June 16, 2011

What’s in Your Food? – Reading & Deciphering Food Labels, Ingredients & Allergens

Let’s talk shop. If you live with food allergies then you probably know all about the time and energy that gets dedicated to label reading and ingredient analysis. The real trick of the trade comes with the Russian Roulette of gauging allergen warning statements. I’m no poker player but I do think that it’s essential to know the rules of the game before putting your money on the table.

EU Legislation requires the 14 known foods to cause allergies to be labeled clearly on any product (including alcoholic drinks) with which they are intended ingredients. The foods/substances are:

- Cereals Containing Gluten (i.e. Wheat, Rye, Barley, Oats, Spelt,Kamut or their hybridized strains) and products thereof, except: Wheat-Based Glucose Syrups including Dextrose; Wheat-Based Maltodextrins; Glucose Syrups based on Barley; Cereal used for making Distillates or Ethyl Alcohol or agricultural origin for Spirit Drinks and other Alcoholic beverages
- Crustaceans and products thereof
- Eggs and products thereof
- Fish and products thereof, except: Fish Gelatine used for vitamin or carotenoid preparations; Fish Gelatine or Isinglass used as fining agent in beer and wine.
- Peanuts and products thereof
- Soybeans and products thereof except: Fully Refined Soybean Oil and Fat; Natural Mixed Tocopherols (E306), Natural D-alpha Tocopherol Acetate, Natural D-alpha Tocopherol Succinate from soybean sources; Vegetable Oils derived Phytosterols and Phytosterol Esters from soybean sources; Plant Stanol Ester produced from Vegetable Oil Sterols from soybean sources
- Milk and Dairy products including Lactose, except: Whey used for making distillates or ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin for spirit drinks and other alcoholic beverages; Lactitol
- Nuts i.e. Almonds, Hazelnuts, Walnuts, Cashews, Pecan nuts, Brazil nuts, Pistachio nuts, Macadamia nuts and Queensland nuts, and products thereof, except: Nuts used for making distillates or ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin for spirit drinks and other alcoholic beverages.
- Celery and products thereof
- Mustard and products thereof
- Sesame Seeds and products thereof
- Sulphur Dioxide and Sulphites at concentrations of more than 10mg/kg or 10mg/litre expressed as SO2.
- Lupin and products thereof
- Molluscs and products thereof
Note: The above list has been extracted from the Official Journal of the European Union

This means that ‘unintended’ ingredients which might come in contact with the food product through cross-contamination are not required to bare warnings but often do out of either generosity or self-protection of the manufacturer. However, these additional warnings can sometimes come across as vague and have been known to cause confusion.
The most common Allergy Warnings state that a product:

Contains...: This is the awesome food allergy warning. No matter what the ingredient list says or what you think it says, you can be sure that the culprit allergen is somewhere inside. Therefore, it is essential that you do not consume this product.

May Contain...: This one causes the most confusion. It could really mean anything. I see this warning more as a ‘self-protection’ statement rather than being helpful. Fact is that the food substance in question might be present, albeit unintentionally, and it is therefore up to your own risk taking nature if you choose to consume the product or not. However, if I had severe allergic reactions to my problem foods I would definitely be steering clear because tests have most likely proven some percentage of risk.

Produced on a Line that uses...: I interpret this warning as being highly likely to contain trace elements of the food allergen in question. It’s like being allergic to milk and cooking in a pan which just fried butter but hasn’t been washed properly, if washed at all. I wouldn’t eat the food if I saw it happen in my kitchen. I see this as a big risk.

Produced in a Factory that uses...: I interpret this warning as similar to ‘May Contain...’ It is impossible to know the true risk without being familiar with the factory. If you have severe allergies or extremely sensitive allergies which react to vapours and/or airborne particles I would avoid these products. Personally, I do frequently take chances on ‘Made in a Factory...’ warnings but I must stress that it is a personal choice that should be made according to the severity of your own reactions.

Regardless of the interpreted definition of the warning statements above it is extremely important to remember the intended purpose of the warning: Whether your food allergies are severe or not there is definitely going to be a chance that the allergen in question will be present in the product. After that it is solely up to you, the consumer, to decide if you want to take the gamble.

Note: if you are presently in the middle of an elimination diet I would strongly advise avoiding any product which might contain the substance you are eliminating in any shape or form of warning until you have completed the elimination and re-introduction process.

Below are some links that you might find helpful...

- For a list of ingredients and potential products to avoid for Milk/Dairy, Wheat, Yeast, Egg and Gluten free diets see my Thou-Shalt-Not page located on the bar under the title banner

- Some guidelines and suggestions on foods to avoid and foods to substitute with for Eggs, Milk, Nut/Peanut, Fish/Shellfish, Lactose and Wheat (Coeliac condition) free diets: www.safefood.eu/en/Home/Consumer/Understanding-Food/Food-Allergies/Individual-Food-Allergies/?gclid=CJKylYfWtakCFQRqfAodYGmrMg

- A short but interesting article on Food Labelling, what’s actually inside and the facts of health claims about Sugar, Salt, Fat, Calories and Cholesterol: www.fitbug.com/uk.articles,207

- Frequently Asked Questions on the Food Labelling website: www.eufic.org/article/en/health-and-lifestyle/food-allergy-intolerance/artid/Food-labelling-A-wealth-of-information-for-consumers/?viewall=faq and frequently Asked Questions on the Food Safety Authority of Ireland website: www.fasi.ie/faq/allergens.html

- Some dull PDF reading on Food Labelling in Ireland from 2002: www.lenus.ie/hse/bitstream/10147/44815/1/6372.pdf

- Some equally dull but informative PDF reading issued by ‘Safe Food’ intended as guidance for the Catering Industry (good may contain section): www.safefood.eu/Global/Professional/Safefood%20Food%20Allergy%20and%20Intolerance%20Catering%20Guide.pdf?epslanguage=en

- Announcement of the new Text and Email service relating to the presence of common food allergens: www.irishhealth.com/article.html?id=16782

- An interesting excerpt from a report on Labelling, Wheat Starch and Cross-Contamination posted on the Coeliac Society of Ireland discussion board: www.coeliac.ie/webboards/viewtopic.php?t=2900&sid=b95e4d494b33b8e5fad3d4188989493b

This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice or for the care that you receive from your doctor or other health professionals.

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