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.
– When nuts, fish or crustacean shellfish are present, manufacturers must specify what type of nut, fish or crustacean is in the food.
– Highly refined oils derived from major allergens do not need to be declared in the United States, as these are considered safe because they do not contain the allergenic protein. Wondering if peanut or nut oil is safe to eat? See Dr. Scott Sicherer’s important advice on the topic here .
– Hydrolyzed (or, broken down) proteins must always be identified by their common or usual name. ie: hydrolyzed wheat protein, hydrolyzed soy protein, hydrolyzed corn protein.
Which Products Fall Under These Rules?
– Foods packaged, labeled and sold by retail and food-service establishments (e.g. supermarkets and coffee shops) must follow the allergen regulations. However, this does not apply to food that is ordered by a customer and placed in a wrapper or container.
– The regulations do not apply to restaurants.
– There are no mandatory food-allergen labeling requirements for alcoholic beverages. However, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau does have voluntary guidelines .
– The requirements do not apply to meat, poultry or egg products. However, the United States Department of Agriculture encourages widespread voluntary use of allergen labeling consistent with the rules for packaged goods.
If your allergen is NOT one of the Top 8, then reading ingredient labels becomes much more difficult.
You will need to get to know the scientific names for your allergen and where it can hide . For example, maltodextrin can be made from corn.
Also, companies are not required to list the components of ingredients such as “natural flavor”, “spice” or color”, if they are not major allergens. Always call the manufacturer to find out what is in these ingredients, and if you’re ever unsure, avoid the food.
If you think you have had a reaction to a food that should have been safe contact an FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator  in the state where the food was purchased.
“May Contains” on Food Labels: What You Need to Know