Deciphering Food Labels
Last Monday was an exciting morning for the food allergy world. The latest study on peanut allergy showed eating peanuts in infancy could prevent food allergies. It was a complete reversal in the thinking from just a few years ago when doctors recommended avoiding allergens until 3 years of age. It could really change the way we approach food allergies.
On Wednesday morning, it was back to reality. I met with another food allergy mom who told me that her son had just recently ended up in the ED with full-blown anaphylaxis (a life threatening allergic reaction).
It can be really hard to avoid allergens sometimes but the good news is that the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) of 2004 ensures that people with food allergies can easily identify food ingredients that are made out of the top 8 allergens. The not so good news is that it doesn’t really help people figure out whether these ingredients are potentially contaminated with these allergens.
So how do you start understanding food labels?
What foods are labeled?
Domestic or imported packaged food is required to have a label that lists whether the product contains one of the top 8 allergens. These include wheat, milk, eggs, soybeans, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and crustacean shellfish. These 8 allergens cause 90% of the food allergies in the US.
What allergy information is included on the label?
The law requires companies to list the allergen in one of two ways: in plain language in the ingredients statement or in a “contains” section.
Option 1: Plain Language in Ingredients Statement
Ingredients: Enriched flour (wheat flour, malted barley, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, whey (milk), eggs, vanilla, natural and artificial flavoring) salt, lecithin (soy), mono-and diglycerides (emulsifier).
Option 2: A “Contains” Section
Contains Wheat, Milk, Egg, and Soy
You should read both regardless of the allergy that you have.
What foods are not labeled?
FALCPA does not apply to the labeling of products regulated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). This includes fresh produce, meat and poultry products.
Also, highly refined oils (including highly refined peanut oil) are exempt from labeling.
The confusing part of food labeling
The “advisory statement” is a voluntary statement that certain manufacturers use. They are not required to include this information.
So, what does it mean?
The law does not require a manufacturer to list whether the product is manufactured in a facility that processes any of the top 8 allergens.
Examples of Advisory Statements
- Manufactured in a facility that contains eggs
- May contain peanuts
- Produced on the same equipment as milk
- Manufactured in a facility that processes tree nuts
Should you Avoid Products with Advisory Statements?
Advisory statements are VOLUNTARY.
If there is no advisory statement, it does not mean that the facility does not contain those allergens.
If there is an advisory statement, it does not necessarily mean that the manufacturer’s products are not safe for people with food allergies, either.
If you are highly allergic, you need more information.
So what else do you need to know?
Knowing and understanding what goes on inside the manufacturer’s facility goes a long way.
What are “Good Manufacturing Practices?”
These are FDA regulated guidelines that help to ensure food safety and a certain level of quality in the manufacturing facility. Unfortunately, when it comes to allergen safety, this might not be stringent enough. For example, if shared equipment is used, visual inspection for cleanliness between allergen runs is all that is required.
What should you ask the manufacturer?
- Are the raw ingredients for the specific product you are asking about free of the allergens?
- Is the facility a dedicated e.g. gluten free facility?
- If not, is there an employee training program that addresses allergen control and prevention of cross contact?
- Are allergens and utensils segregated to prevent cross contact?
- Are allergens processed on shared equipment?
- If there is shared equipment, is the equipment monitored for cross contact by testing for residues and allergens? How?
- If residues or allergens are found, is the equipment cleaned until there is no risk of cross contact?
So how do you keep safe?
- Read the label thoroughly, both ingredients and “contains” statements.
- Review advisory statements but do not rely on them.
- Ask the manufacturer the right questions.
- If in doubt, do not eat it/buy it.