Decoding Nutrition Labels for Allergens

The FDA food allergen label law requires that food labels specify if they contain a top eight food allergen (milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, wheat, soy, fish, crustacean shellfish). Some foods, however, are not covered by this labeling law, so you need to know how to read and decode the label for allergens.  The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) does not cover fresh fruits and vegetables in their natural state, or any highly refined oil derived from a food specified in the major eight allergen group.

For example, food labels often contain the phrase “natural flavoring”, which means that flavors made in a laboratory have been added to a food product to enhance the food’s taste and sometimes, its appearance. According to FDA food label regulations, natural flavor or flavoring can come from:

  • Spice
  • Fruit or fruit juice
  • Vegetable or vegetable juice
  • Edible yeast
  • Herb
  • Bark
  • Bud
  • Root
  • Leaf or similar plant material
  • Meat
  • Seafood
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Dairy products

FALCPA requires food manufacturers to list an allergen if one or more of the eight major food allergens are in a natural flavor. For example, a label might specify “natural flavoring (soy)” or “Contains: soy”. But if you have food allergies to foods not on the top eight major food allergens, you might have trouble because manufacturers do not have to state if other allergens like mustard or sesame are in a natural flavor. If a food has natural flavors, you might have to check with the manufacturer to be sure that food is safe for your food allergies.

Another example of hidden allergens on the food label are products containing tree nuts, such as marzipan or mortadella. The FDA food allergen label law requires foods to state if they contain a top eight allergen such as tree nuts. But, there are many foods and products that are not covered by the law, so it is still important to know how to read a label for tree nut ingredients.

Soy is another example of a top eight food allergen on the FDA’s list, but highly refined soy or soybean oil will not be labeled as a major allergen on an ingredient statement because they have extremely small levels of the allergenic protein. However, people with soy allergy need to avoid any expeller pressed, extruded or cold pressed soy oil. These types of oil do contain soy protein and must be listed on the label as an allergen.

The lesson here is that if the product is an FDA regulated food,  then it must appear on the label. However, there are many foods that are not covered by the law, and can cause an allergic reaction. It is important to know how to read a label for these food allergen ingredients.

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