An Adverse Reaction to Food Labels


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.

This op-ed also published by:
The Baltimore Sun
The Oregonian
The Sacramento Bee

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.

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9 comments to “An Adverse Reaction to Food Labels”

  1. Sheila

    I have been able to eat foods a long time, without regard as to what’s in them; but, I really didn’t like the taste of onions, and garlic was a bit strong for me, but I could eat it. The real shocker was when I became egg intolerant and I couldn’t eat Banana’s, my lips would swell (like cold sores), then my throat would tickle, then my throat would swell. Trips to the hospital started with eating Pecan’s or Walnuts.Throat would close up, had to have shots right away. Now, I have an Onion and Garlic Intolerance. I’m learning that these are in almost Everything! Its so hard! I have to learn how to make Ketchup, and taco seasoning, and everything that I normally eat, with the seasoning…but now I’m trying to learn how to make it myself without the onions and/or garlic. Its really hard since I’m not a cook! My back is bad and cooking is worse.

  2. Jessica

    I’ve just learned that I have an aspirin sensitivity…aka salicylates. Very few people know that aspirin naturally occurs in foods, particularly in yellow based spices…dye #5 can also add to the problem. A gene has been identified for aspirin sensitivity and it is therefore hereditary. Have a lot of headaches? Have dark circles under your eyes since you were little? Feel stuffy a lot? You could have an underlying aspirin sensitivity. Be careful too cause it causes polyps to grow in your sinuses. Talk to your allergist…must MDs will send you running in circles and tell you to pop more pills…which, btw, also likely contain yellow dye. A self- perpetuating problem.

  3. becca

    i have a spice allergy which i am still trying to pinpoint. the “spices” listing is really dreaded..because it makes it more difficult to do the detective work to find my allergen.if i called these companies and asked for their listing and was asked what my allergen is, i dont know it yet…so i really do NEED the whole list. currently my reaction is only mild lip swelling and itching around my nose and mouth…but i have been warned to be careful as these things tend to worsen over time…..i realy need companies to help me out here…blah

  4. Ahauchata

    I first read your article in “The Baltimore Sun” and myself being a very livid label reader, not as a result of any food allergies, mainly just because I am a vegetarian, and I am very particular on what I intake and I stay away from just about anything which contains ingredients such as; ‘high fructose corn syrup’ and modified anything, but to just discover that they use BUGS for color is just frankly shocking!! I hope to see more articles which are informative such as this one!


  5. Cyndi

    Please don’t repeat the myth that the “top 8” account for 90% of all food allergies. That list accounts for 90% of IgE allergies diagnosed formally in the US. It is similar but not quite the same in other countries and it does not account for other true allergies like IgG, or does it account for non-allergic reactions that aren’t true allergies (don’t be fooled; they can be deadly too).

    Some very common food reactions that aren’t in the top 8 (and are often hidden in labels too) include gluten, corn, sesame, and citrus.

  6. Norma Ingalls

    I’d like to warn others about a relatively unknown allergy to paprika, one of those spices that’s added to thousands of food items. In my early 30s, I found out the horrible headaches I’d had my whole life were caused by eating whole wheat; a few years later I added paprika to my “no eat” list. Even later all red colored pills was added. I’m assuming there is some chemical basis for the three items.

    My first symptom is a headache that won’t go away. Over-the-counter medication is useless. If I continue to intake whatever is causing the problem, or eat more than usual in one sitting, my joints hurt, it is hard to think and function, and in the worst situation, I spent a whole day in bed throwing up. It takes at least 24 hours for the offending item to work its way through my system before I am pain free. Needless to say, that rarely happens any more as I have learned to read labels and not trust restaurants to know what is in the food they serve.

  7. Alison St. Sure

    A reader of my blog told me about this article. Great job! You raise really unique points. I did NOT know about the bugs — ewww! And I totally agree with your 3rd point about why companies hide behind the word “spices” — I believe shame really is the reason. I would love to see full disclosure on labels and have food companies own up to what they are feeding the public. Thanks for writing this article — I will send people over to read it!

  8. Noah

    Well done. I have a connection to these issues as well as do many in my family. Thanks for getting us more info on it!

  9. Myrna Kasser

    Great article and really informative! A friend has been allergic to beans and nuts his whole life. Once, while eating dinner at a friend’s, he went into anaphylactic shock and had to be rushed to the emergency room. Later he learned that the friend (who should now be designated as “friend”) had decided his allergy was psychosomatic; she determined to show him that if he didn’t know he was eating a forbidden food, he wouldn’t have any problems with it.

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