For Gold, Peace, and Freedom


Food Allergy Labels Explained

May 5th, 2009

food-allergy-labels.jpgFor an increasing number of individuals, food allergies are a way of life. Reading labels becomes as natural as buckling your seat belt when you get into a car. It’s a hassle at first, but it only takes a moment and it quickly becomes second nature.

However, with the increasing focus on food allergies, food safety, and new laws coming into effect, the labels seem to grow more confusing rather than less so. The “new” food allergy labeling law, Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, went into effect in the beginning of 2006 but consumers and food companies are still struggling to understand what exactly it means.

The law literally requires that all top 8 allergens (as defined by the FDA) be labeled clearly, with their common form. For instance, sodium caseinate derived from bovine sources can either be labeled “sodium caseinate [milk]” in the ingredient list or simply as sodium caseinate along with a caveat at the end of the entire ingredient list that simply states “This product contains milk”.

The law exempts food derivatives that are highly processed and statistically unlikely to cause an allergic reaction (such as soy oil or soy lecithin) from specific allergen labeling. Individuals who are very sensitive to even processed forms of their allergen will have to call a manufacturer for more information about vague ingredients like “vegetable oil”.

The goal of the Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2006 was to create some standards that the American public could rely on when it comes to food purchasing. While people who are used to label reading have red flag terms like sodium caseinate or whey (both dairy derived ingredients) memorized, those who are newly diagnosed need a little more guidance on the subject. For children in particular, food choice is often left up to multiple caretakers, and many don’t have the time or energy to commit avoidance lists to memory. So, the FALCPA would enable them to quickly and easily identify potential risks in school lunch or the daycare snack.

Unfortunately, there is still a lot of confusion about how exactly to read a label and what’s there. There is still no regulation as to where an allergen should be labeled. Individuals must read both the ingredient list (even if it’s a long one requiring a magnifying glass) and the cautionary statement following an ingredient list, if there is one. One food allergy parent was amused to see a box of peanuts labeled “Contains Soy” with no mention of peanuts, other than them being the first ingredient on the ingredient list. Because the peanuts were clearly labeled on the ingredient list, and an unlabeled soy derivative was used in the processing, the manufacturer was only required to put “soy” in the caution statement, not peanuts.

Many people believe that any allergen will be clearly labeled, however the law only provides for 8 specific foods to appear in their common form on the label. There are 8 foods or food families that account for approximately 90% of documented and potentially fatal food allergies. The FDA identifies these foods, milk, wheat, eggs, tree nuts, peanuts, soy, shell fish, and fin fish, as the “Top 8” allergens. Only these 8 foods and food families are required by law to be clearly identified on a food’s label. The other 10% of documented allergic reactions to food are caused by foods which are not identified by the FDA as high risk, like sesame or citrus, and therefore may not be clearly labeled on an ingredient list.

Substances such as sulfites and MSG are not yet regulated and do not have to be clearly labeled. Sulfites are known to trigger asthma attacks in susceptible individuals, and MSG is associated with headaches, panic attacks, and dizzy spells. Both can be labeled under generic terms such as “flavoring”.

Laws and regulations do not replace the need for careful label reading. Consumers still need to know exactly what they need to avoid in food products, and if those are not on the “Top 8”, they may need to contact food companies (even those with “strict allergen precautions” in place) to verify the origin of ingredients like “food starch,” “flavors”, or “dextrin”. The “New Food Laws” may require that complicated chemical names be clarified, but consumers still need to read the fine print and train anyone who cooks for them to do the same.

Lisa Govorko is a freelance writer at Constant Content with four articles available at the site.

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