Food labels first appeared in the United States in 1924 and have since become commonplace. Legitimately marketed and sold food products commonly bear a label offering such information as the amount of calories, fat, cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrates, proteins, and vitamins.
Such information allows consumers to make informed choices about the foods they eat. Not only can you find out what foods benefit your health, but also ones that could cause you harm, if consumed in high quantities.
In 2004, the Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act passed. The idea behind the legislation was to give consumers with food allergies ample warning about products containing ingredients that could harm them. The warnings included eggs, wheat, soybeans, cow’s milk, peanuts or tree nuts, fish or crustacean shellfish, and any combination thereof. While this labelling move has helped many consumers other the years, others may not fully understand the information provided.
Some of the labels indicate that the product may have been “manufactured on shared equipment.” This means the food came from a plant that also has food running through its production process containing the allergen in question. Some labels also indicate that the product “may contain” one or more ingredients affecting people with food allergies.
Such notices make these products seem less risky for food allergy sufferers compared to ones that definitely state the presence of a particular element. However, that is not really the case and this is of concern to Dr. Ruchi Gupta, a pediatrician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.
Dr. Gupta and her colleagues conducted an online survey which found that almost 40% of children with food allergies have experienced a dangerous reaction. Even a small quantity of an allergen may trigger such a response and food made in shared facilities can still contain trace amounts. However, as everyone is different, there is no way to say just how much represents a danger.
That lack of precision also concerns Dr. Gupta. She feels that the “may contain” warning is also rather vague as to whether the food in question is a threat to this population.
Furthermore, there is a misunderstanding among some about the labels themselves. Around a third of those surveyed thought the amount of an allergen present determined label use, while 50% believed that the labels were compulsory (not the case in either Canada or the United States). More distressing was the fact that 40% of the people questioned bought food bearing these labels, even after reading of the possible health risk.
Dr. Gupta suggests that it is time to make the labelling system clearer and more specific, such as listing the amount of allergen present. Until then, she advises that consumers with food allergies would be wise to avoid products stating “may contain.”
For more information, consult the complete study, Food Allergen Labeling and Purchasing Habits in the United States and Canada, which appears in the November 1st, 2016 issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice.
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- Tags: Allergies