Understanding food labels is extremely important for people who have food allergies. If you have food allergies or if you handle and prepare food for anyone who does, learn how to recognize allergens on food labels.
You will find labels on all packaged foods made in the United States. They're also on all imported packaged foods that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates.
The law requires food manufacturers to print separately, at the bottom of the ingredients list, eight of the most common food allergens:
- Tree nuts, such as cashews, almonds and walnuts
- Fish, such as cod, flounder and bass
- Shellfish, such as lobster, shrimp and crab
If you or anyone in your family is allergic to gluten, make sure any packaged food you buy is specifically labeled "gluten-free." The FDA requires that these foods meet a specified standard for gluten content.
Cross-contamination can occur when foods are produced in the same facility. However, the FDA doesn't require manufacturers to state that allergens could've made their way into foods that aren't meant to contain them. So when reading food labels, look out for these phrases that may indicate possible cross-contamination:
- "May contain"
- "Processed in a facility with"
- "Manufactured on shared equipment with"
- Watch out for vague ingredients. Some items on foods labels can be unclear. For instance, "spices" and "flavors" that aren't followed by a breakdown of specific sources, such as cumin, paprika or salt, may contain allergens. Contact the food manufacturer to clarify the sources of any vaguely listed ingredients.
- Check every label. Read food labels even for products that you've used before. Many companies don't tell customers when ingredients have been changed, but by law, they should always update their food labels.
- Pay special attention to foreign products. Not all countries require manufacturers to list allergens on food labels. Be mindful of this when you travel abroad.
March 04, 2014
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- Gluten-free labeling of foods. US Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/Allergens/ucm362510.htm. Accessed Jan. 23, 2014.
- Vierk KA, et al. Prevalence of self-reported food allergy in American adults and use of food labels. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. 2007;19:1504.