How to Shop Safely

Becoming very familiar with the foods you cannot eat, the terminology used to describe them and products in which they might be hidden is vital to safe shopping. 

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Reading Labels

Reading labels every time you go grocery shopping is necessary for staying safe and healthy.  Once you find a food that is safe, don’t stop reading the label. Companies frequently change ingredients, manufacturing practices and labels without warning.

The Law

On January 1, 2006, the new Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) took effect.  This law requires food manufacturers to identify all ingredients in a food product containing one or more of the eight major allergens (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soybeans). 

The law does not require gluten to be listed, but is does require the Secretary of Health and Human Resources to develop and establish rules for the voluntary labeling of products using the term “gluten-free” by January 2008.  Find out more about a proposed definition for "gluten-free" on food labels from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  Gluten-Free Labeling Proposed

If the food contains one of the "Big 8" allergens as an ingredient, the allergen must be listed on the label in plain language.  For example, the words milk, soy, wheat, eggs, tree nut, peanut, fish or shellfish must be used on the label if the product contains one of these allergens.  Read more about FALCPA

While the passage of this law is a great step toward keeping celiacs and food allergic people safe, please stay vigilant when reading labels.  Here are some potential issues.

Alternative Names for Ingredients

Many foods have alternative names. For example, there are over thirty different terms that refer to milk (i.e., whey, casein), 18 different terms for egg (i.e., lecithin) and over fourteen terms refer to soy (i.e., miso or textured vegetable protein. 

This can make it tricky to read labels. A cookie may not list milk as an ingredient, but includes casein, which is a milk derivative. Ice cream may not list eggs, but does list lecithin (which can be egg or soy). Hydrolyzed vegetable protein could be peanut or soy based. Many soy based cheeses contain whey (milk).

Some ingredients can have multiple sources.  For example, modified food starch can be derived from soy, wheat, peanut, corn or other foods. Many ingredients lists include natural and artificial flavors and spices. These are often a company’s proprietary formula for a flavor. For this reason, they are rarely defined, and can be derived from just about anything, including peanuts, tree nuts, dairy and fish. 

FALCPA requires companies to list the top eight allergens in plain language even if they are included in these proprietary formulas and flavorings.  However, I still recommend contacting the company directly if in doubt. 

Contains...  May Contain...  Manufactured in a Facility...

Some labels include the phrases "Contains...", “May contain …”, “Manufactured in a facility that also produces …” and other similar statements.  Do not rely on these statements to determine whether or not a product is safe.  The government does not require nor regulate precautionary labeling.  These statements are frequently incomplete or inaccurate.

Manufacturers determine their own policies for when to use these statements and what wording to use. Some manufacturers use these phrases to relieve themselves of the burden of proper labeling, while protecting from litigation. If you have a serious allergy, it is safest not to eat the food which bears these warnings.

I recently found pretzels that included soy in the ingredients list, but only stated "Contains Wheat" as a precautionary warning below the ingredients list.  I also found rolls that stated "Contains wheat and soy."  The ingredients list also included eggs, but eggs were not included in the "Contains" statement. 

These precautionary statements may even pop up without notice on foods you have previously believed to be safe and eaten.  When in doubt, call the company and ask questions.

Always Read the Entire Label

Allergen warnings are not always listed right next to or under the ingredient list.  I once bought a bottle of chutney after thoroughly reading the ingredients, and looking for an allergy warning below the ingredients list.  The ingredients did not contain any foods my kids are allergic to, and there was no allergy warning under or around the ingredient list. 

Once I got it home, I became curious to learn where it was made, so I read the entire label.  In small print, all the way on the other side of the label appeared an allergy warning, stating that the contents were cross-contaminated with peanuts.  Had I just read the part of the label with the ingredients, we would made a trip to the emergency room. 

Bulk Bins

You might think a bulk bin of rice would be safe.  After all, it is just rice, right?  Not so. The rice may have been packaged on machinery shared by nuts, peanuts, wheat products, or foods containing other allergens.  With no label on a package, how would you know?  To be safe, adopt the rule, "No label, no thank you!"

Always avoid buying foods from self serve bulk bins. They are almost always cross-contaminated with foods from the other bins. The rice in the above example may have been scooped into the bin with the same scoop used for soybeans, bulgur or granola containing nuts.   

