Making wise food choices is tough for everyone but it's particularly difficult if you suffer from food allergies.

Whether you're among the four percent of people in the U.S. with food allergies, defined as an abnormal immunologic response following ingestion of a food, or you have food intolerances or a condition such as celiac disease, in which eating gluten causes a toxic reaction from the immune system, you know this: One wrong food selection can produce an adverse reaction.

Food allergens--the component or protein of the food that stimulates an allergic reaction--are responsible for 30,000 emergency room visits and 150 deaths per year.

A decade ago, food sensitivities required you to be a detective in the supermarket aisle, sniffing out clues for potentially troublesome foods. In a 1999 review of randomly selected baked goods, ice cream and candy in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found that 25 percent of sampled foods failed to list peanuts or eggs as ingredients on the food label.

Surveys also indicated that people had difficulty spying allergens among ingredients lists that included general classes such as "flavorings" or unfamiliar terms, such as "albumin" instead of "egg."

The FDA stepped up to the plate when they issued the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) of 2004 (effective Jan. 1, 2006), which mandates to food manufacturers food allergen labeling requirements. Per FALCPA, the labels of foods that contain the major food allergens responsible for 90 percent of food allergies must list the allergen in plain language, either in the ingredients list or via the word "Contains" followed by the name of the major food allergen.

For example, a food product may include a statement that says, "Contains milk, wheat," or a statement in parentheses in the ingredients list indicating, "albumin (egg)".

FALCPA applies to all packaged foods subject to FDA regulation, including domestic and imported, extending into retail and food-service establishments that package, label, and offer products for human consumption.

However, FALCPA does not apply to foods that are placed in a wrapper or container after being ordered by a consumer, or to raw agricultural commodities, like fresh fruits and vegetables, or to highly refined oils made from one of the major food allergens, such as peanut oil, because evidence suggests highly refined oils contain extremely small amounts of allergenic proteins.

"Consumers can be assured that the 'big eight' allergens are identified on the food label in plain, common English--either within the ingredient statement or in a separate "Contains" statement," reports Karen Duester, M.S., R.D., President of Food Consulting Company, which specializes in regulatory food and nutrition labeling. "The omission of an allergen on a food label, no matter how insignificant the amount, is one of the major reasons for food recalls, either by the FDA or the company itself. No one takes this lightly."

While FALCPA is a great start, people with food sensitivities may face additional concerns.

Since FALCPA doesn't require listing food allergens beyond the top eight, Duester suggests that you read the food label carefully if your food sensitivity is not on this list. If a product contains an ingredient listing like "natural flavor" or "spices," she urges you to contact the food company to find out what it is. "Almost all companies, especially large ones with brand reputations to protect, are happy to provide this information to consumers," adds Duester.

As part of FALCPA, the FDA issued a proposed rule in 2007, which is yet to be finalized, for making a voluntary gluten-free claim on a food label. The proposed rule defines "gluten-free" as a food that does not contain: any species of the grains wheat, rye, barley, or a hybrid of these grains; any prohibited grain that has not had gluten removed; or more than 20 parts per million of gluten. Look for more news on the final "gluten-free" rule in the future.

Cross-contamination concerns. Even though a food allergen may be absent from the recipe, it can enter a product through cross contamination during manufacturing. Duester explains that advisory statements such as "manufactured in a facility that also processes" or "shares equipment with" are optional; thus, the consumer does not know if cross-contamination has occurred in a particular food.

Eight Major Food Allergens

The manufacturer must clearly state of a food contains any protein from the following eight major food allergens listed below. The type of tree nut (e.g. almonds, walnuts); fish (e.g. bass, flounder); and crustacean (e.g. crab, shrimp) must be declared.

1. Milk

2. Egg

3. Fish

4. Crustacean shellfish

5. Tree nuts

6. Wheat

7. Peanuts

8. Soybeans


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