The incidence of food allergies is on the rise. Roughly 2 percent of adults and about 5 percent of children and infants in the United States suffer from food allergies. As many as 150 Americans have a fatal allergic reaction and hundreds of thousands more seek emergency room treatment each year. There are a wide variety of symptoms associated with food allergies, ranging from irritation of the skin, gastrointestinal problems, to life threatening systemic reactions.
In 1938 the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act was created. This Act requires that any packaged food that consists of two or more ingredients list those ingredients on the food label. Despite the fact that nearly all food products have an ingredient listing, it can still be difficult for people with allergies to know for sure if an allergen is present in a food. There are often ingredients used in the food industry that are not familiar to many of us. For example, cultured whey is a natural ingredient that can be used to enhance flavor, or, in the case of bread, acts as an all natural mold inhibitor. The use of cultured whey often means that chemical flavor enhancers and preservatives do not need to be used. Since it is declared as cultured whey on the ingredient statement, many of us may not realize that it is derived from milk. This could be harmful for those with milk allergies, as it could cause an allergic reaction.
Beginning this month (January '06), the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) will take effect. This act requires that the eight most common food allergens be clearly identified in commonly understood terms on food labels. The “Big 8” are soybean, milk, egg, wheat*, shellfish, fish, tree nuts and peanut. These eight allergens account for 90% of the food allergies that occur in the U.S. population.
There are two ways in which you will see allergens being declared. The first way is to list the common name of the allergen in parenthesis behind the ingredient.
An example of this would be:
…PALM OIL*, OAT FLOUR, CINNAMON, SALT, CULTURED WHEY *(MILK), FRACTIONATED PALM KERNEL OIL…
The other way to declare allergens is to put a statement immediately adjacent to the ingredient legend that lists all the allergens contained in the product. Such as:
… WHOLE WHEAT* FLOUR, WATER, SUGAR, YEAST, BUTTER, PALM OIL*, OAT FLOUR, CINNAMON, SALT, CULTURED WHEY, FRACTIONATED PALM KERNEL OIL, SOYBEAN LECITHIN*. CONTAINS: MILK, WHEAT*, AND SOYBEAN.
However, use caution when looking for allergens. The appearance of some ingredient legends will not change even if they contain one or more of the eight major allergens. This is because if the common name of the ingredient(s) clearly identifies the allergen, there is no need for additional declaration. For example, the new Act does not require the following ingredient legend to use either of the two new declaration options:
…WHOLE WHEAT* FLOUR, WATER, SALT, YEAST, NONFAT MILK, SOY FLOUR.
All the allergens are clearly defined just by using the common name of the ingredient. So, make sure you still thoroughly read the ingredient legends if you have a food allergy. Skipping to the end of the ingredient legend to check for the “contains” statement will not always work to identify the allergens contained in a product.
The word “allergen” can carry a negative connotation. It is a myth that food allergies are caused mostly by food additives and artificial colors or flavors. The majority of food allergies are caused by whole natural foods like fish, whole wheat* flour, soy milk, yogurt, nuts, etc. In fact, many of the foods that contain the eight major allergens are also considered very healthy and nutritious. Keep in mind; allergens are only a consideration if you have a food allergy. For most of us this new law will not affect us directly. However, many of us probably know someone with a food allergy. This change to the ingredient legend will allow us to be more considerate and planful when purchasing food products that we want to share with friends and family who have food allergies. Talk with your doctor if you think you have a food allergy. They can help you determine what you are allergic to and what types of foods you should avoid.