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Checking Food Labels for Allergens

One of the first tips you’ll hear when your child is diagnosed with a food allergy is to get in the habit of always checking food labels for allergens. Companies in the US are required to list their ingredients and so you can get a good idea of what is in a product and whether or not your child’s allergen is present just by checking the food label.

That being said, not every ingredient is required to be on labels. Companies can change their ingredients without notifying consumers. It can be a lot more work than it sounds.

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Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act

The Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act passed into law in 2004 and required manufacturers to clearly label the top 8 allergens: milk, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and egg (1). The FASTER act passed in 2021, added sesame as a top allergen and requires sesame to be on labels as of 2023 (2). For tree nuts and shellfish, the type of nut or shellfish must be labeled.

These laws do not require labeling on all products, but do include most foods. It’s required for:

  • packaged foods
  • supplements
  • conventional foods
  • infant formula
  • infant foods
  • medical foods

It is NOT required for:

  • fresh meat, fruit, vegetables
  • carry out foods from restaurants (a sandwich you order or bakery, street food, food trucks, festival foods, fast food restaurants)
  • highly refined oils (they usually don’t contain enough protein to cause a reaction)
  • prescription & over the counter drugs
  • personal care items like cosmetics, shampoo, mouthwash, toothpaste,
  • alcoholic drinks, spirits, beer
  • tobacco
  • Kosher labeling
  • pet foods (I know many toddlers end up sampling their cat or dog’s food)

It is also only required for the top 9 allergens. If your child is allergic to any food other than the top 9 allergens, you may need to call the manufacturer to see if it is included. While most items are listed in the ingredients, ingredients like “natural flavorings” and proprietary blends don’t need to be specified.

What Will Be Labeled

The label will either list the ingredient clearly in the ingredient list, using it’s common name (like milk or soy) or it will have a “contains” statement at the end of the ingredient list, like “Contains: almonds.” For tree nuts and shellfish, the type of tree nut or shellfish must be labeled.

Companies are not required to use the labels “may contain” or “processed in a facility with.” These terms are not well regulated. Companies are not required to warn you about trace amounts of an allergen, even though these trace amounts may cause a reaction. Many people with allergies choose to avoid any foods with these warnings.

Remembering to Check Labels

It can take a while to get in the habit of checking labels regularly. Here are some tips from food allergy parents for remembering:

  • Use color dot stickers to note that an adult has checked the product. This way it is clearly visible to anyone offering the food that it is safe for the child with allergies to eat.
  • Leave sticky note reminders on the fridge and cupboard doors to double check food labels before serving.
  • Check at the store, when putting food away, and when serving food. That way if you forget in one spot, there are still 2 other back ups.

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