What food labels tell you about allergens

Since 2006, labels on foods that contain the major food allergens, which are peanuts, milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat, soy, and tree nuts, must make it clear that these allergens are present. As a result of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), these products must be labeled in the ingredients list, or else, the label must say: “may contain” followed by the name of the specific allergen. In Canada, sesame, mustard, and mollusks must also be included. The specific type of allergen, such as shrimp, must also be listed.

When an allergen has not been deliberately added to the food, there is often still a chance that the allergen may be present due to cross-contamination during its manufacturing. Many companies therefore include precautionary content, such as “may contain” the allergen, “processed in a facility that also processes” the allergen, or “made on equipment with” the allergen. However, these advisory labels are voluntary and are not required by law. While individuals with food allergies, as well as their families, have been encouraged to read food labels in their entirety, a recent study demonstrated that there remains some confusion about what the information on these labels means, and this confusion tends to be caused by these precautionary statements.

The study, published in November in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice, asked over 6,500 U.S and Canadian consumers, who either had food allergies or who were the caregivers of those with food allergies, about their food purchasing habits. Researchers found that because of a misinterpretation of the meaning of these precautionary labels, about 40% of respondents purchased products with these labels. About half of these respondents believed that the precautionary labels were required by law, when they are instead voluntary, and about 33% of them thought that the precautionary labels were indicative of the amount of the allergen present in the food, which, according to the lead researcher, Dr. Ruchi Gupta, is not true.

Because it is impossible to know whether a food with a precautionary label will contain an allergen or cause an allergic reaction, Gupta and others agreed that they generally recommend that patients avoid foods that have anything on the label suggesting that the allergen may be present, including the voluntary precautionary wording. In response to this study, James Baker, the CEO of Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) has said that there needs to be more consistency and transparent on food labels. Gupta went further to say that more regulation is needed for food labels. Regardless of what the government decides to do about labeling foods, it is important that people will food allergies, and those who feed people with allergies understand that precautionary labels be taken seriously and that they suggest a true chance that the named allergen is present in the food.

Dr. Summit Shah

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