Blog post, Food & drink

Food allergy: How to read food labels

Major food allergens

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) of 2004 requires major food allergens to be disclosed on the labels of packaged foods in the U.S. in simple to understand terms.

The following foods count as major food allergens:

  • Cow’s milk
  • Hen’s egg
  • Wheat
  • Fish (e.g., flounder, cod, bass)
  • Crustacean shellfish (e.g., lobster, crab, shrimp)
  • Tree nuts (e.g., almonds, cashews, pecans, walnuts)
  • Peanuts
  • Soybeans

Please note that molluscan shellfish, such as oysters, clams, mussels, or scallops, are not required to be labeled as a major food allergen by the FALCPA.

The FALCPA labeling requirements are regulated by the FDA, who has control over:

  • Packaged foods
  • Conventional foods
  • Vitamins & dietary supplements
  • Infant formula & infant foods
  • Medical foods (e.g., items produced for people with particular diseases or items for tube feedings)

The FALCPA law does not apply to:

  • Prescription & over-the-counter drugs
  • Cosmetics such as shampoo, toothpaste, shaving cream, etc.
  • Products regulated by the Alcohol, Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (ATTB), such as spirits, beer and tobacco
  • Products regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), such as meat, poultry, and egg products
  • Pet foods
  • Supplements

What to look for while grocery shopping

According to the FALCPA regulation, food allergens must be named in one of the following three ways:

  • By stating the allergen’s common name in the ingredient list (e.g., “milk”)
  • By using the word “contains” followed by the name of the major food allergen (e.g., “contains soy”)
  • By naming the word in the ingredient list in parenthesis when it is a lesser-known compound of an allergen (e.g., “albumin (egg)”)

Regarding tree nuts, fish, and crustacean shellfish, the specific type is required to be listed (e.g., cashews, cod, shrimp).

“Contains” vs. “may contain”

While reading food labels, you may come across phrasing starting with “contains” or “may contain”. Depending on which wording is used, it means two completely different things.

If a food label includes the word “contains”, the major food allergen sources must be listed in the ingredients. For example, the phrase “contains egg whites” on the packaging requires “egg” to be included in the ingredient list.

When cautionary language such as “may contain” or “produced in a facility that also processes” is used, it means there is a chance that a food allergen is present. Manufacturers often use the same equipment to make several different products. If one product containing peanuts was made with the same equipment than a product not containing peanuts, traces of peanut might still be found in the “peanut-free” product.

However, using “may contains” statements is voluntary, and manufacturers are not required to put them on their food labels. If you are unsure about a product, you should try to contact manufacturers directly to inquire about ingredients and manufacturing practices.

Be aware

  • Manufacturing processes and ingredients can be changed at any time without warning. As a consumer, you must carefully read the label to ensure a food you previously identified as safe continues to be safe.
  • Phrases like “egg-free” or “peanut-free” are not regulated. Food items with labels containing these phrases could still be produced in a factory handling these allergens.
  • Allergens like sesame or mustard are not FALCPA regulated allergens. They can still be present in a food item as a form of “natural spice” or “natural flavoring”, but not be named on the ingredient list.
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