Identifying food allergies with food labels

Food labels identify the most common food allergy ingredients.

Do you or a family member have a food allergy where the smallest amount of certain foods can make you sick? Since 2006 the Food and Drug Administration requires food makers to identify in simple English those ingredients in food products that are common food allergens. These are the substances in foods that trigger allergies. Also, these offending substances must be named when they are mixed in flavorings, colorings or spice blends.

This label information is critical for people with food allergies. It identifies the foods or ingredients most likely to cause a severe or life-threatening allergic reaction in some people.

Michigan State University Extension encourages everyone to become avid label readers. Food labels list the top eight offending proteins, which account for 90 percent of all food allergic reactions. Unfortunately, labels cannot include every possible allergen.

The top eight foods or food groups that cause allergic reactions are:

  • Milk/dairy
  • Eggs
  • Fish, shellfish (like crab, lobster, shrimp)
  • Tree nuts (like almonds, cashews, walnuts, pecans), peanuts
  • Wheat
  • Soy

Food manufacturers can call attention to the allergens in several ways. They can simply list the common name such as eggs, or they can include the name of the food source in parenthesis following the less familiar name of the major food allergen in the list of ingredients, such as whey (milk). Another option is to place the word “Contains” followed by the names of the food allergens immediately after or adjacent to the list of ingredients, such as “Contains: Wheat, milk and soy.”

Food allergies affect children and adults of all races and ethnicity and can develop at any age. However, they are more common in children than in adults. About five percent of children have allergic reactions to food. Only about two percent of adults have true food allergies. Cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, soy and wheat are the main culprits for children. They typically outgrow allergies to milk, eggs, soy and wheat. But severe allergies to foods like peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shrimp often last a lifetime. Some very sensitive people may need to avoid a certain food just because it was made in the same factory that also makes a problem food. Check for allergy statements such as, “Manufactured on equipment that processes products containing peanuts and other nuts.”

A true food allergy is cause for concern. There are organizations that can help you. For more information and resources, contact The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network at and The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology at

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