Reading Food Labels With Food Allergies: Look Carefully!

Patient Expert

People with food allergies need to be diligent about reading food labels, and the government has made the task a little easier.

Food labels can help you compare the nutrient content of similar foods, as well as see how the food fits into your dietary eating habits. Food labels can help you understand the relationship between certain nutrients and diseases. And now, food labels are supposed to be much better at warning people who have food allergies about ingredients that may be dangerous to them.

As of January 2006, food manufacturers must disclose in plain language whether products contain any of the top eight food allergens: • Milk • Eggs • Peanuts • Tree nuts (such as almonds, cashews, walnuts) • Fish (such as bass, cod, flounder) • Shellfish (such as crab, lobster, shrimp) • Soy • Wheat

Congress passed this law, called the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, and it applies to all foods regulated by the FDA, both domestic and imported, that were labeled on or after January 1, 2006.

Despite the new labeling guidelines, consumers must be diligent when reading the information. "In food allergic patients, we suggest that they read labels on food materials so that they can avoid the foods that they are allergic," says Dr. Beth Miller, Associate Professor and Acting Chief of Infectious Disease at the University of Kentucky. Read Food Labels Carefully In addition to paying close attention to the food labels, people who have allergies must proceed with caution when eating away from home. "The most difficult situation for a food allergic patient is eating out, whether at a restaurant, family's home, or friend's home. I always suggest to my patients, if it is unclear what the food contains, don't eat it! It is always better to be safe than sorry," says Dr. Miller.

For parents whose children have food allergies, making careful choices for their meals can sometimes be challenging. "The most important message that I try to convey to anyone managing a food allergy for themselves or their children is to avoid mistakes and potential reactions by reading the entire ingredient statement," says Lynda Mitchell, President of Kids With Food Allergies, Inc., in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

Mitchell says that consumers should not ignore any "may contains" labeling statements. "If a consumer does see a "may contains" type of warning on the label, it's not something to be ignored: research studies have confirmed that many times the product will, in fact, have traces of that allergen in the product that could cause an allergic reaction if eaten."

Not All Products Will Carry The Labels

Non-food items can also contain allergenic food proteins. "Familiarize yourself with other non-food items that are exempt from the new labeling requirements," says Mitchell. "Over the counter and prescription drugs, and health and beauty aids are some of the items that do not have to be labeled in compliance with the new labeling law. For example, a shampoo or hand lotion can contain major allergens such as milk or almond ingredients, but the label does not have to indicate its common name (milk, almonds) or have a "contains" warning."

Certain foods are exempt from the new labeling requirements too. Foods regulated by the USDA, such as meats, poultry and certain egg products, do not have to be labeled in compliance with the new law. Fresh fruits and vegetables are also exempt from the new labeling requirements. Restaurant foods, fast foods, street vendors' wares, and ready-to-eat foods packaged in a store are also not required to be labeled in accordance with the new requirements.

Another issue is the "may contain" or "processed in a facility" statement that warns of possible contamination, says Dr. Andrew MacGinnitie, an allergy specialist at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. "One small study found about 10% of foods so labeled contained significant amounts of the identified allergen with no difference based on the wording of the statement. This means that allergic individuals might tolerate one of these foods many times, but are still at risk of a serious reaction," he said.

Need Help With Labels? Here's How To Find Hidden Food Allergens

John Riddle, a freelance writer and author from Delaware, is the Founder of I Love To Write Day, a grassroots campaign he launched in 2002. Visit www.ilovetowriteday.org for more info.