Food Labels Confuse Shoppers with Allergies

A new study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology suggest consumers with concerns of a food allergy are often confused with labels that say “may contain” or “manufactured on shared equipment.”

The online study, which 6,684 consumers from the U.S and Canada participated in, was conducted by researchers from the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago on “purchasing behavior in response to different food allergens labels.” Participants included those with food allergies and their caregivers who purchase their food.

“Our findings underscore the challenges people with food allergies face in deciding if a food product is safe to eat,” said Ruchi Gupta, MD, MPH, senior author, pediatrician and researcher at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “Currently, precautionary allergen labeling is voluntary and the statements used lack consistency, making it more confusing for consumers. They also do not reflect how much allergen is in the product, which is something consumers need to know to assess food allergy risk.”

Researchers found “consumers had many misconceptions of labeling requirements.”

  • A third falsely believed that precautionary allergen statements are based on the amounts of allergen in the product.
  • Almost half believed that this type of food labeling is required by law, which is not the case.

Researchers also found “purchasing habits varied depending on the precautionary phrase used on the label.”

While neither the U.S. nor Canada requires labeling of unintended presence of allergens in foods due to processing on shared equipment, both countries do require labeling if major food allergens are an intended ingredient.  In the U.S. and Canada, major food allergens included crustaceans, egg, fish, milk, peanut, soy, tree nuts and wheat. Canada also includes mollusks, mustard and sesame.

“It’s clear that we need more consistency and transparency on ingredient labels on food. These findings also reinforce our recommendations about avoiding foods with precautionary labeling for a particular food regardless of the wording,” said James R. Baker, Jr., MD, CEO of Food Allergy Research & Education.

The study was led by Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) and Food Allergy Canada.

Posted on WholeFoods Magazine Online 11/7/2016