How to Read a Label When You Have Food Allergies

in Basics, Fish & Shellfish, Food Allergy, Fruit & Vegetable, Milk & Egg, Other Food Allergy, Peanut & Tree Nut, Soy & Seed
The law that governs food allergen labeling is known as FALCPA.

This article applies to reading labels for food allergies in the United States. For the Canadian version, click here.

When you or someone in your family has food allergies, the most important thing you can do to avoid an allergic reaction is to avoid the food. Sounds simple enough, but with all the confusing ingredients on packaged goods labels, how do you know that can of soup or box of cereal at the grocery store doesn’t have nuts in it, or perhaps milk?

The good news is, in the United States there are labeling regulations that are meant to make reading food labels simpler for people with allergies. But there are exceptions. So it’s important to know what is covered by the labeling rules, and what isn’t.

The first and most important thing to know is that labeling law applies only to the Top 9 “major allergens” in the United States. The key federal law is FALCPA (the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act). It passed in 2005, establishing eight major allergens that must be labeled on packaged foods. Then in 2021, the FASTER Act became law, making sesame the ninth “major allergen” under FALCPA. (Required sesame labeling came into effect in January 2023.)

The “Top 9” major allergens covered under FALCPA include:

US food allergen labeling applies to the Top 8 allergens.

– milk
– eggs
– peanuts
– fish (e.g., bass, flounder, cod)
– crustacean shellfish (e.g., crab, lobster, shrimp)
– tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans)
– wheat
– soybeans
– sesame

Label Reading and ‘Contains’ Statements

If your allergens are included in this list, label reading will be much easier. Here are some things you’ll need to know:

> Major allergens that are ingredients must be declared on labeling on packaged goods sold in the United States.

> Watch for major allergens either in the ingredient list or in a “Contains” statement after the ingredient list.

> These allergens must be identified in plain language. For instance, companies can’t use a scientific name for a protein that’s a top allergen, since that might not be clear to the consumer. So “milk” is clearly stated rather than casein, “egg” for albumen, “wheat” for flour and “soy” for lecithin.

> If these allergens are found within other ingredients, such as “natural flavor” or “spice” they must be declared, either in the ingredient list or afterwards, in a “Contains” statement.

Note that precautionary warnings, or “May contains” are not required, and are not governed by any labeling regulations. They are helpful for identifying food that might be unsafe, but there are things to be aware of. See: What You Need To Know About “May Contains” for more information.

Special Notes on Label Reading

– When nuts, fish or crustacean shellfish are present, manufacturers must specify what type of nut, fish or crustacean is in the food.

Highly refined oils derived from major allergens do not need to be declared in the United States, as these are considered safe because they do not contain the allergenic protein. Wondering if peanut or nut oil is safe to eat? See Dr. Scott Sicherer’s important advice on the topic here.

Hydrolyzed (or broken down) proteins must always be identified by their common or usual name. For instance: hydrolyzed wheat protein, hydrolyzed soy protein, hydrolyzed corn protein.

Which Products Fall Under Labeling Rules?

– Foods packaged, labeled and sold by retail and food-service establishments (e.g. supermarkets and coffee shops) must follow the allergen regulations. However, this does not apply to food that is ordered by a customer and placed in a wrapper or container.

– The regulations do not apply to restaurants.

There are no mandatory food-allergen labeling requirements for alcoholic beverages. However, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau does have voluntary guidelines.

The requirements do not apply to meat, poultry or egg products. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) encourages widespread voluntary use of allergen labeling consistent with the rules for packaged goods.

When an Allergen is NOT in Top 9

If your allergen is not one of the Top 9, then reading ingredient labels becomes much more difficult. You will need to get to know the scientific names for your allergen and where it can hide. For example, maltodextrin can be made from corn.

Also, companies are not required to list the components of ingredients such as “natural flavor,” “spice” or color,” if they are not major allergens. Always call the manufacturer to find out what is in these ingredients. If the customer service representative doesn’t know, ask for the quality control manager. And if you’re ever left unsure, avoid the food.

If you think you have had a reaction to a food that should have been safe contact an FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator in the state where the food was purchased.

Related Reading:
“May Contains” on Food Labels: What You Need to Know
Sesame Becomes 9th Top Allergen

Article updated: June 2022