The Label is Your Best Friend

This article is the first discussing food labels and has a link to the FDA page with some questions and answers about food allergen label regulations.


My wife has a severe allergy to coconut oil.  It is severe enough to almost put her in the hospital.  Because of this we have been reading food labels for many years now and have been shocked at what we have found.   Usually the surprise has been when we read a label out of habit thinking that something is safe for us and then are shocked.  We have found coconut oil listed as an ingredient on orange soda.  Soda almost never has oil of any kind in it but this one does.  One day we noticed that Oreos now have coconut oil in them where they did not a couple of years ago.  Also larger Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are safe but the smaller ones would make her ill.

One problem of food labels is that some ingredients can be hidden with terms such as “natural flavors”, “flour”, and “vegetable oil.”  Natural flavors can hide a multitude of sins.

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 has been a huge help for food allergy sufferers.   I strongly recommend anyone concerned about food allergies read this page


In a nutshell *contains tree nuts 🙂 my understanding of the act is that if you have a packaged food that contains one of the following ingredients companies need to declare it on the label:

  • milk
  • egg
  • fish
  • Crustacean shellfish
  • tree nuts
  • wheat
  • peanuts
  • soybeans

Some caveats exist however.

If the food contains walnuts a company can include the ingredients in the main list of ingredients or they can include it in a “Contains:” statement at the end.  Ideally every food that contains one of the major allergens would include a “Contains” statement at the end.  This is not required and is frequently not done.  This would prevent many of us from having to get our bifocals out and try and read through a long paragraph of tiny print while in the supermarket.

If I read question 13 on the FDA page above correctly, if a company provides a “Contains” statement, it should include all major allergens contained in the product.  I should be able to pick up an item and if it has a “Contains” label and If I was only allergic to wheat and wheat was not in the list, toss it in my grocery cart.

Now for the reality.

I have seen many items where the “Contains” statement only includes some of the major allergens in the item.

The law does not include notification for accidental cross contamination.  As I understand the rules unintentional contamination on the farm is not covered.  Wheat and oats can be grown next to each other on the same farm or oats can be grown in a field that was last planted with wheat.  In both cases the crop of oats frequently be contaminated by wheat.  This issue can generally be ignored by food companies.

I frequently see labels that state that the item was “produced in a facility that processes tree nuts.”  I don’t know of a regulation that requires this and ideally they would keep the equipment separate, but I still thank them profusely for providing the information.

I also have to say that it is quite rare to find an ingredient in a food item that is not included in the list of ingredients but I have had it happen to me.  Usually if there is such contamination I will not be able to tell and would just feel ill.  The one time I did find an ingredient not listed on the label (shredded carrots in a packaged salad) and complained about it because I am allergic to them I got a polite email back some weeks later thanking me for my concern.

In the future I plan on writing an article about the special case of soybean oil.

Please also note that they are only worried about allergens.  They are not worried about if a food is vegetarian.  Something that would normally be vegetarian may have meat or gelatin listed under natural flavors.  Ingredients like strawberries which do not generally cause severe reactions are also included.

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