Living with Allergies

How to Read a Food Label When You Have Food Allergies

Food label

For those of us with food allergies, the most obvious way to prevent an allergic reaction is to simply avoid eating the food. This sounds like a no-brainer, right? For many of us, avoiding food allergens is harder than it looks. With all the confusing ingredients listed on a food label, how can you really be sure you are choosing foods that are allergy-safe? The key is to understand how to read a food label.

Food Allergen Statement Warnings

Thankfully, all FDA-regulated manufactured food products that contain a “major food allergen” (milk, wheat, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and soy) as an ingredient are required by law to list that allergen on the product label in plain English. Such ingredients must be listed in the ingredient list or:

  • The word “Contains” is followed by the name of the major food allergen, i.e. “Contains peanuts”
  • A parenthetical statement in the list of ingredients, i.e. “casein (milk)”

Food manufacturers may also include the following statement warnings on their food labels:

  • “May contain”
  • “May contain traces of”
  • “Manufactured on equipment that processes”
  • “Manufactured in a facility that processes”

While this language is helpful to food allergic consumers, Allergy Superheroes (@Allergyheroes on Twitter) makes an important distinction about manufacturer statement warnings:

So, how can we be sure to avoid foods we’re allergic to?

Thankfully, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) has made it easier for food-allergic consumers to read a food label.

Enacted in 2006, FALCPA requires all food labels in the United States to list ingredients that may cause allergic reactions. The purpose of FALCPA is to prevent manufacturers from using misleading or confusing methods to list ingredients. However, it is still important to know how to read a food label for unexpected sources of allergens.

Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) has compiled a full list of allergen ingredients to help you decipher the confusing language of food ingredients.

Obligatory Disclaimer: Please keep in mind that all labels should be read carefully before consuming a product, even if you have safely eaten it in the past.

There, it’s been said. On to the good stuff.

Glass of milk

Got a milk allergy?

Common Ingredients to Avoid for a Milk-Free Diet

If you are allergic to milk and other dairy products, avoid foods that contain any of these ingredients:

  • butter, butter fat, butter oil, butter acid, butter ester(s)
  • buttermilk
  • casein
  • casein hydrolysate
  • caseinates (in all forms)
  • cheese
  • cottage cheese
  • cream
  • curds
  • custard
  • diacetyl
  • ghee
  • half-and-half
  • lactalbumin, lactalbumin phosphate
  • lactoferrin
  • lactose
  • lactulose
  • milk (in all forms, including condensed, derivative, dry, evaporated, goat’s milk and milk from other animals, lowfat, malted, milkfat, nonfat, powder, protein, skimmed, solids, whole)
  • milk protein hydrolysate
  • pudding
  • Recaldent®
  • rennet casein
Wheat in a field

For amber waves of grain…

Common Ingredients to Avoid for a Wheat-Free Diet

For those with allergies, sensitivities, or intolerance to wheat or gluten, avoid foods that contain any of these ingredients:

  • bread crumbs
  • bulgur
  • cereal extract
  • club wheat
  • couscous
  • cracker meal
  • durum
  • einkorn
  • emmer
  • farina
  • flour (all purpose, bread, cake, durum, enriched, graham, high gluten, high protein, instant, pastry, self-rising, soft wheat, steel ground, stone ground, whole wheat)
  • hydrolyzed wheat protein
  • Kamut®
  • matzoh, matzoh meal (also spelled as matzo, matzah, or matza)
  • pasta
  • seitan
  • semolina
  • spelt
  • sprouted wheat
  • triticale
  • vital wheat gluten
  • wheat (bran, durum, germ, gluten, grass, malt, sprouts, starch)
  • wheat bran hydrolysate
  • wheat germ oil
  • wheat grass
  • wheat protein isolate
  • whole wheat berries
Carton of brown eggs

You’ve gotta crack a few eggs to make an omelette. Or don’t. Because you’re allergic.

Common Ingredients to Avoid for an Egg-Free Diet

If you are allergic to eggs, avoid foods that contain any of these ingredients:

  • albumin (also spelled albumen)
  • egg (dried, powdered, solids, white, yolk)
  • eggnog
  • globulin
  • livetin
  • lysozyme
  • mayonnaise
  • meringue (meringue powder)
  • surimi
  • vitellin
  • words starting with “ovo” or “ova” (such as ovalbumin)
Peanuts on a wooden table

We’re all a little nuts. Except peanuts. They’re legumes.

Common Ingredients to Avoid for a Peanut-Free Diet

As a long-time peanut allergy sufferer, I can attest to the fact that peanuts can be found in surprising places. Some of the more obvious ingredients to avoid include:

  • artificial nuts
  • beer nuts
  • cold pressed, expeller pressed, or extruded peanut oil*
  • goobers
  • ground nuts
  • mixed nuts
  • monkey nuts
  • nut pieces
  • nut meat
  • peanut butter
  • peanut flour
  • peanut protein hydrolysate

However, peanut ingredients may also be present in other less obvious places, such as:

  • African, Asian, or Mexican ethnic dishes
  • Chili
  • Egg rolls
  • Enchilada sauce
  • Pancakes
  • Glazes, marinades, and other sauces (hot sauce, pesto, gravy, mole)

*The FDA exempts highly refined peanut oil from being labeled as an allergen. Studies show that most allergic individuals can safely eat peanut oil that has been highly refined (not cold pressed, expeller pressed, or extruded peanut oil). Ask your doctor for advice.

