Food packaging is often crowded with marketing claims that make it difficult to understand what ingredients hide in the foods, snacks and drinks we consume. For the more than 15 million Americans with food allergies, navigating those claims and checking food labels is essential to health and safety.
April Clark, a registered dietitian with the Food Allergy Center and the new Dallas Eosinophilic GI Diseases and Esophagitis Program at Children’s Health℠, says reading and understanding food labels is one of the most important things parents of children with food allergies can do.
"When parents spend the time reading food labels and becoming familiar with their child's allergen, they can better navigate food and make choices that will keep their kids safe," she says.
Clark shares three tips for reading food labels and identifying allergens.
1. Read every label, every time
"It can be tempting to pick up a go-to food that typically doesn't contain an allergen, but what many consumers don’t realize is that the ingredients in your favorite foods can change based on what's available to manufacturers," Clark explains.
Instead, Clark recommends that consumers check every label, every time – even on the items you regularly add to your cart.
"Many food ingredients are commodities, and manufacturers may have several different recipes for the same product," she says. "When prices of one ingredient go up, they sometimes replace it with a less expensive ingredient, which may be an allergen or contaminated with an allergen."
Clark also cautions parents to read food labels for each size of a product. 'Fun-sized' candy and snacks often have different ingredients, which again could expose your child to an unexpected allergen.
2. Ask the manufacturer about cross contamination
A food that doesn't list an allergen on its label may still pose a threat to consumers if there is cross contact with an allergen during the manufacturing, cooking or preparation process. Clark suggests calling the manufacturer directly to find out what steps they take to keep allergens out of foods.
"If manufacturers have processes in place to prevent cross contamination, they are usually happy to share those processes with you," Clark says. "If they are not willing to share specific processes or use generic language such as 'we follow FDA guidelines,' then I would avoid the product because they are not likely doing anything to prevent cross contamination."
3. Learn food label lingo
Food lists and label claims make it difficult to decipher what's in the products you're buying. Spend time understanding how manufacturers are required to list allergens. Clark reminds parents of two important rules to keep in mind when reading food packaging:
- The top 8 allergens can't hide
- Ignore marketing claims
The top 8 can't hide
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all food labels to include proteins from the top 8 major food allergens. These allergens account for more than 90% of all food allergies in the U.S. and include:
- Crustacean shellfish
- Tree nuts
"These allergens can't hide in food labels," says Clark. "Any of these allergens should be clearly listed on food packaging, giving consumers a clear signal if a food contains their allergen(s)."
The FDA requires manufacturers to list allergens on food packaging one of two ways:
- In the ingredient list by the common allergen name (milk, egg, tree nuts, etc.)
- Using the phrase "contains" next to the allergen (i.e. contains wheat; contains soybeans)
Allergens outside of the top 8 are sometimes listed as a different name on food packaging. Be sure to learn all the names your child's allergen may be called so you can quickly identify troublesome ingredients in products.
You should also involve children in looking for allergens in foods as soon as they learn to read. Teaching them early empowers them to make safe, healthy choices when they are at a friend's or family member's house.
Ignore marketing claims
"Claims are a great way to sell a product, but they don't provide a lot of value when deciding if something is safe," Clark states. "Statements like 'may contain' or 'nut-free' aren't regulated by the FDA. Their presence or absence doesn't mean a product is safe."
Instead, Clark recommends staying focused on the ingredient list to see if the allergen is listed.
Download your guide to allergen-free lunches
Looking for tips to pack allergy-friendly school lunches? Download the Parents' Guide to Allergen-Free Lunches for kid-friendly recipes that are free of the top eight food allergens. Download now.
The Food Allergy Center at Children's Health is the only academic-affiliated pediatric food allergy center in North Texas. Our team can diagnose and treat a broad range of allergic diseases in children. Learn more about our program and services.
Stay current on the health and wellness information that makes a difference to you and your family. Sign up for the Children's Health newsletter to have more expert tips and insights sent directly to your inbox.