If you or someone in your family suffers from a food allergy, you know how difficult it can be to decipher the food label if the product contains an offending substance.
Now, thanks to a food labeling law that went into effect this January, food manufacturers must disclose in plain language whether products contain any of the top eight food allergens.
While more than 160 foods have been identified as sources of allergic reactions, 90 percent of the allergic reactions associated with foods are caused by one of eight foods: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat and soy.
Manufacturers have two options for declaring the presence of these food substances in foods. One is to add a "contains" statement next to the ingredient list that identifies the types of allergenic foods contained in the product; for example, "contains milk and wheat." The other option is to place the food source in parentheses next to ingredients derived from one of the eight potential offending foods classes, such as sodium caseinate (milk), albumin (egg).
The name of the allergen only needs to appear once in the ingredient statement. For example, if a product contains both milk and a milk-derived ingredient such as whey, the manufacture is not required to define whey as also being a milk product. In the case of nuts and seafood, the new law requires that the specific type of nut (e.g., peanuts, almonds, cashews) or species of fish (e.g., cod, bass) or shellfish (shrimp, lobster) be specified. Also, the presence of such ingredients must be listed even if they are contained only in colorings, flavoring agents or spice blends used in the product.
While the law went into effect in January, it applies only to those foods labeled on or after Jan. 1, 2006. So, depending on a product's shelf life, it may take up to a year before all products on your grocer's shelf will list allergenic ingredients in plain language. Until then, you will still need to be on the outlook for scientific terms like "casein" for milk and "albumin" for egg.
The new labeling law applies to all foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration except raw agricultural commodities, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, and highly refined oils that have been bleached and deodorized. What this means is that you may not be able to tell from the label that "vegetable oil" really means "soybean oil." The protein level is so low in highly refined oils that the FDA does not have good evidence for including them in the list of ingredients that need allergen labeling.
The law applies to pre-packaged foods sold in retail and food-service establishments, but not to products or meals ordered in restaurants or delis. It's up to the consumer to ask questions about ingredients and preparation methods when eating at restaurants, delis or any place outside the consumer's home.
Of note is that the new law does not specifically address gluten, only wheat. Gluten describes a group of proteins found in certain grains such as wheat, barley and rye. It is of concern because people with celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten. An estimated one in every 133 people in the U.S. currently has celiac disease, and there is some concern that the numbers are rising. The new law does requires the FDA to issue a proposed rule that would allow voluntary use of the term "gluten free" by August 2006 and to have a final rule on "gluten free" in place by August 2008.