Sound Overwhelming? It can be a little, but learning how to read food labels for allergens is not as overwhelming as it may sound. It’s more time consuming than anything. However, when it means the difference between life and death, it tends to make it much easier and much more interesting.
Once the food allergy diagnosis is confirmed, hopefully you will get some great information from your allergist on this subject. Whatever they may indulge in sharing with you, it’s really never enough and it’s certainly not going to beat hands on experience. That experience will begin with your very next shopping trip to the market. Remember to plan ahead and prepare for a much longer trip than usual. Hopefully these tips will get you started in the right direction and you won’t have that overwhelming feeling that can cause the mini breakdown in the middle of aisle five. (Yes, I’ve had that experience too. It’s not pretty or fun).
First, let’s identify the 8 major food allergens:
- Fish (e.g., bass, flounder, cod)
- Crustacean shellfish (e.g., crab, lobster, shrimp)
- Tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans)
Now, it seems easy to look at those and just assume that you need to look for those words in the food label. Well, this is true. However, if you know the English language, you know that we can certainly make 5 words mean the exact same thing. Or so it seems and this may be where the overwhelming part begins.
1. Take milk for instance. What other word could mean milk?
One thing you should know, if the product contains any derivative of milk, the label will state that derivative such as “Whey” and also place the actual allergen name in parentheses next to it like “Whey (Milk)”.
So don’t panic. It get’s easier with each trip.
Now that you have some tips on learning the vocabulary of each common allergen, let’s discuss the meaning of “Contains”, “May Contain traces of”, and “Processed in a facility that…” from the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA).
So, “Contains” is pretty self exclamatory. If the label states, “Contains: Peanuts” then you can be certain that item contains peanuts. Having said that, the latter two statements are not necessarily required by FALCPA. So it’s up to the individual companies as to whether or not they wish to inform the consumer of further contamination of the product. If the label states “May Contain traces of Milk”, then you should probably make your own judgement about that product as to whether it could be tolerated if it contained trace amounts of the allergen. If the label states, “Processed in a facility that also manufactures peanuts”, then you should be aware of cross contamination and also make your own judgement on whether or not the food is safe to consume.
As far as brand name items and store brand (private label) items go, there is a difference in manufacturing companies. In my experience, brand name items tend to maintain the same ingredients at all times. Store brand items may have slightly different ingredients from time to time. Take Nilla Wafer’s for example. Nabisco brand tends to maintain the same ingredients at all times because the Nabisco name is a brand name. If you decided to buy the store brand name, you could be getting an item manufactured by several different companies at anytime. (You could also be getting the exact same item as produced by the brand name manufacturer). The store has the choice of choosing which private label company they will use to produce their product and can make a change at anytime to the cheapest bidder if they wish to do so. Depending on who has made their product that month, can certainly mean a difference in the ingredients. I was buying the store brand Vanilla Wafer’s for our daughter and then noticed that all of a sudden they contained Milk. So I could no longer purchase them for her. So in my experience, feel free to purchase the store brand items as much as you’d like, however, just be sure to read the label before each purchase to be sure the ingredients have not changed.
I certainly hope this has given you some insight on how to read food labels makes your experience a bit easier.