In the confusing landscape of food labels, assumptions are risky but knowledge is power. Every day for the past month, my son reiterated his discomfort – “My stomach hurts, Mom.” Finally, I identified the culprit. The dairy-free margarine we had used for years was now listing one of his allergens as an ingredient: pea protein. We stopped using the product immediately and the stomachaches subsided, but the lesson stayed with me.
Whether you’re new to the food allergy world or a veteran, there is never a time you can let your guard down. Here’s why:
Common sense is not enough
Peanuts and tree nuts can be found in spaghetti sauce and salad dressings. Soy sauce and licorice typically contain wheat. Milk may be added to canned tuna and chewing gum. Food manufacturing often conceals allergen surprises that can be uncovered with careful label scrutiny.
Size matters, even with the same product
Those special holiday minis may look exactly like the full-size versions, but they can be produced in a different facility. Any variation in packaging opens up the opportunity for a change in ingredients, production process or a new set of manufacturing lines with potential allergen cross-contamination.
Ingredients can change without warning
Companies quite often alter product ingredients or ingredient sources, and they aren’t required to notify consumers. Yesterday’s safe cookies may be today’s hazard, so read the label every time.
Foods of concern are not always obvious
Ask your child’s allergist if there are any potential cross-reactive foods to avoid. For example, many allergists recommend peanut-allergic patients steer clear of lupine (another legume), but lupine would not be flagged as “peanut” on a food label.
Understanding food labels and what information they provide is also as important as reading them. Our food no longer comes from the farm next door. A single product may contain ingredients from five different countries and be processed on several manufacturing lines. The packaging often reflects the maze of production, but there is some guidance.
The Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) is a law that requires food manufacturers to list the Top 8 food allergens (milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, crustacean shellfish, soy and wheat) in plain English when any of these are an ingredient of a packaged food. The law improved transparency, but it does not offer surefire protection from an allergic reaction. Here are key points to consider:
Ingredient statements have to indicate the type of nut (eg. almond, pecan), fish (e.g. sole, halibut) or shellfish (e.g. shrimp, lobster). Under FALCPA, coconut is considered a tree nut, although it is biologically a fruit. (While most allergists consider it safe for those with tree nut allergies, verify this with your own.)
Labels do not have to list every ingredient in plain English. Only the Top 8 food allergens have to be declared, so less common allergens like sesame and garlic can hide behind words like “spices” or “natural flavors”.
Manufacturers are not required to list trace amounts, sometimes called “unintentional” ingredients, which can result from cross contact with an allergen in processing. They may include a precautionary warning such as “may contain” or “processed in a facility with…” but these notifications are completely voluntary.
Phrases used in a precautionary warning do not indicate the level of risk. A label that says “may contain peanuts” is not more likely to contain peanuts than one that says “processed in a facility with peanuts” Many allergists advise avoiding products with precautionary statements as studies show that up to 10 percent of these do contain the allergen in detectable levels.
A product without a precautionary warning is not necessarily safe. The product could have been processed on lines with nuts, milk or another allergen, but the manufacturer chose not to include the voluntary precautionary warning. Most food processors should be able to provide you with this information when contacted directly.
There are exemptions to FALCPA. The allergen law does not apply to meats, whole produce, or to items prepared for individual customers, such as deli sandwiches, salads or bulk foods. Highly refined oils (even peanut or nut oils) are also exempt.
FALCPA only covers the ingredient statement, not claims made on the box. Believe it or not, “non-dairy” can still contain milk. “Peanut-free” or “wheat-free” may simply mean that peanut or wheat has not been added, but cross-contamination with those allergens might still be a concern. At present, there is no regulation for these terms.
It may sound like a lot to remember, but those few extra minutes of insurance will reward your child with a variety of safe foods to enjoy.
Allergic Living magazine columnist Gina Clowes is a certified master life coach, who specializes in the needs of parents of children with food allergies. She is the founder of AllergyMoms.com, an online support group serving thousands of families and professional members worldwide.