Look at the Company's Other Products Before Purchasing

I once bought a box of corn muffin mix.  The ingredients did not list any foods my kids are allergic to, and there were no “May contain …” or “Manufactured in a facility that also produces …” statements on the box.  It looked safe.

Before preparing the mix, I remembered that the company also produces a banana nut bread mix.  I called the company, and a very concerned customer service representative urged me to NOT feed the corn muffin mix to my kids, because it WAS cross-contaminated with banana nut mix.  This information was not on the label.  Had I served it to my kids, we probably would have gone to the emergency room.

Stay safe by always looking at the other products a company produces.  Read their ingredients too, and call the company to ask if there is possible cross-contamination if it looks like there might be a possibility.

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Hidden Sources of Allergens and Gluten in Food and Nonfood Products

Allergens can be found in places you would least suspect. A tomato paste could contain wheat starch and/or dairy, rice cakes may contain peanuts, a Thanksgiving turkey could contain wheat (gluten) or soy, dried lentils may have been packaged on the same equipment as tree nuts. Two brands of rice milk in my local grocery store contain barley or pea protein.  Recently I found an allergy warning on a package of white rice - manufactured on the same equipment as tree nuts.  Here are just a few of the many examples of hidden sources.

Cosmetics and Toiletries – Read the labels before purchasing or using soaps, lotions, shaving creams, shampoo, conditioner, facial masks, cosmetics, "spa treatments", scrubs, sunscreens, massage oils, and many other beauty and personal care products. They may contain gluten, nut oils, dairy, soy, wheat or other allergens. For example, gluten can be found in lipstick and toothpaste.  Recently I came across a “hypoallergenic” soap that contains almond oil.

It is common for personal care and household products to list ingredients by their chemical names, not by their common names. This can make it very difficult to determine if a product is a danger. For example, almond oil may also be referred to as prunus dulcis, amygdalae oleum dulcium or CAS NUMBER:8007-69-0. Peanut may be referred to as arachis hypogaea. Try to purchase products with as few ingredients as necessary, and contact the company to make sure they are safe.

Home Improvement Stores – Pet food and bird seed.

Grocery Stores – Grocery stores and delis often have only one machine to cut both meat and cheese. One of our local grocery stores has a separate machine for each, which was great until they started slicing “Pesto Chicken” (dairy) and “Mortadella with Pistachios” on the "meat only" machine. The machine is now contaminated with dairy and nuts, and we can no longer buy deli meats from our grocery store. Another local grocery store thankfully has a dedicated meat slicer for gluten-free meats. 

Fresh chicken and beef and pork may contain “a solution”, which is not defined on the label and often contains wheat or soy. Vegi- or soy cheese may contain dairy.  All but one of our local grocery stores feature huge open bins of peanuts, so customers can bag their own nuts. Even though you can’t see it, peanut dust is everywhere. It simply isn’t safe for my kids to shop in these stores, so we no longer patronize them.

Manufacturing and Packaging Processes – Often, the ingredients in the food products are safe, but the manufacturing equipment or packaging procedures use allergens such as wheat or cornstarch. Current labeling laws do not require this information to be included on labels.

Pharmacy/Drug Stores – Some over-the-counter and prescription vitamins and medications (oral, topical, vaccines and inhaled) contain food products.  Some are in the binders that keep the medication together and the coatings.  Other medications, such as the chicken pox and flu vaccines are actually made with the food (egg).  The inhalant Atrovent and Benedryl ® Fastmelts contain soy.  

Non-Dairy Foods – Non-dairy creamers, non-dairy ice cream and other so-called non-dairy products can contain dairy, and still legally be labeled “non-dairy.” According to the FDA’s regulations, only a product containing actual milk in specific forms can be labeled dairy. The FDA does not allow milk derivatives or milk by-products to be called dairy. So if a product has a milk derivative or byproduct, it can be called non-dairy. Lactose is a great example. Many of the so-called non-dairy products contain lactose, which is a derivative from milk.

Other – Read ingredients for craft materials, glue, glycerin, toothpaste, and more.  Some dentists use a toothpaste called Recaldent™, which contains dairy. Some whitening chewing gums also contain Recaldent™.

Traveling to Other Countries

If you travel and plan to buy familiar products in other countries, don’t assume they are safe.  Always read the label. The product may contain different ingredients, be manufactured in a different location or packaged on different equipment.  For more information, please see Dining Out and Traveling.

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