If you have a food allergy or care for someone who does, avoid the food 100% to prevent a reaction.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right?
Actually, it’s easier said than done when you’re reading small-print ingredients lists on packaged goods labels at the supermarket.
So how can you identify potential allergens quickly and easily?
What Does the Law Say?
Good news – in the United States, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) makes reading food labels easier for people with food allergies.
However, there are exceptions, so it’s important to know what’s covered and what isn’t.
First off, FALCPA mandates that manufacturers spell out allergens in plain English on packaging labels.
The regulations cover the big eight food allergens Americans suffer from most: milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and crustacean shellfish.
If your allergy is on this list, reading labels is much easier.
FALCPA pertains to all packaged foods, including vitamins and dietary supplements, and infant formula and foods (get the complete list from Food Allergy Research & Education).
Here are a few things to know:
- On a food label, an allergen will be listed in the ingredients, or afterward in a “contains” or “may contain” statement.
- If these allergens are included in other ingredients like colors, spices or flavors, the manufacturer is obliged to list them, in addition to specifying any specific nut, fish or shellfish (like almond, bass or crab) that’s present.
- While manufacturers shouldn’t list scientific names for ingredients (like “casein” instead of “milk”), they may if the ingredient is a less-common form of the allergy. You might see this in the list: “albumin (egg).”
- All hydrolyzed proteins must be identified clearly (example: hydrolyzed wheat protein).
Finally, look for wording like “processed in a facility that also processes” or “made on equipment with.” This wording is optional so if it’s not included, it doesn’t mean the product’s free of your allergen.
What’s Not Included?
Unfortunately for those of us with food allergies, there are lots of things the FALCPA doesn’t apply to like prescription or over-the-counter drugs, personal care items or kosher labeling (read the complete list from Food Allergy Research & Education).
In addition, the regulations don’t pertain to restaurants or any made-to-order food placed in containers or wrappers.
That’s on top of:
- Allergens like molluscan shellfish (animals like oysters or scallops)
- Seeds like sesame and mustard.
- Whole fruits and vegetables
- Highly refined oils made from the eight major allergens (like peanut oil) because they don’t contain the allergenic protein.
So what about your favorite beer or bubbly? While there are no mandatory allergen-labeling requirements for alcoholic beverages, you can check out voluntary guidelines from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
FALCPA also doesn’t apply to meat, poultry or egg products, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture does promote voluntary use of allergen labeling that’s consistent with those on packaged goods.
A final word of caution: Manufacturers aren’t bound to list allergens that might be present in the food due to unintentional cross-contact during processing.
The Bottom Line
Our best advice to you is to always carefully read labels on packaging – and since ingredients do change, check every time you buy.
Don’t buy foods missing an ingredients list. In addition, get familiar with the scientific names for your food allergen (maltodextrin can be made from corn), so you can spot it easily.
When you’re dining out, don’t ever be afraid to ask if your allergen is present in that lobster bisque soup or chicken parmesan.
And if you have an allergy that’s not covered under FALCPA, call manufacturers to double-check if a food is safe for you. Once you get into the routine of reading food labels and asking how your restaurant food is prepped, it’ll become second nature.