Since 2006, it has been much easier for people allergic to certain foods to avoid packaged products that contain them. This is because a federal law requires that the labels of most packaged foods marketed in the U.S. disclose in simple-to-understand terms when they are made with a major food allergen.
Eight foods, and ingredients containing their proteins, are defined as “major food allergens.” These foods account for 90% of all food allergies:
- Fish, such as bass, flounder, or cod
- Crustacean shellfish, such as crab, lobster, or shrimp
- Tree nuts, such as almonds, pecans, or walnuts
The law allows manufacturers a choice in how they identify the specific “food source names,” such as “milk,” “cod,” “shrimp,” or “walnuts,” of the major food allergens on the label. They must be declared in one of the following:
- The ingredient list, such as “casein (milk)” or “nonfat dry milk.”
- A separate “Contains” statement, such as “Contains milk,” placed immediately after or next to the ingredient list.
So first look for the “Contains” statement. If your allergen is listed, put the product back on the shelf. If there is no “Contains” statement, it’s very important to read the entire ingredient list to see if your allergen is present. If you see its name even once, it’s back to the shelf for that food too.
“Contains” and “May Contain” Have Different Meanings
If a “Contains” statement appears on a food label, it must include the food source names of all major food allergens used as ingredients. For example, if “whey,” “egg yolks,” and a “natural flavor” that contained peanut proteins are listed as ingredients, the “Contains” statement must identify the words “milk,” “egg,” and “peanuts.”
Some manufacturers voluntarily include a “may contain” statement on their labels when there is a chance that a food allergen could be present. A manufacturer might use the same equipment to make different products. Even after cleaning this equipment, a small amount of an allergen (such as peanuts) that was used to make one product (such as cookies) may become part of another product (such as crackers). In this case, the cracker label might state “may contain peanuts.”
Be aware that the “may contain” statement is voluntary. You still need to read the ingredient list to see if the product contains your allergen.
When In Doubt, Leave It Out
Manufacturers can change their products’ ingredients at any time, so it’s a good idea to check the ingredient list every time you buy the product—even if you have eaten it before and didn’t have an allergic reaction.
If you’re unsure about whether a food contains any ingredient to which you are sensitive, don’t buy the product, or check with the manufacturer first to ask what it contains. We all want convenience, but it’s not worth playing Russian roulette with your life or that of someone under your care.
For more information, check out Food Allergies: What You Need to Know.
This piece was written by Rhonda Kane, Consumer Safety Officer, Food Labeling & Standards Staff, U.S. Food and Drug Administration and first published May 10, 2011 on the FoodSafety.gov website.
Photo credit: thousandshipz, used with permission under Creative Commons license.