Food Allergy 101: How to Read a Food Label

Food Allergy 101: How to Read a Food Label

Your child was just diagnosed with a food allergy, or maybe it was your child’s friend, or your sister, or maybe it’s you. Regardless, someone you care about has entered this world where the wrong thing on their plate could kill them. That’s scary, right? You’re going to want to help keep this special person safe, but where do you start?

You’ll need to get a handle on a lot of information from how (and when) to use an autoinjector of epinephrine to what precautions this person needs to be safe out in the world. Yes, the volume of information can be overwhelming, and a lot of it is going to be something specific to this child, as outlined by his or her allergist. There is one thing that everyone in this person’s life can learn that will go a long way to keeping him or her safe: how to read a label for the presence of allergens.

One note: Consult with an allergist for information regarding food allergies. You should not rely on information in this article to ensure the safety of those with food allergies.

Why Label Reading Matters

Today, the only way to avoid a food-induced allergic reaction is to avoid the food you are allergic to. Since even small amounts of allergen can trigger a reaction, it’s important to know what you’re eating. Eyeballing an item for the presence of an ingredient or deciding based on your familiarity with typical recipes for the food on your plate can put you at a risk. Reviewing the labels of pre-packaged foods can help you determine what is safe, and what is not.

What is FALCPA?

If you’ve been talking to other food allergy families, you may have heard the acronym FALCPA and thought “Wait, what?!” Those letters stand for the FDA enforced Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004. This law requires clear labeling for any of the top eight food allergens on the package of a food item regulated by the FDA. That means if milk, wheat, eggs, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish or fish are an ingredient, it must be clearly stated in plain English on the package.

Where Will I Find This Statement?

FALCPA gives companies three options on how to present this information. First, the allergen may be mentioned in the full list of ingredients by its common name. For example, the bag of powdered cheese covered snacks in your hand may include the term “milk” in the list of ingredients. It cannot use a term like “casein” or “diacetyl” (both indicating milk is present) without further clarification. It’s important to note that some manufacturers will call out the presence of the top eight allergens by placing those plain terms in bold font among other ingredients listed in plain type. That’s not a requirement, however, so it is important to read the ingredient list of each product, and not just scan for words in bold.

Another option is specifically to call out the top eight allergens in a dedicated statement below the ingredient list. Look at your favorite box of cereal. Below the list of ingredients that go into making this delectable breakfast item may be a statement that says, “Contains wheat.”

Finally, the package can include less common terms for an allergen with the more common term in parentheses. The jar of sauce you’re thinking of warming up with your dinner might include “albumin (egg)” in the list of ingredients. Again, it may be called out in bold, or it may not. Be sure to closely read the full list.

What’s Not Covered by FALCPA?

The passage and implementation of this law was an important one for food allergic individuals. It’s important to remember, however, that there are things not covered by it. The list of things this law does not cover includes:

  • Foods regulated by other Federal agencies such as: poultry, most meats, certain egg products, fresh fruits & vegetables in their natural state, and most alcoholic beverages. It is worth noting that both the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau and the USDA encourage voluntary use of allergen labeling consistent with FALCPA.
  • Foods ordered by a customer and placed in a wrapper or container.
  • Food served at restaurants.
  • Highly refined oils derived from the top eight allergens.
  • Cosmetics and personal care products.
  • Prescription or OTC medications.   
  • Pet food
  • Toys and crafts

The law also does not apply to ingredients outside the list of eight most common allergens. If you are allergic to corn or sesame, for example, it’s important to familiarize yourself with all the potential terms for these ingredients. You’ll also may want to look out for umbrella terms like “natural flavorings.” Under FALCPA, if one of the top eight was included in the “natural flavoring,” it would need to be called out specifically somewhere on the label in plain language. That does not apply to foods outside that top eight list.

May Contains / Processed In / Made in a Facility

The topic of cross contamination could easily be an entire article all on its own. Whether or not your family opts to avoid such labeling is something to decide in consult with your allergist. That said, it is important to recognize that there is currently no label statement required to indicate the potential for cross contamination on pre-packaged foods. Currently, such labeling is voluntary.


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