Deciphering Labels

By Heather Legg

I was just reading how the food allergy industry is becoming a million dollar market. Food allergy grocery stores are popping up around the country, more and more companies are marketing food allergy safe lines, there are mail/internet order companies (of varying sizes) where you can find safe, custom food. Certain stores, like bakeries, suggest if you have certain allergies to not buy anything, or even come in the store (seems sort of rude, but better to be safe!). There have been new guidelines mandated for labeling foods, too. So with all this, you’d think it would be pretty easy to stay safe and confident when feeding yourself or your family with food allergies. On the contrary, it’s not.

First off, you have to always check labels to stay vigilant. Something may have been free of your allergen when you bought it the first time, but ingredients can change so you need to always check each time you buy it. If your favorite brand of cereal appears to be dairy free, for instance, it may have some sort of dairy product in it at a later time. There is all sorts of verbage, too for allergens, so know your lingo. Remember, too, food allergens can lurk in odd places. I never knew Chex Mix was made with almond flour until I became a label reader.

Check the food recall lists. FAAN has a page on their site that lists recently recalled foods, mostly due to unlisted food allergens. The FDA also has a good page.

But what does “made in a factory/shared equipment” or “may contain traces” mean? We all know that if our allergen is listed as an ingredient, we stay away, but what about these categories? There are a few schools of thought here, and some stay away altogether, others will do the made in the same factory or traces. That is up to you, but here is what they mean.

Made in a factory or on shared equipment means just that – there may be shared equipment, for instance, plain chocolates may be processed on the same equipment as nuts with chocolate, therefore, may pick up traces of nuts. There could be residual dust somewhere that can cross contain a food that doesn’t intentionally contain the allergen.

May contain traces means that there is a chance that some traces of that allergen have gotten into the food even though it’s not an ingredient. It could be do to shared equipment, or the factory. It could also be the manufacturer’s way of being careful and saying, it’s possible there is something in here we didn’t plan on or know (remember all those “natural” flavorings).

There’s a strong push to improve labels even more, and over the past year they have come along way. It’s up to the consumer to be diligent, make your decisions, and read your labels!

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