How to Read a Label When You Have Food Allergies
This article applies to reading labels in the United States. For the Canadian version, click here.
When you or someone in your family has food allergies, the most important thing you can do to avoid an allergic reaction is to avoid the food. Sounds simple enough, but with all the confusing ingredients on packaged goods labels, how do you know that can of soup or box of cereal at the grocery store doesn’t have nuts in it, or perhaps milk?
The good news is, in the United States there are regulations that are meant to make reading food labels simpler for people with allergies. But there are exceptions, and so it’s important to know what is covered by the labeling rules, and what isn’t.
The first and most important thing to know, is that FALCPA, the law that governs food allergen labeling, only applies to what are known as “major” allergens, or the “Top 8”. These include:
– fish (e.g., bass, flounder, cod)
– crustacean shellfish (e.g., crab, lobster, shrimp)
– tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans)
If your allergens are included in this list, label reading will be much easier. Here are some things you’ll need to know:
- Major allergens that are ingredients must be declared on packaged goods sold in the United States.
- Watch for major allergens either in the ingredient list or in a “Contains” statement after the ingredient list.
- These allergens must be identified in plain language. For instance, companies can’t use a scientific name for a protein that’s a top allergen, since that might not be clear to the consumer. So “milk” is clearly stated rather than casein, “egg” for albumen, “wheat” for flour and “soy” for lecithin.
- If these allergens are found within other ingredients, such as “natural flavor” or “spice” they must be declared, either in the ingredient list or afterwards, in a “Contains” statement.
Note that precautionary warnings, or “May contains” are not required, and are not governed by any regulations. They are helpful for identifying food that might be unsafe, but there are things to be aware of. See: What You Need To Know About “May Contains” for more information.
Next: Special Notes; What to do if Your Allergen is NOT one of the Top 8