For those with food allergies, proper labeling of allergens is crucial for avoiding an adverse, and usually life-threatening, reaction. Since 2004, the Food and Drug Administration has enforced strict rules for packaged food labeling that has made food consumption safer for those with allergies. Today, it is not enough for businesses to simply comply with the rules set forth by the FDA, but to label their products in a way that precedes upcoming regulations and consumer needs.
The Big Eight
Most people are already familiar with the eight major food allergens – milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and crustacean shellfish that account for 90% of allergens reported by the FDA. Packaged food that contains any of the above mentioned allergens is required by law to be labeled. This is extremely helpful for those with allergies to quickly understand if a product is safe for them to consume due to its containment of an allergen or being produced in the same facility of an allergen.
The big eight allergens also happen to be some of the most popular ingredients in everyday snacks and lunch box items according to The Boston Globe. This can become another source of stress for parents as they send their children with allergies back to school. Making sure that children fully understand their allergy and what they need to avoid is crucial. The ideal approach, The Globe said, is to teach children early on how to read food labels.
Food allergies in children have increased by 50% between 1997 and 2011, with 5.6 million children under the age of 18 currently reported to have a food allergy by Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE). Keeping the labeling of allergens clear, ideally a separate warning from the ingredient list, and concise helps both parents and children avoid them.
Even though the FDA covers the eight major food allergies, what about the other nearly 10% of allergens that are just as severe? This has become a problem recently with the labeling of sesame in the U.S. Currently, only Canada, the European Union, and Australia mandate that sesame be labeled on packaged foods according to Popular Science. After finding that allergies to sesame are more common that previously thought, the FDA is considering adding it to its mandatory allergen labeling list.
For now, companies can stay a step ahead of the FDA and appeal to more customers by voluntarily labeling their products with known allergens, or their lack thereof. Even though companies are required to label packaged products that contain the main eight (or in other countries more) allergens, many are also taking advantage of labeling products as "free from." Simply put by Organic Consulting, free from is, "a catch-all term used to denote food and drink that has been designed to exclude one of more ingredients," including everything from soy-free to gluten-free groceries.
The free from food movement has been seen in popular brands like Bob's Red Mill that prominently displays gluten-free, non GMO, and whole grain on its applicable products packaging and Pacific Foods , which clearly advertises its milk alternatives as dairy free. Even though free from labels are not not legally necessary, they appeal to consumers who have food allergies or food intolerances as well as people trying to avoid certain ingredients or on restrictive diets.