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If you have food allergies of any kind, it's crucial to ensure that you know how to navigate food labels. These labels contain critical information regarding the content of the food you consume. Not only do food labels allow you to identify harmful allergens, but they can also help you avoid cross-contamination and respond to food recalls effectively.

To stay safe when purchasing food products, consider these helpful tips to safeguard yourself from allergic reactions. This guide will cover key topics such as decoding food labels, recognizing hidden allergens, understanding allergen-free labeling, mitigating cross-contamination risks, and navigating food recalls.

Label reading techniques

When reading a label, it's best to start with the serving information, which includes the serving size and the number of servings per container. Be sure to also check the number of calories per serving. Furthermore, the % Daily Value (DV) indicates the percentage of each nutrient relative to the daily recommended amount.

It's important to be equally aware of obvious and less apparent allergen information. Food manufacturers are only required to list major allergens on labels, so be wary of hidden offenders like casein (milk protein) or albumin (egg protein).

Young woman buying diary product and reading food label in grocery store.

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Regulatory requirements

In the United States, allergen labeling is mandated by several laws and regulations, such as the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act. These laws promote education and understanding of allergen information. Because there has been some vagueness surrounding allergen content in the past, the government put these regulations in place to help clear up any confusion that consumers may have.

Familiarizing yourself with these laws will help ensure that you fully understand what you're purchasing.

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Common allergens

Food manufacturers prioritize labeling allergens that affect the largest portion of the population. Some of the most common allergens found on food labels include milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. If you're allergic to any of these ingredients, look for them when reading labels.

In addition to listing these allergens in the ingredients, many food companies will include a separate warning clearly stating which common allergens the product contains. This warning is typically located right beneath the ingredient list.

Composition with common food allergens including egg, milk, soya, nuts, fish, seafood, wheat flour, mustard, dried apricots and celery

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Unsuspected sources

Unfortunately, not all allergens are easy to spot. Some may be disguised as innocuous-looking ingredients that can harm sensitive individuals. To ensure that you're still making safe, informed decisions for your health, it's crucial to recognize the less common offenders on food labels.

A common example is casein, which is typically found in "non-dairy" products. If you have a dairy allergy, casein can cause an adverse reaction, even in small doses. Another hidden source is albumin, an egg protein that may also trigger an allergic reaction in certain people.

Additionally, you should be wary of gluten in products that appear to be gluten-free, such as soy sauce, brown rice syrup, and some deli meats.

Kikkoman naturally brewed tamari gluten free soy sauce bottle Claudio Divizia / Shutterstock.com

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Reading ingredients

Ingredient lists are a wealth of information, but only if you know what to look for. Many common allergens go unnoticed by most people because they are listed under different names.

For example, if you're allergic to dairy products, it's best to avoid the following ingredients:

  • casein
  • diacetyl
  • ghee
  • whey
  • tagatose

Those with an egg allergy should also avoid:

  • albumin
  • globulin
  • ovalbumin
  • lysozyme
  • surimi

Similarly, products that you should avoid if you're allergic to wheat include:

  • bulgur
  • durum
  • spelt
  • couscous
  • matzoh
  • semolina
  • triticale

Ingredients list and allergy advice on a Tesco Finest zesty lemon curd jar. Tesco is the third largest retailer in the world measured by profits. Adriana Iacob / Shutterstock.com

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Avoiding pitfalls

Given how ambiguous ingredient lists can be, it's understandable to make mistakes occasionally. As you become more skilled at deciphering food labels, you can make smarter choices.

One key tip is to check the ingredients every time you buy a product. Even if you've been purchasing the same cereal or salad dressing for years, there's no telling when new ingredients will be introduced into your "safe" food. Additionally, remember to check the label more than once. Many people with food allergies read the entire label before buying the product and reread it once or twice more before using it, just to be sure.

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Labeling claims

To choose the right product for your needs, you first have to understand what different labels are trying to tell you. There are various types of claims you may find on packaged foods, from "gluten-free" to "nut-free." What exactly do these claims mean, and what standards must products meet to display them on their packaging?

One of the most common types of products you'll see in the grocery store are gluten-free products. These products were not intentionally made with the use of any gluten-containing grains or any ingredients derived from gluten. The same criteria apply to any other allergen-free products you purchase.

