Food labels can help consumers with food allergies avoid foods or ingredients that they or their families are allergic to.
This is because a federal law, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, 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 the large majority of severe food allergic reactions:
- 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 requires that food labels identify the food source of all major food allergens used to make the food. This requirement is met if the common or usual name of an ingredient already identifies that allergen's food source name (for example, buttermilk). Otherwise, the allergen's food source must be declared at least once on the food label in one of two ways.
The name of the food source of a major allergen must appear:
In parentheses following the name of the ingredient.
Examples: "lecithin (soy)," "flour (wheat)," and "whey (milk)"
Immediately after or next to the list of ingredients in a "contains" statement.
Example: "Contains Wheat, Milk, and Soy."
“So first look for a ‘Contains’ statement and if your allergen is listed, put the product back on the shelf,” says Carol D'Lima, food technologist with the Office of Nutrition and Food Labeling at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “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.”
There are many different ingredients that contain the same major food allergen, but sometimes the ingredients’ names do not indicate their specific food sources. For example, casein, sodium caseinate, and whey are all milk proteins. Although the same allergen can be present in multiple ingredients, its “food source name” (for example, milk) must appear in the ingredient list just once to comply with labeling requirements.
Sesame is not a major food allergen under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, but the FDA recently issued a draft guidance document to encourage manufacturers to clearly declare sesame in the ingredient list. In most cases, sesame does have to appear in the ingredient statement; an exception is when sesame is part of a flavoring or spice or if a term is used for a food like tahini that is, or contains, sesame. In those cases, it may be declared as simply "spice" or "flavor" on the label, so consumers may not know sesame is present.
"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 separate advisory statement, such as “may contain” or "produced in a facility," 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, says D'Lima. “Not all manufacturers use it.”
When in Doubt, Leave It Out
Manufacturers can change their products’ ingredients at any time, so D'Lima says 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,” says D'Lima. “We all want convenience, but it’s not worth playing Russian roulette with your life or that of someone under your care.”