So-called “may contains”, or advisory labels on packaged foods, are confusing for allergic consumers and can even be dangerous, according to research published in 2013 in the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology.
“Consumers should avoid all products with advisory labels if they wish to avoid risk,” says Steve Taylor, an author of the study and co-director of the Food Allergy Research & Resource Program (FARRP) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
To get a sense of the “may contain” landscape, researchers set out to determine precisely how much peanut (if any) was in various products that had advisory labeling for peanut. Overall, 16 out of the 186 products (just under 9 percent) that were analyzed contained detectable levels of peanut, which is similar to previous findings.
There was great variation in the level of peanut present, ranging from 2.5 parts per million (the lowest amount the technology used could detect) up to 510 ppm. The 510 ppm was the equivalent of 20.6 milligrams of peanut – which could certainly trigger a reaction.
The type of food appeared to influence the likelihood of peanut being present – the allergen was detected in advisory-labeled nutrition bars, candy, baking ingredients, cereal, snack foods and baked goods, but not frozen desserts or instant meals.
Overall, nutrition bars appeared to contain the greatest levels of peanut, which led the study authors to conduct an additional survey. Of 159 bars that had advisory labeling, 12 contained peanut – ranging from 3 ppm up to an astonishing 26,000 ppm.
Of great concern, two nutrition bars with labels that had no mention of peanut whatsoever (advisory or ingredient) were found to contain peanut at 13 ppm and 1,260 ppm.
The better news is that the 15 nutrition bars studied that were labeled peanut-free did, in fact, have no detectable level of peanut, suggesting these are the safer options.
The authors say that advisory labels can lead to risk-taking behavior in consumers. Someone may think they’re “safe” to consume products with an advisory label simply because they’ve done so in the past without reacting – but in reality, as the study showed, even two different lot numbers of the exact same product can have varying allergen levels, let alone products from different companies.
Next: Wording and Risk Level