Reading Food Labels Can Literally Save Your Life
Anyone with food allergies knows that one of the most basic management techniques for a food allergy is knowing what to look for when reading food labels.
Hidden foods represent a major challenge for anyone with allergies, but children especially must rely on parents or caregivers to watch for these allergens on food labels. It’s important to be on the lookout for possible allergens, as well as the alternative, unfamiliar names of common allergenic foods.
In 2004, the Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) was enacted requiring the top 8 food allergens (milk, soy, egg, wheat, peanut, tree nut, fish, and shellfish) be highlighted separately on the ingredients label in plain, easy-to-understand language.
These top 8 allergens account for 90 percent of food allergies in the United States. FALCPA applies to all packaged foods subject to regulation by the FDA, including foods made in the US and those that are imported.
If you are allergic to an allergen other than one of the major allergens (such as chickpeas, sesame seeds or poppy seeds), your allergen is not required to be identified in the “Contains ” statement that will appear on some packages—you must read the full ingredient label.
Hidden Food Alternate Names
Here’s an example of hidden foods in wheat product substitutes. A wheat-free diet contains many alternative names in its category. When reading a label for a wheat-free diet, avoid foods that may contain or be related to any of the following ingredients:
Bread crumbs, bulgur, cereal extract, club wheat, couscous, cracker meal, durum, einkorn, emmer, farina, flour (all-purpose, bread, cake, durum, enriched, graham, high gluten, high protein, instant, pastry, self-rising, soft wheat, steel ground, stone ground, whole wheat), hydrolyzed wheat protein, kamut, matzoh, matzoh meal (also spelled matzo, matzah, or matza), pasta, seitan, semolina, spelt, sprouted wheat, triticale, vital wheat gluten, wheat (bran, durum, germ, gluten grass, malt, sprouts, starch), wheat bran hydrolysate, wheat germ oil, wheat grass, wheat protein isolate, and whole wheat berries.
Milk products are another example of hidden foods. If a food contains the milk-derived protein “casein,” the product label will have to use the term “milk” (as well as the term “casein”) so people with milk allergies can clearly understand the presence of the allergen they need to avoid.
Keeping a list of alternative names for your allergen(s) is a useful tool to have memorized or on hand. It’s absolutely vital if you’re avoiding ingredients that aren’t covered by FALCPA.
Some food labels will state that the food was processed on the same manufacturing line as a food to which you’re allergic. Take these warnings seriously: In some cases, researchers have found that amounts of allergens sufficient to cause a reaction can be present in foods labeled this way. Manufacturers are not required to include these warnings, so to be sure, you may need to call to find out whether a food poses a cross-contamination risk.
Ingredients and manufacturing processes can change without warning. Make a habit of carefully reading labels to ensure you avoid any potential allergens.
The AAFA website has detailed information on food allergies and how to cope with them.