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How Do You Interpret Allergen Claims on a Label?

Eric, my son, was two years old when he had his first reaction to peanuts. I fed him Peanut Butter Gorilla Munch cereal and his face puffed up like a balloon. In an instant his eyes turned to slits, his skin was splotchy red and he was crying. I gave him Benedryl, called the pediatrician and made our first appointment with an allergist. He is allergic to peanuts and has become an avid label and ingredient reader.

It seems fitting that he was born to me, a Mom and dietitian in the food industry. Allergen label statements require a certain amount of interpretation of risk. They are also quite inconsistent and not required to be present on packaged food.

The director of marketing at Guittard Chocolate Company reached out and asked me the following labeling:

“As a mom of a kid who can’t eat peanuts, a dietitian, and long-time consultant to the food industry what allergen “claims” speak to you on a package?

┬áThe First thing I look for is the voluntary allergen statement stating contains….” Or may contain traces. This statement is usually found immediately following the ingredient list. If peanut is listed, we skip it. If it is not listed we move to the next step.

A facility statement is not always list but, it is helpful information when weighing risks against steps taken during manufacturing to limit sources of cross-contamination. I look for a “facility statement” such as a ” nut-free facility”. A circled peanut with a slash through it on the front of the package is a good eye-catch but, is simply a signal for further investigation and validation by reading the allergen and facility statements on the back of the package.

Ultimately, anyone who has a food allergy assumes a risk when eating packaged food or food prepared outside of their own kitchen. It is important to know what level of risk you are comfortable with. Additionally, always have an allergen action plan in place and medications at the ready to treat a reaction. In my opinion, it is undeclared allergens and unknown cross-contamination that pose the greatest risk because no one is on the look out for it.

Just because a food product does not have an allergen statement separate from the ingredient list doesn’t mean it is risk-free. It might me they are just comfortable with their manufacturing practices and knowing there is risk, choose to leave the statement off.

In our house we talk about the risk of cross-contamination, labeling statement meanings, and then decide how to proceed which is either avoidance of the food or eating it after we have decided what level of risk is worthing taking on.

May contain traces statements, for example, will lead my son to avoid the food while others with food allergies may make another choice.

The more information a food manufactured can provide on package about allergen ingredients and chance of cross-contamination the easier the choice is to make.

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Nutrition Strategist and Registered Dietitian with twenty years of experience creating nutrition strategies that influence and inspire people to accomplish big things.

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