Here’s the latest article I wrote for Allergy & Asthma Today (Fall 2016), a publication from Allergy and Asthma Network.
When my son was in first grade, he joined his class in celebrating the completion of a school-wide charity project. All the students were so proud and the faculty even more so. The teachers planned to reward the students with popsicles — just the kind of unexpected treat kids live for!
Knowing my son’s food allergies, the teacher went to the administrative offices to check the ingredients. The coordinator read off the ingredient list one by one, all safe relative to my son’s peanut, tree nut and dairy allergies. And then she read a final statement, “Contains trace amounts of milk…”
“So that should be fine,” the coordinator said.
“NO!” replied his teacher, who also has food allergies. “He’s allergic to dairy! Milk is dairy!”
My son avoided an allergic reaction that day thanks to his teacher’s quick thinking and familiarity with reading food labels.
Many parents, teachers, school nurses and administrators are called upon to make food allergy decisions based on food labels. Deciphering ingredients and warning statements can sometimes feel like reading a foreign language.
Understanding the requirements that govern food allergy labeling makes those decisions much easier. In 2006, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) went into effect with the goal of improving food labeling information for families with food allergies.
- Under FALCPA, companies are required to label the top 8 allergens: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy. These account for 90% of food allergy reactions in the U.S.
- FALCPA also requires companies to label any ingredients made with proteins derived from those allergens.
- This law gives manufacturers a choice of how to label the food source allergen. They can either: 1) List the allergen in the ingredient list, such as “whey (milk) or lecithin (soy)”; or 2) Use a “Contains” statement, such as “Contains tree nuts, eggs and shellfish.”
- Manufacturers might use the same facility or equipment to produce two different food products, and if one is an allergen, there is potential for cross-contact. If the manufacturer thinks there’s a chance an allergen may be present in a food product, they can voluntarily put a “May contain…” or “Made in a facility with…” statement. For example, a soy milk label might say “May contain tree nuts” if it was produced on the same equipment as almond milk.
You’ll need to be extra diligent when reading labels to avoid an ingredient outside of the top 8 allergens. Learn alternative names for your allergen that manufacturers sometimes use. For example, sesame seeds may be listed as “tahini” (which is sesame paste), benne seed or generically as “spices.”
Because manufacturers change their ingredients and production methods all the time and without warning, it is very important to read the labels every time you purchase an item.
And if you’re unsure about what’s in a food product but still want to purchase it, call the manufacturer.