “may contain trace amounts of [allergen]” or “this product was manufactured in a facility that also manufactures [allergen]” are not regulated under FALCPA. These are voluntary statements made by the manufacturer. While these statements are intended to be helpful, they often leave the individual with inadequate information with which to make an objective decision about consuming the product. The recommendation is that products with precautionary labeling be avoided.

    Restaurants: Many chain restaurants and fast food restaurants include allergy information on their websites. Always confirm the information at the restaurant.

    Code Words for Food Allergens

    Check the lists for common code words for milk, egg, wheat, soy, peanut, tree nut, fish and shellfish and have a short list readily available when you are grocery shopping or ordering food products.

    Keeping a list of alternative names for your allergen(s) is a useful tool to have memorized or on hand. It’s absolutely vital if you're avoiding ingredients that aren't covered by FALCPA.

    Hidden Allergens

    While allergens are not truly “hidden,” they can be somewhat confusing or surprising, especially if the ingredients are in Latin.  Many spices, flavorings, and additives are allergenic and don't have their sources disclosed. The terms "vegetable," "natural flavorings," "modified food starch," and "dextrin" are among those that can come from multiple sources and may warrant a call to the manufacturer.

    Contact the manufacturer if you are unsure of the ingredients:

    • To learn the sources of potentially allergenic ingredients;
    • To report an adverse reaction to a food that should have been safe;
    • To learn more about manufacturing lines and conditions.

    You'll find the contact listed on the package or the manufacturer website. If you need more information about ingredients or cross-contamination, ask for a manufacturing supervisor who has day-to-day responsibility over these areas. If you get lackluster response to an adverse reaction, follow up with a VP in charge of customer relations.

    Sign up for FDA or CFIA allergy recall alerts so that you'll know immediately if a food has been recalled for not having complete information on its label.

    Cross-Contamination

    On some products, you may see language that indicates that a food was processed on the same manufacturing line as a food to which you're allergic. Take these warnings seriously: In some cases, researchers have found that amounts of allergens sufficient to cause a reaction can be present in foods labeled this way.

    Remember: manufacturers are not required to include these warnings; you may need to call to find out whether a food poses a cross-contamination risk.

    If You Have a Reaction

    A definite adverse reaction to a food whose label doesn't indicate potential allergens should also be reported to your local FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator.

    A company will be subject to the civil and criminal penalty provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act if one of the company’s packaged food products does not comply with the FALCPA labeling requirements. In addition, food products containing undeclared allergens will likely be subject to recall.

    Resources:

    FDA FALCPA Homepage: http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/Allergens/ucm106890.htm

    Sicherer SH. Food Allergies: A Complete Guide for Eating When Your Life Depends on It

    Joneja JV. The Health Professional's Guide to Food Allergies and Intolerances

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