Tips to Read a Label When You Have Food Allergies

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When it comes to food allergies, reading labels is an essential part of eating safely. This isn’t only for the newly diagnosed, as label reading never ends when you’re dealing with a food allergy. Learn what to look for and what to avoid when reading labels.

woman reading a food label.

How To Read A Label When You Have Food Allergies 

Being diagnosed with a food allergy can seem daunting with the number of products on the shelves of grocery stores. The good news is The Food Allergen Labeling Consumer Protection Act declared that all major food allergens are written in plain English on all food labels.

The top nine major allergens include milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, shellfish, and sesame. So, if you or a loved one is allergic to one of these, you’ll be able to avoid them in packaged foods by reading the label.

Depending on your specific allergy, make sure you know its different forms and other names it could go under on an ingredient list. For example, if you’re allergic to eggs, you might see “albumin,” “globulin,” “fat substitutes,” “livetin,” or another scientific name.

Keep in mind that food manufacturers can also change their recipes or production facilities without warming. This means that just because a specific food didn’t contain an allergen in the past, doesn’t mean it will be safe in the future. This is why it’s highly important to read every label every time.

What to Look For 

Ingredient List

Regulated main allergens can be disclosed in one of three ways, according to FALCPA.

  • As an ingredient in the ingredient list.
  • