Food allergies: Watch food labels for these top 8 allergens

Food labels list food allergens to help you avoid an allergic reaction. Here are the top eight food allergens listed.

By Mayo Clinic staff

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires food manufacturers to list common food allergens on labels in simple terms adults and older children can understand. While not every possible food that can cause a food allergy is listed, these eight foods account for most food allergies. Foods included in the labeling requirements are:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts (such as almonds, cashews, walnuts)
  • Fish (such as bass, cod, flounder)
  • Shellfish (such as crab, lobster, shrimp)
  • Soy
  • Wheat

Understanding food labels

Food labels take some of the guesswork out of label reading, helping you more easily identify foods that could cause an allergic reaction. Current guidelines in the United States require a product’s label to clearly state if, for example, a product “contains milk.”

Here are answers to a few common questions about food label requirements.

  • What foods are labeled?Any domestic or imported packaged food regulated by the FDA is required to have a label that lists whether the product contains one of the top eight allergens.
  • What allergy information is included on the label? The label lists the type of allergen – for example, the type of tree nut (almond, walnut) or the type of crustacean shellfish (crab, shrimp) – as well as any ingredient that contains a protein from the eight major food allergens. The labels also include any allergens found in flavorings, colorings or other additives.
  • What foods aren’t labeled? Fresh produce, fresh meat and certain highly refined oils do not require listing of potential food allergens on the labels. Foods that may inadvertently come into contact with a food allergen during the growing, harvesting or manufacturing process also are exempt. However, although they aren’t required to do so, manufacturers may indicate the possibility that trace amounts of allergy-causing foods may be included.

Caution: Your allergen may not be labeled

Food labeling laws require food allergens to be identified even in very small amounts – when they’re contained as an ingredient. However, manufacturers are not required to include warnings about food allergens accidently introduced during manufacturing or packaging. A common occurrence, “cross contamination” can cause trouble if you’re very sensitive to food allergens. Many manufacturers voluntarily include warnings, but these advisory labels aren’t always clear. And, manufacturers have different ways of saying a food allergen may be present. For example, labels may say “manufactured in a factory that also processes wheat” or “may contain soy.” The FDA is working to make the format of these advisory labels more consistent so that it’s to easier to identify which products contain allergens. When in doubt about whether a product contains something you’re allergic to, it’s best to avoid it.

Gluten-free labels In addition to requiring clear labels for allergy-causing foods, the FDA has recently tightened regulations for use of the term “gluten free” on food labels. Gluten is a protein that occurs in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. Gluten sensitivity is common, and can cause a serious reaction in people who have celiac disease, a digestive disorder. The FDA has recently issued standards for foods to be labeled “gluten free.” Currently, the “gluten free” label is voluntary – that is, it’s up to the manufacturer whether to include it. Many foods are naturally gluten-free and may or may not be labeled as such.

Food allergen awareness: A refresher

If you have a food allergy, follow these steps to increase your chances of avoiding an allergic reaction:

§                                 Practice prevention. Always double-check labels to be sure you know what you’re eating and drinking. The best way to prevent an allergic reaction is to avoid foods that cause allergy signs and symptoms.

§                                 Read and reread. Even though a food product may have been safe the last time you purchased or consumed it, it’s possible that the ingredients have changed or the label has been updated. If you have a food allergy, be sure to always read food labels.

§                                 When in doubt, contact the manufacturer. The manufacturer may be able to give you more information about whether the food is likely to contain a food allergen.

§                                 Prepare for a severe reaction. If you’re at risk of a severe allergic reaction, your doctor may prescribe an epinephrine autoinjector (EpiPen, Twinject). You need to carry this medication with you at all times so that you or someone you’re with can give an emergency injection if needed. Prompt treatment with an epinephrine injection is critical in treating an anaphylactic reaction.

§                                 Identify your allergy. Know what foods trigger your allergic reactions. Wear a medical alert bracelet that describes your allergy or carry an alert card in your wallet or purse. That way if you have a serious reaction and can’t communicate, people caring for you will know the cause of your distress. These items are available over-the-counter at most drugstores and can be purchased on the Internet.

  • Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004. U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Accessed Oct. 12, 2008.
  • Questions and answers on the gluten-free labeling proposed rule. U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Accessed Oct. 12, 2008.
  • Food labeling; current trends in the use of allergen advisory labeling: Its use, effectiveness, and consumer perception; public hearing; request for comments. U.S Food and Drug Administration.