Read every label.  Every time.  Even for foods you eat regularly.

I learned the hard way.  Thankfully not in an emergency kind of hard way, as in “my son experienced anaphylaxis” kind of hard way.  Rather it was the “reading the ingredients label after ingestion, panicking, and not letting him out of my sight to see if there was a reaction” kind of hard way.

One positive that comes from food allergies is that our family eats more whole foods.  As my son grew and witnessed his friends and classmates eating irresistible looking and flashy packaged foods, he wanted to try them.   So, we inevitably introduced some packaged foods into his diet.  I had him eat the same 3 or 4 packaged safe items and rotated them for balance.  And I got complacent.

As I grocery shopped, I would grab the items, throw them into my cart, and move on.  It happened to be a perfect storm, but a storm, nonetheless.  We had company and we were discussing our food allergy situation and the box of the offending food was sitting on the counter.  Thankfully, our guest picked up the package and noticed the advisory statement showed my son’s allergen.  But I had already given him his snack.  I panicked, ran to him, snatched it out of his hands, and watched him like a hawk.

I watched my son for days as food allergy reactions have been reported up to 24 hours after ingestion.  My emotions ran high for so long vacillating between guilt and fear.  I didn’t set myself free from the remorse until long after the 24 hours had long passed.

The FDA does not require manufacturers to disclose when any of the Top 8 allergens (peanut, tree nut, crustacean shellfish, fish, wheat, dairy, egg, soy) are processed on the same line or in the same facility.  Nor are the advisory statements regulated.  They are present at the discernment of the manufacturer.  Precautionary allergen labeling or advisory statements include “may contain…”,” made in a facility…”, “manufactured on equipment…”, etc.  Check if your allergen is listed.  If it is, avoid this food.  If there is no statement, it is highly recommended to reach out directly to the manufacturers and ask about their labeling practices for cross-contact and if allergens are present in the manufacturing process or in the facility.

Food companies can and will change the ingredients and manufacturing processes. Even different sizes or packages of the same food can have different ingredients and advisory statements. This is often the case during the holidays when bite-size candies are filling trick-or-treat bags or stockings hung from the chimney with care.  Don’t be fooled by marketing strategies on the front of the packaging, including “Classroom Safe” or “Nut Free”.

I have anxiously attended every classroom party through six years of elementary school to be sure to intercept these potentially harmful food items from well-meaning parents.  My son also had a box of safe foods for birthday or VIP-day treats.  I envision that the parent sees these announcements in big block letters screaming that these food items are safe for allergy sufferers, trust it, and send it into school.  Though I humbly appreciate any action taken that is meant to keep my son safe, I cannot assume that a parent of a non-food allergy child understands the weight of the issue and all the steps necessary to read the ingredients label.  Heck, as I stated above, sometimes I don’t either.  Does “Allergy Safe” or “Classroom Safe” just mean safe from peanuts, some of the top 8, or all the top 8?  This kind of marketing can be dangerous to people with food allergies.

Here is an example of packaging that indicates this food is “Classroom Safe”.

But when you look closer, this is only safe for allergies to gluten and nuts.  And it is even more confusing as the photo is of a peanut, but peanuts are not nuts.  They are legumes.  So, is this safe for peanuts or nuts or both?

Another learning curve to this life of reading labels was the knowledge that the allergen MUST be listed either in a “contains” statement OR the ingredient list, NOT BOTH.  Ugh, all the money I spent only reading the “contains” statement, not seeing the offending food only to realize when I got home that the allergen was present in the ingredient label.  My neighbors loved me as they inevitably ate these foods.  Reading the “contains” statement is a good place to begin, if your allergen is present it isn’t safe and should be avoided.

If your food allergen isn’t present in the “contains” statement or in the advisory statement, it is imperative that you read the entire list of ingredients.  Start to finish.

My life is food allergies, personally and professionally, and I get that my family may be a bit fortunate with our food allergies being peanut and tree nut.  There seems to be a better understanding of these allergens than others and a growing understanding of the Top 8 allergens, but there are over 170 foods that have been known to cause an allergic reaction.

Can you imagine the hardship for those that suffer an allergy (or two, or three) outside the Top 8 and attempting to determine if they are safe from a food product?  It is important to know your food allergen “code words” or “lingo”.  For example, corn and its starch and sugars can be listed in many ways (e.g. dextrose, glucose, modified food starch, vegetable oil, etc.).  Keeping a list of alternative names for your allergen is worthwhile to have.   The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) requires that the label of a food that contains an ingredient that is or contains protein from a Top 8 allergen and declares the presence of the allergen.  Allergens not regulated by FALCPA, or those outside of the Top 8, do NOT need to be labeled and can be hidden in words such as flavor, color, spices, additives.

Every day I am thankful that my error in not reading the ingredients label didn’t result in my son having a reaction and the guilt and fear are still present. I do have to remind myself that although a time-consuming practice, reading labels fully and contacting manufacturers, if necessary, are the best ways to keep my food allergy sufferer from an allergic reaction.

So, turn that package over and read the ingredients label!