Mixed nuts

These guys are freakin’ (tree) nuts.

Common Ingredients to Avoid for a Tree Nut-Free Diet

A tree nut allergy is one of the most common food allergies in adults and children. According to FARE, if you’re allergic to one type of tree nut, you have a higher chance of being allergic to other types.

For this reason, your doctor may recommend to avoid all tree nuts, as well as any of these ingredients:

  • almond
  • artificial nuts
  • beechnut
  • Brazil nut
  • Butternut
  • Cashew
  • Chestnut
  • chinquapin nut
  • coconut*
  • filbert/hazelnut
  • gianduja (a chocolate nut mixture)
  • ginkgo nut
  • hickory nut
  • litchi/lichee/lychee nut
  • macadamia nut
  • marzipan/almond paste
  • Nangai nut
  • natural nut extract (e.g., almond, walnut)
  • nut butters (e.g., cashew butter)
  • nut meal
  • nut meat
  • nut paste (e.g., almond paste)
  • nut pieces
  • pecan
  • pesto
  • pili nut
  • pine nut (also referred to as Indian, pignoli, pigñolia, pignon, piñon, and pinyon nut)
  • pistachio
  • praline
  • shea nut
  • walnut

*Coconut has typically not been restricted in the diets of people with a tree nut allergy. However, in 2006, the FDA began identifying coconut as a tree nut. Ask your doctor if you should avoid coconut, not me.

Salmon and cheese on crackers

Now here’s a food allergy trifecta.

Common Ingredients to Avoid for a Fish-Free Diet

Finned fish is another extremely common food allergy and is usually life long. Fish ingredients are sometimes found in the following products and foods:

  • barbecue sauce
  • bouillabaisse
  • Caesar salad
  • Caviar
  • deep fried items
  • fish flavoring
  • fish flour
  • fish fume
  • fish gelatin (kosher gelatin, marine gelatin)
  • fish oil
  • fish sauce
  • imitation fish or shellfish (e.g. imitation crab meat)
  • isinglass
  • lutefisk maw, maws (fish maw)
  • fish stock
  • fishmeal
  • nuoc mam (Vietnamese name for fish sauce; beware of other ethnic names)
  • pizza (anchovy topping)
  • roe
  • salad dressing
  • seafood flavoring
  • shark cartilage
  • shark fin
  • surimi sushi, sashimi
  • Worcestershire sauce
Crustaceans and shellfish

A smorgasbord of death.

Common Ingredients to Avoid for a Shellfish-Free Diet

There are two groups of shellfish: crustacea (such as shrimp, crab and lobster) and mollusks (such as clams, mussels, oysters and scallops).

Common crustacea ingredients to avoid include:

  • Barnacle
  • Crab
  • crawfish (crawdad, crayfish, ecrevisse)
  • krill
  • lobster (langouste, langoustine, Moreton bay bugs, scampi, tomalley)
  • prawns
  • shrimp (crevette, scampi)

While crustacea cause the most shellfish reactions, your doctor may advise you to avoid mollusks or these ingredients:

  • abalone
  • clams (cherrystone, geoduck, littleneck, pismo, quahog)
  • cockle
  • cuttlefish
  • limpet (lapas, opihi)
  • mussels
  • octopus
  • oysters
  • periwinkle scallops
  • sea cucumber
  • sea urchin
  • snails (escargot)
  • squid (calamari)
  • whelk (Turban shell)
Bowl of edamame

Soy un perdedor (I’m a loser, baby).

Common Ingredients to Avoid for a Soy-Free Diet

While soybeans alone are not a common food in American diets, they are widely used in processed food products. Soy is often used as a cheap filler in processed meats, breads, cereal bars, and other foods. Keep a watchful eye out for these ingredients:

  • edamame
  • miso
  • natto
  • soy (soy albumin, soy cheese, soy fiber, soy flour, soy grits, soy ice cream, soy milk, soy nuts, soy sprouts, soy yogurt)
  • soya
  • soybean (curd, granules)
  • soy protein (concentrate, hydrolyzed, isolate)
  • shoyu
  • soy sauce
  • tamari
  • tempeh
  • textured vegetable protein (TVP)
  • tofu

The FDA exempts highly refined soybean oil from being labeled as an allergen. Studies show most allergic individuals can safely eat soy oil that has been highly refined (not cold pressed, expeller pressed, or extruded soybean oil).

So there you have it.

Keep in mind that information on this website should not be mistaken for medical advice. Remember to always consult your doctor first with questions about your food allergy.

Finally, if you are ever unsure about an ingredient in a product, don’t be like me. Avoid the food altogether and reduce your risk of racing to the ER in a Ferrari. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

More about that story later 😉

Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images and information, contained on or available through this article is for general information purposes only.


About Dan Bates

Dan is severely allergic to peanuts, soy, and other legumes. When he's not manning the helm at Peanut Envy, he enjoys drinking craft beer, rooting for the Yankees, and spending time with his family in Connecticut.

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