If you or someone you know has just been diagnosed with a food allergy, navigating the supermarket has probably begun to feel like learning a foreign language. But, learning to read food labels isn’t so bad, as long as you understand what you’re looking for. So, grab your reading glasses: let’s get started!
1. Since 2006, it has been much easier for those with food allergies to avoid their trigger allergens thanks in part to the FDA’s Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act. That Act requires companies to label for the top 8 allergens, which are: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybean.
2. The above Act requires companies to label not only for the top 8 allergens but any ingredients made with proteins derived from those allergens.
3. This law gives manufacturers a choice of how they can label the food source allergen. They can either:
a. List the allergen in the ingredient list, such as “whey (milk), lecithin (soy), flour (wheat)….”; or
b. Use a “Contains” statement, for example “Contains tree nuts, eggs and shellfish.”
So when reading a label, I first look for a “Contains” statement. If you spot your allergen, stop and put back the item – there’s no point in reading further. If you there’s no “Contains” statement, you will need to go on to carefully read the ingredients list. I often read it twice.
4. If, like us, you need to avoid a protein outside of the top 8 allergens, you need to be extra diligent when reading labels. For us, sesame seeds falls outside of the top 8 allergens. So, we have learned other names for sesame seeds in labeling, such as “tahini” (which is sesame paste and found in hummus). And when we read labels we again begin with the “Contains” statement to rule out any of my son’s other multiple food allergies. Next, we move on to the ingredients list and scour the list (twice) for other allergens that we need to avoid.
5. As the FDA itself points out, “Contains” and “May contain” have two very different meanings…. with possibly the same outcome.
Manufacturers are required to identify the top 8 allergens in either the ingredients list or “Contains” statement as described above. But, a manufacturer might use the same equipment to produce two different products, upping the potential for cross-contamination of ingredients. In that case, if the manufacturer feels there is a chance an allergen may be present in their product, they can voluntarily put a “May Contains” statement on the label. You may be reading a soy milk label which states, “May contain tree nuts” since it was produced on the same lines as the company’s almond milk. Speak to your allergist about “May Contain” statements and what they mean for your particular allergy.
6. Manufacturers change their ingredients and production methods all the time and without warning. So, it’s important to read the labels every time you purchase an item. And, yes, this gets tedious. But, if you read my post about Silk Soy Milk, you’ll see it happens all the time.
7. Save your grocery receipts for a little bit. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the ingredients list at the store (while also minding the kids or the time) and gotten home only to notice an ingredient or a “May Contain” statement that doesn’t gel with our food allergies.
8. Now that you have your labeling skills honed and your groceries packed, you may wish to consider sorting the safe and unsafe foods at home using a labeling system. By labeling your food at home, you’ll cut down a little on how many times you re-read an ingredients list while keeping everyone at home safe!