Discovering that you or a loved one has a food allergy or intolerance is a worrisome new world to encounter. Foods that are often thought of as healthy and essential for a balanced diet have now become the enemy targeting our very health. Some mild allergies or intolerances are nuisances that are easily dealt with by adhering to general avoidance. But the levels of severity can definitely run the gamut and include reactions that can be life-threatening.
Analyzing foods and food ingredients can be an overwhelming task but coupled with the anxiety of possibly eating something harmful, the scope of the problem can feel insurmountable.
Fortunately, heightened awareness about food allergies and intolerances has brought these dietary issues mainstream, thereby initiating substantial changes in food labeling and packaging. Some homework regarding terminology and ingredient list will go a long way in helping to relieve some of the stress of avoiding the foods that are harmful.
What Is a Food Allergy or Intolerance?
A food allergy is a systemic reaction to a food or foods that can affect multiple systems including the respiratory. Symptoms can include itching, hives, nausea, and difficulty breathing. Severe reactions can produce anaphylaxis, a dangerous, life-threatening reaction. Intolerances are often less severe in nature and are usually, but not entirely, related to the digestive system. In either case, these health issues can be uncomfortable, painful, and often impede normal day-to-day functioning.
What are the “Big 8”?
When it comes to the major culprits in food allergies we often hear about the “big 8”. These include:
- Tree nuts
Recently, a ninth allergen, sesame, has been added to this list of the most frequently occurring food allergies. And in terms of intolerance, wheat and dairy are the most widely known.
Why Are Labels Important?
It is in no way dramatic to say that it can be a matter of life and death. Even the tiniest amount of a food allergen can trigger a reaction, so properly regulated and curated ingredient labels are absolutely critical as a safety measure for people with allergies and intolerances. For example, those with a gluten intolerance can experience severe physical effects if they consume gluten. That’s why so many healthy baking recipes now include gluten-free flour.
In 2004 the United States Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCA) became law and requires proper labeling for foods containing the eight major allergens. Specifics within the allergen categories also had to be identified. This was a huge victory for those suffering from food allergies and intolerances and made selecting safe foods significantly easier.
What Do Labels Say?
Labels state ingredients using their most common terminology. Consumers must arm themselves with not only the most used terminology but also with possibly more obscure terms that aren’t necessarily obvious as allergen ingredients. Words like modified starch, caseinates, or albumin can be confusing or overlooked because they don’t specifically use the words wheat, milk, or egg. Additionally, while the “big 8” must be specifically identified, the use of “may contain” isn’t protected by the FALCA law, therefore people must educate themselves about the ramifications of this labeling.
Best Practices for Reading Ingredient Labels
- Learn the terminology associated with each food allergy or intolerance ingredient including obvious references as well as those terms that are less identifiable
- Read every label even if you have purchased the item before or if you have been using it regularly. Manufacturers can change ingredient lists without warning so consumers must not trust that those ingredients that cause reactions are always excluded.
- Become familiar with food allergy and food intolerance organizations. They are incredible resources for information, especially about food sources, ingredients, labeling, and recalls.
- Avoid purchasing as much processed or packaged food as possible. Something that is processed with multiple ingredients on multiple lines of equipment heightens the risk of inclusion and cross-contamination.
- Spread the word. Include family and friends on what living with a food allergy or intolerance entails. Help them- including children- learn the names of allergens and ingredients so they can contribute to awareness and avoidance.
Food allergies and intolerances are a way of life for many but living with the unknown risks can be significantly avoided with a little research and food information. A healthy diet can be safe and devoid of the foods that cause reactions with careful guidance and practice.