For people with food allergies, ingredient labels are like a book that’s missing a few chapters — you’re not getting the whole story. Included on many packages are vague words like “spices,” “seasonings,” and the ever- popular and sometimes creepy (as in creepy-crawler, more on that later), “added color.”
If you happen not to be one of the estimated 12 million Americans with a food allergy, don’t think this issue doesn’t matter. With one in 25 people affected, chances are someone in your family has, or will have, a food allergy. Or maybe you’ll invite a friend over for dinner who is allergic to garlic. You will want to know what’s in the tomato sauce you plan to serve.
And just because you don’t have a food allergy today doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. I spent four decades eating peanut butter on toast, on spoons, and in those yummy chocolate cups known as Reese’s. Then one day, I broke out in hives and learned I had developed a peanut allergy.
That actually makes me lucky, because my allergen is one of eight that warrants a label warning. Since 2006, food manufacturers have been required by the Food and Drug Administration to tell you if a product contains: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans. These account for approximately 90 percent of all food allergies.
If you’re allergic to something not in that group, deciphering labels is more challenging because manufacturers are not required to list all ingredients.
“Nonspecific labeling is a real issue for people who have less common food allergies, including spices,” says Marc Riedl, M.D., co-director of UCLA’s Food Allergy Clinic.
When my younger sister, who has a severe mustard allergy, came to visit, I thought I was being a careful shopper when I purchased Trader Joe’s Fat Free Balsamic Vinaigrette salad dressing. Before I poured, I showed her the bottle. She declined the dressing, pointing out the mystery ingredient “spices.”
The next day, I called customer relations for the Trader Joe’s chain, which has more than 340 stores in 26 states. I was told that the dressing does, indeed, contain dried mustard flour. Good thing my sister is label-savvy, or our dinner could have ended with a trip to the emergency room.
In fact, some 30,000 people in the United States go to emergency rooms each year with allergic reactions to food. More alarming, there are approximately 200 deaths every year in this country due to food allergies.
Obviously, food allergies are a tricky business and fuzzy labels are not the only culprit. But why not make life easier for allergic consumers and just list every ingredient in a product, so at least they have a fighting chance to avoid allergens?
“For most food manufacturing companies…there is concern over that secret recipe, or the proprietary formulation,” explained Matt Sloan, vice president of marketing for Trader Joe’s.
Curious, I called back Trader Joe’s, as well as Safeway and Kroger to inquire about store-brand ketchups. I asked what ingredients were in “spices” and was told by all three companies that this information was proprietary. I could name specific ingredients, and they’d tell me if they were in the ketchup. I asked about mustard and garlic. The Trader Joe’s representative gave me an immediate answer. Safeway and Kroger provided the information within 24 hours.
“If it just says seasoning or spice, we’ll always find out what’s in an item for a person who’s inquiring,” said Trader Joe’s Sloan.
In addition to fretting about recipe theft, manufacturers are reluctant to overload their labels. By listing “spices” they save space, rather than listing, say, two dozen ingredients.
There’s likely a third reason for vague food labels: shame. Center for Science in the Public Interest Executive Director Michael F. Jacobson speculated that some manufacturers would be embarrassed if consumers knew what’s really in that list of ingredients, especially when it comes to coloring additives.
Jacobson explained that companies don’t want to reveal that “artificial colors” or “color added” often means that the desiccated bodies of little bugs were used to give products — such as ice cream, yogurt, fruit drinks and candy — a red, pink or purple hue.
Center for Science in the Public Interest first petitioned the FDA in 1998 on this issue, after a University of Michigan allergist determined that his patient had gone into anaphylactic shock from eating a red popsicle. The allergist discovered that color additives extracted from the dried bodies of female cochineal insects, tiny bugs that feed on cacti, had caused the life-threatening allergic reaction.
Starting in 2011 food and makeup labels must inform consumers that a scale insect is one of the ingredients. But don’t expect the label to include “smooshed bugs.” Instead, the ingredients will list “carmine” or “cochineal extract.”
In a public statement on the new ruling, Jacobson observed: “That’s useful progress. But, ideally, FDA should have exterminated these critter-based colorings altogether” because of the risk of serious allergic reactions.
If this isn’t enough to make you buggy, there’s another twist in food labels guaranteed to confuse. When I visited a Costco Warehouse candy section, Kirkland Chocolate Raisins beckoned, until I read the label: “This product is packaged on equipment that also processes peanuts and walnuts.”
I was hoping this was just legalese, but a Costco spokesman set me straight. He explained that during production, the raisins take a ride on an enrobing machine, which coats treats with chocolate. On any given day, the conveyor belt might carry tree nuts and peanuts, in addition to raisins.
But don’t they clean the machine between foods? That question turned out to be beside the point. The Costco spokesman said the issue of concern is airborne allergens. In other words, peanut dust might stay in the air and land on the raisins.
There are some highly sensitive people who could react to this kind of exposure, according to UCLA’s Dr. Riedl. So, in this case, the warning label is complete and accurate, unlike many others that don’t tell you all you need to know.
“That’s why there is so much concern about food allergens in packaged foods,” said Dr. Riedl. “Because if people don’t know about it and they eat those foods, they can die from it. Unfortunately, people do die every year from these sorts of reactions.”
Emily Dwass is a contributor to FairWarning. Her last commentary “Canning BPA” can be found here.