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Reading Food Labels For Allergies to Prevent Reactions

If your child has a food allergy, being able to identify the problem food is essential for avoiding possible allergic reactions, and understanding how to read food labels for allergies can help you identify ingredients that could cause a problem for your child.

You may first want to familiarize yourself with your child’s allergen and the foods where the allergen is commonly found since allergens can be included in surprising places. A dietitian who specializes in food allergies can assist in helping you identify these foods. Here are some tips for avoiding your allergen(s).

Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA)

Since the common name of an ingredient may be unfamiliar to consumers and many consumers do not recognize that certain ingredients contain or are derived from a food allergen, the FDA enacted the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) to clarify, among other issues, the labeling of foods that contain certain food allergens.

FALCPA applies to packaged foods sold in the U.S. that are regulated under the Federal Food, Drug, & Cosmetic Act, including domestically manufactured and imported foods. The FDA regulates all foods except meat products, poultry products, and egg products.

FALCPA has made it easier to identify problem foods and avoid them, but it is important to note that it only covers the eight most common allergens – milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and crustacean shellfish. Molluscan shellfish—such as oysters, clams, mussels or scallops—are not required to be labeled as a major allergen.

FALCPA-regulated allergens can be included on food labels in one of the following ways:

  • Listed as the allergen’s common name in the ingredient list
  • Listed in a short “contains” statement, such as “Contains milk, wheat”
  • Listed as an ingredient in parentheses when it is a less common form of the allergen, for example “albumin (egg)”

It is important to note that manufacturers must list FALCPA-regulated allergens even if there are very small amounts that can be found in the product.

Also, note that non-FALCPA regulated allergens, such as sesame or mustard, may be listed under terms like spices or natural flavoring and not by their common name. It is also important to mention that companies can promote food as non-dairy even if it contains casein, a milk protein. For example, many non-dairy creamers contain ingredients derived from milk. However, these “non-dairy” products are still required to label the milk in the ingredient list or contain statements as outlined above.  This illustrates why the focus should be on ingredients and contains labeling and not the marketing claims.

Some foods and products are not covered by the FALCPA law, so it is still important to be familiar with reading labels to identify possible allergens. Items that may use “hidden” names include foods not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), cosmetics and personal care products, prescription and over-the-counter medications, as well as pet food, toys, and crafts.

Keep in mind that ingredients and manufacturing can change without warning, so we recommend getting into the habit of carefully reading the labels for allergies every time you buy the product. In fact, ingredients can vary by size or time of manufacturing.  For example, a full-size chocolate bar may contain different ingredients than the smaller version made for a specific holiday.

Precautionary Allergen Labeling (PAL)

Labeling requirements do not apply to major food allergens that are unintentionally added to food as the result of cross-contact, which occurs when a trace amount of an allergenic food is unintentionally incorporated into another food. Cross-contact may result from methods of growing and harvesting crops, as well as from the use of shared storage, transportation, or production equipment.

Manufacturers may indicate potential cross-contact by using a precautionary allergen statement.  Precautionary allergen statements such as “may contain” are often included after the ingredients list on food labels but can occur in less obvious places on the label.

These statements mean that traces of the food allergen may unintentionally be found in the food due to shared equipment or other sources of cross-contact. Other related statements include “processed in a facility that also processes….” or “made using equipment with…” Since these statements are unregulated and many different versions exist, it is important to understand that they all carry equal risk and it is recommended that all statements be avoided unless further clarification about your child’s allergen is obtained from the manufacturer.

This type of advisory labeling is voluntary for food manufacturers and there are no laws requiring these statements, which is important to keep in mind since an absence of an advisory label does not mean that a product is free of contamination with a food allergen.

Other allergen statements such as “peanut-free” and “egg-free” are not regulated and product labels can include these phrases yet still be made in facilities in which the allergens are present.

According to the FDA, advisory food labels “must be truthful and not misleading.” If you are still unsure after reading a label if a potential allergen is in a product, we recommend contacting the manufacturer and asking about their ingredients and manufacturing practices.

Labeling for Specific Allergens

According to the FDA:

“Soybean,” “soy,” and “soya” are synonyms for the common name “soybeans,” and any of these terms may be used to identify the food source of the major food allergen “soybeans.”

Tree nuts, fish, and crustacean shellfish require that the exact species be listed.  For example, almond or pecan may be listed under those terms instead of “tree nut”.

Other Important Considerations

Labeling requirements extend to foods packaged by a food service establishment or restaurant; however, they do not apply to foods placed in a wrapper or container (think to-go box). The FDA is currently working on the development of guidelines for retail and foodservice establishments on the proper handling and labeling of food allergens.

It is possible for food manufacturers to ask for a food product to be exempted from FALCPA labeling by petitioning the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to request an exemption. The petitioner must submit scientific evidence that such a food ingredient (with a particular production method) does not cause an allergic response that poses a risk to human health. An inventory of notifications received for exemptions from FALCPA can be found here.

More Tips for Reading Food Labels For Allergies

  • Do not buy packaged products that do not have a food label that includes an ingredients list.
  • Be extra careful with imported products since labeling regulations vary by country. While imported packaged foods are supposed to follow FALCPA and other labeling laws, they occasionally do not.
  • It is usually best to avoid places such as bulk bins and buffets where cross-contamination can easily occur.
  • Teach your children to read food labels for allergies when you’re shopping so that they also can begin to check for possible allergens.

While all foods regulated by the FDA are required to follow labeling laws, sometimes mistakes are made. When a food is labeled incorrectly, it can cause severe allergic reactions. Consumers can report foods to the FDA, which may lead to a recall of the product.

Consider an Amino Acid-Based Formula

Parents of children with food allergies who are required to follow an elimination diet are encouraged to consider an amino acid-based formula to ensure their child gets the proper nutritional support without the risk of a reaction. Please visit Cambrooke online and learn more about our hypoallergenic elemental formulas for children over 1 year of age with food allergies or digestive disorders or call 1-833-377-2773 today.