Set ingredient warning label icons. Common allergens (gluten, lactose, soy, corn and more), sugar and trans fat, vegetarian and organic symbols.

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Trust and verification

Allergen-free labels are regulated under the 2004 Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), which established the standards that companies use today to label allergens on food products. FALCPA's labeling requirements apply to all foods that are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, making them a trusted set of guidelines for consumers.

When shopping for allergen-free foods, it's important to ensure that the product has third-party certification. This extra step allows companies to be certain that their products do not contain any possible traces of harmful allergens, and they also give consumers peace of mind.

Allergen free stamp. allergen free round ribbon label. Vector stock illustration.

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Limitations of labels

When reading labels, it's important to be cautious about the limitations of voluntary allergen-free claims. Because food manufacturers have the agency to include or not include these claims on their labels, they may be misleading or contain incomplete information.

There are no specific laws governing the exact wording on allergen-free labels. Manufacturers may omit vital information about whether a product has come into contact with a specific allergen, for example. It's crucial for consumers to be wary of these limitations and take them into account when purchasing packaged food.

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Sources of cross-contamination

Cross-contamination poses a significant risk for individuals with food allergies. It can occur at any point from farm to table, including during manufacturing, packaging, and even handling and storage. To protect yourself, it's crucial to understand these potential sources of cross-contamination. This awareness can guide you to prepare meals more carefully and to be more vigilant about the practices of outside dining establishments.

By knowing where and how cross-contamination can happen, you can take proactive steps to manage these risks effectively. Whether it's in your kitchen or choosing safely prepared restaurant meals, staying informed helps you avoid allergens and maintain your health. Always inquire about food safety practices wherever you eat, and consider adopting stringent cleaning protocols at home to further reduce the risk.

Cross contamination

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Preventive measures

Fortunately, there are simple steps you can take to keep cross-contamination at bay. When preparing food at home, be sure to use separate utensils and thoroughly clean your cooking surface once you're finished working. It's also a good idea to get into the habit of using separate containers to store your food.

Remember to be wary of cross-contamination when dining out. Avoid sharing utensils with anyone else at the table, especially if they have a food allergy.

Allergies and intolerances sign at a vegan pizza food stand inside Greenwich Market, the only market in London that is set within a World Heritage Site Alena Veasey / Shutterstock.com

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Understanding "may contain" statements

When examining food labels, you've probably come across several "may contain" statements. These refer to disclaimers on packaged food indicating that the product might have traces of a common allergen, such as peanuts or eggs. Some disclaimers may even warn you that the product was manufactured in a facility where other allergen-containing foods were produced.

How seriously you should take these statements ultimately depends on your own risk tolerance. If you have a very severe allergy and may react to even small traces of an ingredient, it's best to avoid any products that might contain even a slight trace of the allergen. Overall, it's important to proceed with caution when reading labels.

Food allergy concept. Fortune cookie with text 'may contain nuts'

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Staying informed

The field of food safety is constantly changing, influenced by updates in regulations, shifts in ingredient lists, and new practices for managing allergens. To stay on top of these changes and ensure your food choices are safe, it's essential to remain informed. One effective way to do this is by keeping track of product recalls listed by the federal government.

Subscribing to notifications from trusted health and safety organizations will alert you promptly when a product is recalled. Additionally, you can gather more information by talking to customer service representatives at your local supermarket about recent food safety updates and recalls. This strategy will help you stay informed and make safer dietary decisions.

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Responding to recalls

If you find out that a food product you have is subject to a recall, it's important to respond quickly and effectively. Generally, you can return the product to the store where you bought it and receive a full refund. If returning the product isn't feasible, make sure to dispose of it right away to ensure the safety of everyone in your home.

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Risk assessment

Not all recalled products carry the same level of risk. For example, if a product is recalled due to the potential presence of an allergen that you can tolerate in small amounts, it might not be necessary for you to return it. However, if you are highly sensitive to a specific ingredient cited in the recall, it is critical to either get a refund or dispose of the product promptly.

Understanding your own risk level with allergens helps you make informed decisions. Additionally, keeping informed about the specific reasons for recalls can guide your actions more effectively in these situations.

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.