What Do Food Labels Mean?
Last updated: March 2022
While reading food labels is important for us all, it is especially important for people with food allergies. A food label can give you a wealth of information about the foods you eat. The label has the number of calories, serving sizes, and nutrient breakdown.
If you or your loved one believe certain foods trigger your allergies, a food label is an important tool for daily living. Learning about common food allergens and how to avoid them may help you manage your allergies.
Food label laws
The Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) requires packaged food makers in the United States to identify any of the most common food allergens, including:1
- Wheat or gluten
- Tree nut
- Fish or shellfish
Common label phrases
When reading labels on foods and drinks, there are some key phrases that can help you decide if it is safe for your allergy. Some common phrases that indicate a product may be unsafe include "may contain," "manufactured in a facility," or "made in." 1
Also, phrases like "egg-free" and "peanut-free" are not regulated. This means products with these labels might be made in a factory that uses egg or peanut in other products.1
In 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began requiring that food items claiming to be "gluten-free" meet specific criteria. These foods cannot have:2
- Wheat, barley, rye, or more than 20 parts per million (ppm) of raw ingredients from these grains
- More than 20 ppm of gluten
"Gluten-free," "no gluten," "free of gluten," and similar phrases can be used on food products that follow these criteria. Vegetables, fruit, and eggs are gluten-free by nature, but they may not have a gluten-free label.2
Different names for allergens
Under the U.S. labeling law, companies have to clearly label their products that contain common food allergens. However, some foods are not covered by the law. This makes reading labels an important and needed skill when you live with food allergies. Some items that can use different names include:3
- Makeup, shampoo, or other personal care products
- Over-the-counter or prescribed drugs
- Consumer products, like toys and crafts
- Pet food
- Any food or drink not regulated by the FDA
When reading the label, you might see the allergen in parentheses or in a statement. For example:3
- Cold-pressed peanut oil (peanut)
- Contains: Peanut
Avoid food that includes "non-dairy," like powdered creamers and whipped toppings. These products might have sodium caseinate, which can trigger allergies for some people. Products may have a label that lists "milk alternative" or simply "caseinate." 4
The list of alternative names for allergens is large. Looking at an allergen avoidance list online can help you find these different names. Printable cards for these lists might be helpful for travel and to keep on you at all times.
Tips for reading food labels
A nutritionist or a dietitian can help you learn how to read food labels if you have chronic urticaria. They can teach you more about the foods that trigger your hives and how to avoid them. These experts can also make sure that you get all of the nutrients you need, even if you have to cut out some foods from your diet.1
Cookbooks and support groups for people with allergies, eczema, and asthma may help you avoid common problems.1
More tips for reading labels include:1
- If you are not sure whether a product has a certain allergen, call the company and ask.
- Be familiar with your allergen and the food it might be in. Food allergens can appear in unexpected places and go by less-common names. If you know what your food allergy is, then you will be able to find it better.
- If a product does not have an ingredients list, do not buy it.
- A child with a food allergy can start reading food labels when they learn how to read. Practice these skills at home and while you are at the store.
- Imported things are sometimes not safe. You need to be careful because they might not follow the same laws as products made in the United States.
Avoiding allergens can be harder than it seems. While labeling has made this somewhat easier, some foods are so popular that avoiding them is tough. However, it is important to read every label, every time. Knowing how to identify these foods, as well as how foods are labeled can help you navigate this vital task.
How often do you connect with others who have food allergies?