Nutrition Facts, Labels & Ingredients: Healthy Weight & Nutrition
Food Labels: What to Look For When Avoiding Allergens
Identifying the Eight Major Food Allergens
Fortunately, a federal law took effect in 2006 that makes deciphering food labels somewhat less challenging. “ (FALCPA) requires that manufacturers list all the major food allergens contained in that food in plain language,” Dr. Farzan says. These are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts (e.g., almonds, cashews, pecans, pistachios, walnuts), wheat, and soy.
Before 2006, food labels could list food allergens by their aliases — whey or lactose rather than milk, albumin for eggs, or gluten for wheat. “Now labels have to clearly state the name of the allergen,” Farzan says.
Food manufacturers must do this in one of two ways. One method is to include the name of the food source in parentheses after the common name of the food allergen in the list of ingredients, such as "Ingredients: enriched flour (wheat flour, malted barley), whey (milk), eggs, vanilla, lecithin (soy)."
The second method is to include a disclaimer on the label right after or next to the ingredients list in a type size that is the same as or larger than the font used in the list of ingredients, such as “Contains eggs, wheat, and soy.”
Important Strategies for Deciphering Food Labels
Despite these regulations, Farzan says, people with food allergies — particularly severe ones — shouldn't become complacent. “It’s important to be educated on food ingredients,” she says.
Dr. Dorris agrees: “Almost any food — not just the eight most common allergens — can trigger an allergic reaction in some people. I have a few patients, for example, with an allergy to annatto, a food coloring made from seeds from the achiote tree that gives foods a richer, deeper yellow-orange color.” Because annatto is not one of the major allergens, food manufacturers don’t have to list it as anything other than "coloring added." People with this allergy, or other less common ones, have a couple options. "I would say that if they have a true annatto allergy and they are concerned that this allergen is in the food they wish to eat, they should avoid it," Dorris says. "Another option would be to call the manufacturer to find out more information."
“Other lesser-known allergens include seeds, corn, spices, meats, and even some raw fruits and vegetables,” adds Marina Chaparro, RDN, CDE, MPH, a dietitian at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital in Hollywood, Florida, and a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
You also need to be aware that manufacturers can change ingredients at any given moment. “People should read labels every time they purchase a food,” Chaparro says. It helps to know all alternate names for allergens on food labels. For a complete list, go to the website of the nonprofit group Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE).
In addition, follow these strategies:
Look for the words “may contain.” Some food labels may have advisory statements such as “may contain…” or “made in a facility that processes…” — just keep in mind that these statements are not currently regulated. “While the FALCPA requires food labels to state if a product definitely contains an allergen, it doesn’t require labels to say whether they may contain the allergen,” Farzan says.
The Food and Drug Administration is working on a strategy to help food manufacturers make these statements more clearly. But for now, if a label says "may contain peanuts," the food might in fact contain peanuts or it might not. “If something says 'may contain,' we recommend a person who is allergic to stay away from that food,” Farzan says.
Be wary of natural flavorings. "'Natural flavorings' is a catchall term on food labels,” Farzan says. If the natural flavorings contain any of the eight major food allergens, the label is required to list that allergen. However, if you’re allergic to something that’s not a major allergen, remember that there’s always a chance that a natural flavoring contains it.
Don’t assume peanut-free is fully allergen-free. There are companies dedicated to making peanut-free products. Their product labels say “peanut-free,” but they're not necessarily free of other allergens. “These are definitely safer products to eat if you have a peanut allergy, but you should still never be lax about reading food labels and ingredients on these products,” Farzan says.
Stay up-to-date on food news. Certain food allergy blogs and websites post food recalls related to food allergies, such as the recent recall of .
Social media can also be a good way to keep track of these recalls.
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