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Reading labels for allergens

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label allergens

Those recently diagnosed with allergies will have to learn an entirely new method of shopping: read the label first for potential allergens.

Note: It is more difficult to find proper labelling on medications, household cleaning products, and cosmetics than on food items. This is done entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer.

Please see this article on non-food allergen sources for further information.

In the US, the top eight allergens are required by law to be clearly identified in a food product at least. These top-8 allergens include:

Canada currently recognises 11 major allergens. In addition to the US allergen list, this includes:

Other countries may have different allergen labelling requirements.

Note: Please be aware that “wheat” does not include other gluten-containing grains and that “milk” does not encompass all types of dairy products. Such things may be labelled but are not required to be labelled. Always read carefully.

What foods should be labeled?

All packaged food is required to be labelled with these allergens. The label should list the type of allergen (for example, “nuts (walnut)”) in addition to any ingredient that contains measurable levels of protein from these allergens including flavourings, colourings, and other additives (i.e. “caramel coloring (from wheat)").

Note: Fresh meat and produce in addition to particular highly refined oils and proteins are not required to be labelled. Soybean oil is officially free of soy proteins, for example.

Single-ingredient foods are generally safe from top-8 allergens but may be sprayed with such things as corn derivatives.

What is cross-contamination?

label allergens

Cross-contamination occurs when an allergen is introduced to a product during processing. A label may simply read “May contain nuts” if it may have come into contact with nuts during the processing of that product, or it may be more specific such as “processed on same line with wheat and/or eggs”. This includes “same facility” warnings. You will have to determine for yourself if potential same-line and same-facility cross-contamination is a concern for your allergy situation.

If you have a concern about potential cross-contamination of a food product, it is best to contact the manufacturer for clarification.

What's the difference between "shared line" and "shared facility"?

"Shared line" means allergen-containing products are produced on the same line as an allergen-free product. "Shared facility" means allergen-containing products are produced in the same factory as as an allergen-free product.

Companies with GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) will test their lines when changing the product being run on a shared line. Test results of less than 20 ppm (parts per million) are generally sufficient to say something is "allergen free". They can also test for potential cross contamination in a shared facility if necessary. It depends on the allergens involved, however. Flours and other fine particulate matter will become airbourne and spread to spread through the factory's air to contaminate the line used for other products. Liquids being produced in one part of a factory rarely spread into other parts of the factory.

To give an example of the difference:

If I use the cutting board in my kitchen for tomatoes, then cut peaches on it, this is a "shared line". The cutting board may be contaminated from the tomatoes depending on how thoroughly I cleaned the cutting board between foods. If I have a means to test the amount of "tomato allergen" remaining on the board after cleaning, I might be able to declare the peaches "tomato free" if the test results are low enough.

Now, if I use the cutting board in my kitchen for tomatoes while someone elsewhere in the kitchen is cutting watermelon on a different cutting board, this is a "shared facility". Unless "tomato allergens" and/or "watermelon allergens" become airbourne, cross-contamination is not necessarily a concern as long as both products are on different lines. A "may contain" disclaimer may prove sufficient.

Food safety and label-reading

Just because a product had a clean label last time you bought it doesn’t mean the ingredients are the same this time. Production conditions and/or ingredients may change at any time. Always, always read the label before purchasing any non-single ingredient product.

Other food labels decoded

Fair Trade

The Fair Trade logo on products means that the manufacturer considers people and the planet to be as important as profit. It means that the food has been produced in a way that sustains that area's local community and environment: no pesticides to harm workers, and the workers are paid a fair living wage for their work.

A Fair Trade certification ensures a quality product.

Certified Organic

Foods which are Certified Organic cannot be grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals, or sewage, nor can they contain Genetically Modified Organisms, or be irradiated at any time.

For animals, an Organic animal must be fed organically grown feed with no animal by-products. All feed must be free of both hormones and antibiotics. An organic label also means the animal should have access to outdoors.

PLU codes for produce

No Sugar Added

A No Sugar Added means just that -- no added sugars. It does not preclude natural sugars in the ingredients.

Country of origin

All packaged and most unpackaged foods should indicate their country of origin.

Chicken, poultry, and egg labels

Meat, fish, and seafood labels

Best practices overall

Do your research. If you have options, go for seasonal, local, and organic. Know and support your local farmer and local community with your food choices.

Farm to table is always an excellent choice to make.

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