As a food allergy mom and Certified AllerCoach, I’m often asked, What do I need to know about reading food labels? When you’re newly diagnosed with a food allergy, food labels suddenly become the gatekeepers of your shopping cart—and as this article explains, they can be difficult to decipher.
When I think back to the first days after our daughter was diagnosed with a peanut and tree nut allergy, I vividly remember the first grocery shopping trip—standing in the aisles for hours confused and scared because I realized I didn’t know HOW to read food labels. I kept picking up food items that didn’t list tree nuts or peanuts as ingredients, but read "manufactured in a facility that processes tree nuts" or "may contain nuts." Even products my daughter had safely eaten in past were suddenly off limits. I started to wonder, What do these warnings mean? Should I call the manufacturer for more information? Can I even trust these labels?
This article is an effort to shed some light on the laws behind food labels, and better equip you and your family for those first grocery store visits post-diagnosis.
Let’s start with FALCPA.
Enacted January 1, 2006, the Food Allergen Labeling Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) mandates that nationally distributed packaged foods containing any of the “top eight” major food allergens (fish, shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, milk, and eggs) must be identified in plain language (easily readable/understandable) and must be listed in either the ingredients statement OR in a “contains” statement (usually included after the ingredient list). So it’s important for someone with a food allergy or sensitivity to any one of these eight foods to read BOTH sections on the label.
Additionally, if the label includes a generic descriptor such as “spices” or “natural flavors,” the manufacturer must list if one of them contains even trace amounts of a top eight allergen. If you have an allergy to a food not among these top allergens, identifying even trace amounts may require a bit more detective work. For example: sesame seeds, mustard seeds, and corn are fairly common allergens in the U.S., but are not required to be listed on packaging.
Of note, the U.S. considers coconut, shea nut, and lychee all tree nuts—despite the fact that lychee is a fruit and a good majority of folks with a tree nut allergy can eat coconut (coconut food allergies are rare). It’s technically a drupe, which interestingly can be classified as either a fruit, nut, or seed! In the same vein, pine nuts are classified as tree nuts in the U.S., but are considered seeds in the EU. If you’re traveling to Europe and have a pine nut allergy, take note!
Importantly, in the U.S., it is VOLUNTARY for a manufacturer to include a statement on their package regarding whether their manufacturing facility also processes any of the top eight allergens. Some manufacturers voluntarily list that certain food allergens are processed on a shared line or in a shared facility, while others don’t list any statement. It is therefore up to the consumer to decide how they proceed with these statements. I know some people that always avoid foods with cautionary statements, and others that disregard cautionary statements altogether and eat the food so long as the ingredient is not listed. Manufactures sometimes list cautionary statements out of liability concerns, and not necessarily because of a genuine correlative risk.
Here’s a great example of a packaged food label for a popular children’s snack. This manufacturer not only bolds the allergens in the ingredient list, but also includes a “contains” statement for major allergens, and a voluntary “made on shared equipment” callout.
Below is another example from a hummus manufacturer. No “top eight” allergens are present in this food, so only the ingredients are listed. The manufacturer does not volunteer any information about major allergens that may be in the facility or shared on the same equipment, so this is where a consumer would have to use their best judgment. A consumer always has the option of contacting the manufacturer for more information.
There’s much debate among the food allergy community about the current FDA approach to labeling—many people agree the approach should be streamlined and straightforward. This way, a consumer would know exactly where/what to look for when checking a label for allergens. Additionally, over the past year, a handful of senators are calling on the FDA to require labels for products containing sesame or sesame seeds, as sesame allergy is becoming increasingly common in the U.S. As the mother of a formerly sesame-allergic child, I can see the need. If you have an allergy outside of the top eight, it can be a downward spiral of questions like, How much diligence is necessary? Do you just read the label? Do you call the manufacturer to see if your allergen is in the building or produced on the same equipment? And so on.
One thing is for certain—I am thankful to be a food-allergic family in 2017. Although the system isn’t perfect, there is far more information available to consumers about ingredients and allergens than there was just 15 years ago. I’ll tip my hat to progress.
Until next time,
Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team