Food Label Reading for Food Allergies 101: Allergy Safe or Not?
According to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA), food manufacturers are required to label foods that contains food from among the top 8 allergens (milk, egg, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy). These foods are responsible for 90% of allergic reactions. The allergens can be listed in the ingredient label or after the word “Contains.” Food manufacturers are also required to specify the exact type of tree nut (ex. walnuts, pecans), fish (ex. salmon, halibut), or crustacean shellfish (ex. shrimp, crab, lobster). Allergens also needed to be listed in plain English such as “Milk” rather than “Whey” or “Casein.” If ingredients such as flavors, color, or food additives are or contain a top 8 allergen, then food manufacturers are required to label it.
It is important to note that allergen advisory labels such as “made on shared equipment” or similar statements are voluntary so the absence of an allergen advisory doesn’t necessarily mean that the food is free of proteins of the top 8 allergens. There is no regulation regarding what do they mean, when to use them or not, etc.. Snack Safely created an easy to understand infographic that can be shared with others that clearly states that a food label can tell you when a food product is not safe but the label alone cannot tell you whether the product is free of the top 8 allergens that might be unintentionally present due to cross contact.
How do we react when we see a bag of frozen peas labeled “made in shared facilities with peanuts?” It doesn’t make sense, why would peanuts come within a mile of frozen peas, let alone be processed in the same facility? And should we take the warning seriously? Some people believe that the allergen advisories serve to protect the manufacturers from legal liability and a 2007 study* showed that people are increasingly ignoring allergen advisories. In the same study, researchers purchased 200 different packaged foods and among them 179 had an allergen advisory and 21 listed peanuts as a minor ingredient. Researchers analyzed the products samples and found that 20/200 (10%) of products contained detectable levels of peanut and 13/20 (7%) contained enough peanut protein to elicit an allergic reaction.
Surprisingly, foods that were labeled as “made on shared equipment” had lower levels of peanut protein (<5 ppm) whereas foods labeled as “made in shared facilities” had higher levels of peanut protein (3-4000 ppm). 4000 ppm is approximately 400 mg of peanut protein which approximately equals 1.5 peanuts. This amount was even greater than foods that labeled peanuts as a minor ingredient (3260 ppm). The study also showed that nutrition bars/meal replacement, candy/confections, and cereals/cereal bars had detectable amounts of peanut protein due to cross contact compared to foods such as baking ingredients, baking products/mixes, snack foods, frozen desserts, or instant meals. On the other hand a recent article in Allergic Living, indicated that nutrition bars labeled “peanut free” did not have detectable levels of peanut protein, which would indicate a safer option.
The researchers made the following conclusion which readers should discuss with their doctors in order to make an informed decision regarding what is the best approach for label reading for you and your family:
Because 7% of food products bearing allergy advisory labeling for peanuts contain detectable levels of peanut in amounts that in some cases could elicit allergic reactions, individuals with peanut allergy would be wise to avoid ingestion of such products. The risk is even higher for food products listing peanut as a minor ingredient.
As I was doing research for this post, I found Whole Foods Market’s policy regarding their private label 365 Everyday Value and Whole Foods Market brands. Whole Foods will include voluntary allergen statements regarding shared facilities unless there is not enough room, in which case consumers are encouraged to call their customer service department. I suppose in the absence of an allergen advisory label, then one should call because one won’t know whether the lack of an advisory warning means the food is allergy safe or the manufacturer didn’t have enough room on the label. Another page also clarifies that they do not gather info for shared equipment but expect their manufacturers to use Good Manufacturing Practices. (Side note, at this point, I programmed their phone number into my phone 512-542-0878 which is listed under their company info page.)
Admittedly, it is one extra step to call the manufacturer or the store’s customer service department but I prefer to give my business to stores that have friendly customer service staff who are able to tell me the information I need in a timely manner, such as Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. Other stores (that I won’t name and shame) call me back two weeks later and while I’m grateful for the information, I honestly don’t have time or patience to wait 2 weeks to find out whether a food item contains nuts or not. Another alternative is to refer to Snack Safely’s Snack Guide to find out the food manufacturer’s allergy labeling policy and you can make some educated guesses from there.
What if there is no customer service number to call and no list or database to check? Then I would consider whether the product I am considering falls into the high risk categories of food products (ex. nutrition bars, candy, or cereal). I also look at the shelves and look for products from the same brand that obviously contain allergens that I am concerned about and consider whether they could possibly be made in the same facility. And lastly there’s always the saying, “When in doubt, leave it out.”
In a future post, I will share some specific brands that have allergy information posted online so that you can easily source ingredients for Allergy Aware Asian Fare. Thanks for reading and please share in the comments if you have any additional food shopping strategies. I would love to hear from you.
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