How to Read Food Labels

Managing life with a food allergy means reading packaged food labels—every time you purchase that food.

The only way to prevent a food-allergy reaction is to avoid the problem food. But you can’t know whether a food contains an allergen simply by looking at it.

Laws and regulations like the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) have made it easier for people with food allergies to identify problem foods and avoid them.

Managing life with a food allergy means reading packaged food labels—every time you buy that food. This is true even if you have purchased the food hundreds of times.  Ingredients and manufacturing processes can change without warning. Make a habit of carefully reading labels to ensure you avoid any potential allergens.

While all ingredients in a food are supposed to be listed in the ingredients list, FALCPA only covers the eight most common allergens. These are milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and crustacean shellfish.

Note that molluscan shellfish—such as oysters, clams, mussels or scallops—are not required to be labeled as a major allergen. 

What Should I Look For?

FALCPA-regulated allergens can be called out in one of three ways:

  1. In the ingredient list, using the allergen’s common name
  2. Using the word “Contains” followed by the name of the major food allergen—for example, “Contains milk, wheat”
  3. In the ingredient list in parentheses, when the ingredient is a less common form of the allergen—for example, “albumin (egg)” 

With tree nuts, fish and crustacean shellfish, the specific type must be listed (e.g., almond, tuna, crab).

If you see your allergen featured in one of the above ways, it means the allergen is present in the food. Manufacturers must list an FALCPA-regulated allergen even if the amount is very small.

Non-FALCPA regulated allergens such as sesame and mustard may be present in a food but missing from an ingredient list if they are part of a spice or flavoring. Instead, they may be covered by a general term such as “natural flavorings.” 

“May Contain” Statements

You may also notice other precautionary language on food labels. These include statements such as “may contain,” “processed in facility that also processes” or “made on equipment with.” These warnings often follow the ingredients list.

Such advisory labeling is voluntary for manufacturers. There are no laws governing or requiring these statements—neither when to include them nor what their wording should be. They may or may not indicate if a product unintentionally contains, or has come in contact with, a specific allergen. Likewise, the absence of an advisory label does not mean that a product is safe.  

Per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), advisory food labels “should not be used as a substitute for adhering to current good manufacturing practices and must be truthful and not misleading.”

Other Allergen Statements

Phrases such as “peanut-free” and “egg-free” are not regulated. Product labels can bear these phrases but be made in facilities where the allergens are present. Always contact the manufacturer if you are unsure.

More Tips for Reading Food Labels

  • Familiarize yourself with your allergen and the foods it often appears in. Food allergens can appear in surprising places and go by less-common names. Knowing your allergen inside and out will improve your sleuthing skills.
  • If you are unsure whether a product could have come in contact with your allergen(s), call the manufacturer. Ask them about their ingredients and manufacturing practices.
  • If you encounter a product that doesn’t have an ingredients list, don’t buy it.
  • Be extra careful with imported products. Food labeling regulations vary by country. Imported items are supposed to follow FALCPA and other domestic food labeling laws, but occasionally they do not.
  • A child with a food allergy can start checking food labels as soon as he or she learns to read. Practice at home and when you’re shopping—with help from an adult.

 

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