Reading Labels for Food Allergens 

I’ve always been a casual label-reader, since I am lactose intollerant and used to be a vegetarian.  However, it wasn’t until my daughter’s allergies became a part of my life that I began to read labels in earnest — and realized that allergens can lurk in seemingly harmless foods under all sorts of strange names.  Who would think that “Non-dairy creamer” would contain dairy products?  (There’s a rant lurking here, but I will spare you from it right now.)   Learning to read labels for your allergens is a skill with a steep learning curve.  Don’t assume that others will be as skilled at is as you are.

Personal story: My daughter’s preschool teacher checked the ingredient list of some crackers against the typewritten list of my daughter’s allergens and then fed her the crackers, believing they were safe.  The crackers contained THREE ingredients on my daughter’s allergen list.  My daighter came home that day with hives.  Reading and comparing lists is hard.  Don’t underestimate how hard. 

Always check the label of a product EVERY TIME you buy it, even if you have been buying it for years with no problem.  We went through an experience last summer where my daughter was screaming in pain all day long for two weeks.  We frantically went through all our foods and could not find anything unusual that we had been eating.   Finally I thought to ask the bakery where we get our bagels if they had changed their recipe.  They had added malted barley flour to their flour mix.  We stopped eating bagels and she was back to normal overnight.  

I can’t stress this enough.  Manufactures change recipes all the time depending on the availability and price of different ingredients, and they don’t announce the change.  It’s a huge disappointment when you have a product you trust that suddenly adds soy to their recipe, and it is very hard to explain to a young child why they can’t have their favorite food any more.  But it is better to know than to have an experience like ours, that could have been even more serious. 

See below for food allergen ingredient lists.

Prevalence of food allergies in the United States

Ninety percent of food allergies in the United States are caused by eight foods:  Milk, egg, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, fish, and shellfish.  This website is dedicated to a diet free of these allergens.  Of course, it is possible to be allergic to just about any protein.  In Japan, rice allergy is one of the offenders.

Just to give you a sense of how many kids are suffering from food allergies today, here is a table of the most common food allergies.  This does not count children with milk-soy protien intollerance or Celiac disease, only children with Ig-E mediated food allergies.

Percentage of young children with allergy to:

  • Milk 2.5%

  • Egg 1.3%

  • Soy 1.1% (There is little agreement on this number.  Estimates range from 1 to 5%)

  • Wheat 1.0%

  • Peanut 0.8%

  • Tree nuts 0.2%

  • Fish 0.1%

  • Shellfish 0.1%

  • Overall 6 to 8% of population

Percentage of adults with allergy to:

  • Shellfish 2.0% 
  • Peanut 0.6%
  • Tree nuts 0.5%
  • Fish 0.4%
  • Milk  0.3%
  • Egg 0.2%
  • Soy 0.2%
  • Overall 3.7%

Source: Hugh A. Sampson, MD. “Update on food allergy“, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, May 2004


Ingedient Lists

These lists are based on list from the Food Allergy and Anaphalyxis Network (FAAN) and the American Academy of Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology.

Coming soon — wheat list.

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