Magazine article Consumers' Research Magazine

Better Labeling Needed for Food Allergens: Are FDA Plans Sufficient?

Magazine article Consumers' Research Magazine

Better Labeling Needed for Food Allergens: Are FDA Plans Sufficient?

Article excerpt

At least seven million Americans suffer from food allergies. Each year, more than 30,000 of them need to be rushed to emergency rooms for treatment. As many as 200 of them die. More people die each year from allergy-induced anaphylaxis (shock) than from bee stings.

Even small amounts of common food ingredients--substances that are benign and healthy for others--can cause severe or fatal reactions in persons who are allergic to them. Such individuals become diligent label readers, but are frustrated by labels that lack the information they need.

Unfamiliar Terms and Hidden Ingredients. The Nutrition, Labeling, and Education Act of 1990 (NLEA) required more information on food labels than had ever been required before. However, individuals with food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities continue to struggle to interpret labels that list unfamiliar terms or fail to identify clearly ingredients that may harm them.

A dairy-allergic individual may not recognize more than 15 different label terms that signify the presence of a dairy component, such as "casein"; a caseinate compound such as ammonium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, rennet, or sodium caseinate; "curds"; or "whey," to name some. Similarly, an individual who is allergic to eggs may not recognize a term such as "albumin"; nor a wheat-allergic person know if wheat has been used for the starch to produce "modified food starch," or that "semolina" is wheat flour.

"Incidental additives" (contaminants) and "processing aids" (e.g., firming agents, texturizers, or binders) are exempt from ingredient declarations if they are present at "insignificant" amounts in the finished product. Yet, an exceedingly small amount may be significant if it is capable of inducing an allergic reaction.

The phrase "may contain" on a food label has been used in phrases such as "may contain cottonseed and/or peanut oil" to allow food processors latitude in their choice of ingredients, depending on fluctuating costs of basic materials. However, the practice is a disservice to individuals who must avoid certain ingredients. Selecting food products becomes a gamble as to whether or not the item contains an allergen.

In recent times, the phrase "may contain" is being used even more insidiously. The phrase--worded in at least 10 different ways--cautions that an allergen, such as peanuts, may or may not be in the food product as an incidental additive. The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) charges that some food companies are misusing this labeling phrase merely to cover legal liability. The FAAN suggests that the phrase should not be used to allow a diminution of good manufacturing practices that would keep unintentional contaminants out of the product.

Food manufacturers can use terms such as "natural flavors," "natural seasonings," or "natural colors." These vague terms may cover ingredients that are hidden allergens. Non-certified co]ors can be listed collectively, without specific identification. Yet most of them, derived from plant substances, may be more allergenic than FD&C. Identifying them would be appropriate.

Frequently, individuals with food allergies have complained that they have been unable to obtain information about suspected hidden ingredients in food products because some manufacturers fail to respond to such requests. The FAAN encourages food companies to cooperate, and to provide toll-free hotlines for consumers.

In addition to allergic individuals, other groups also need better ingredient information on food labels. Some individuals have food intolerances (e.g., lactose, fructose, galactose, or gluten). Such intolerances are genetic health problems triggered by mechanisms that differ from those of allergies. Nonetheless, these individuals also suffer when labels lack adequate information to meet their needs.

Other people have certain food sensitivities, and react adversely to ingredients or food additives at levels well below official limits. …

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