How To Read Food Labels (3 Step Guide For Allergic Persons)

Quick Summary of How To Read Food Labels (3 Step Guide)

1. Step 1 – Understand How Allergens Are Listed
2. Step 2 – Know Where To Find Label Warnings For Cross-Contamination
3. Step 3 – When in Doubt, Be Meticulous

If you or someone you care for has food allergies, examining food labels is something you’re probably used to. For obvious reasons, examining the ingredients of anything you plan on eating is vital to your health as a food-allergic person. Keeping yourself safe depends on it. This is why knowing how to read food labels is essential. You’re most likely going to read these labels regularly for the rest of your life so knowing how to do it properly is important.

It’s Not As Easy As It Should Be. Here’s Why.

It’s not quite as simple as many assume. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that there is no law that mandates companies to include precautionary statements about allergens, particularly concerning undeclared ones (such as “May contain…” statements). The companies that do – which are most of them – are doing so out of good faith to their customers. Many, if not most, people assume that such labeling is required by law, but it’s not. This leaves a considerable margin of risk for consumers with allergies.

Second, most labels that indicate the presence (or possible presence) of a particular allergen do not provide any information as to how much of the allergen is included. Not only that, but the wording from product to product can differ. There’s no federal regulation or industry standard regarding allergen warnings on food labels. All the government requires is that if a company does decide to put allergen info on a label, it has to be in plain English – and only if it’s an ingredient.

Quick Note

Note: you’re only going to find allergen information on food labels for what’s called the Top 8, meaning the 8 most prevalent food allergies. These are shellfish, fish, soy, wheat, eggs, milk, tree nuts, and peanuts. If your particular allergen is not one of these 8, you’ll have a bit more work to do in learning how to read food labels.

This information isn’t meant to stress you out. It’s meant to illustrate the importance of understanding how to read food labels, particularly for allergic persons. Though sometimes it can get complicated, most of the time it’s quite simple.

Disclaimer before getting into the nitty-gritty: you can’t just stay away from foods that contain your allergens. You also need to steer clear of foods that inadvertently may contain your allergen. This is called cross-contact or cross-contamination. You are likely already aware of this, but we want to be thorough in our explanation of how to read food labels.

Step 1 – Understand How Allergens Are Listed

Allergens will be listed in one of three ways:

1. On the ingredients list
2. On the ingredients list but in parenthesis. For example, “whey (milk)”. (This means that whey is made up of other ingredients, one of which is milk).
3. Outside the ingredients list with the word “contains” preceding it.

You may find consistency in the labeling methods of certain food types or brands. Keeping these types of patterns in your memory will save time and make it easier for you to learn how to read food labels.

How To Read Food Labels When Your Allergen is Outside the Top 8

As mentioned above, allergens that aren’t one of the top 8 often don’t get mentioned on food labels since it isn’t a requirement. For those to whom this applies, additional work will be necessary. This group of people will need to get themselves familiar with their allergen’s real name; its scientific name. The food allergens outside the top 8 have the highest chance of being labeled in alternative ways. Once you know what the scientific name (or names) is for your allergen, familiarize yourself with how it’s usually listed and where.

Sometimes allergens are listed with text larger than the ingredients list. When this happens, it’s easier to spot. Most of the time, in our experience, these food allergens are listed in the same text size as all the other ingredients. But you’ll find them somewhere else on the label, right next to or away from the ingredients list.

Also, Remember This

It’s somewhat common for colorings and spices to contain allergens. But because allergens outside the top 8 aren’t listed, it may be in order for you contact the manufacturer of a particular product if you see a coloring or a spice listed as an ingredient. It may be the only way to know what allergen (if any) may be found inside.

Step 2 – Know Where To Find Label Warnings For Cross-Contamination

Cross-contamination is “the process by which bacteria or other microorganisms are unintentionally transferred from one substance or object to another, with harmful effect.” This is very common when it comes to food and typically originates from where and how it’s prepared. Understanding cross-contamination plays an important role in knowing how to read food labels.

Most of the time, evidence of cross-contamination is hard to identify because the amount of microorganisms transferred is usually very small. In response to this, many manufacturers include warning statements on food labels when appropriate. Here are some examples:

“Made in a facility that also processes peanuts”.
“May contain traces of tree nuts”.
“Due to methods used in the manufacture of this product, it may occasionally contain soy”.
“Not suitable for wheat allergy sufferers”.
“No nuts in ingredients, but cannot guarantee to be nut free”.
“Produced in a factory which handles fish”.

Some Additional Facts About Cross-Contamination Warning Labels

Don’t trust the language of one warning type over another, even if the label of a particular product makes it sound more serious than the label of another. Assume an equal amount of credibility to all precautionary allergen warnings, no matter what. Lots of people give more credence to certain warning types. This is risky behavior. Your health and safety are not worth the risk.

Don’t be surprised to discover big disparities among the types of wording used for allergen labels, particularly cross-contamination warnings. Making yourself familiar over time with all the wording possibilities that are used pertaining to your food allergy will help you make better decisions at the supermarket, restaurants, etc.

We’ve mentioned this already, but it’s worth mentioning again: labels almost never say how much of the allergen is (or could be) found in the food. You should never measure your risk of exposure based on how the warning is presented on a label. A warning such as “May contain peanuts” could mean it contains no peanuts, trace amounts, or significant amounts. Assume it contains significant amounts until you have more experience and knowledge about that food.

Precautionary allergen warnings are not verified or regulated and are not required by law. Unfortunate, but true. Allergic persons must always go the extra mile when exploring what foods are unsafe.

And Don’t Forget…

For many allergic persons, the ingestion of even the smallest amount of allergen could cause a serious reaction. Cross-contamination should not be taken lightly, especially if your food allergy is serious. How to read food labels properly depends on this.

Step 3 – When In Doubt, Be Meticulous

If after reading a label you’re still not sure if the food is safe for you, there are a few things you can do to find out more.

The majority of food manufacturers – especially big name brands – have more health information about their products on their website. When you visit these sites, look for sections called “FAQs”, “Allergen Info”, or something similar. The additional data you’re looking for will likely be found here. Calling these companies is also an option. Phone numbers for these manufacturers are usually found on the bottom of the site’s homepage in the footer or by clicking the “Customer Service” or “Contact” link.

Stay up-to-date regarding which foods have had their allergen information changed or updated, as well as which foods have been recalled due to accidents involving undeclared allergens. Click here to sign up on the official FARE website.

Read food labels every time, even if you’ve purchased a particular product many times before. Allergen information can change. Manufacturing processes sometimes change as do the ingredients used in some foods. Always be vigilant when it comes to how to read food labels.

How To Read Food Labels – Conclusion

Most food allergy folks wish that there was a more standardized system of labeling allergens on products. The mostly unregulated world of food allergen labeling sometimes causes a lot of work for those with allergies in order to stay safe. Luckily, modern technology and advances in food science have resulted in more food substitutes than ever before. A general increase in food allergy awareness has also helped restaurants and manufactures be more conscientious about how they develop their products.

By maintaining a watchful eye and educating yourself properly, you’ll be just fine.

how to read food labels

How To Read Food Labels (3 Step Guide For Allergic Persons)

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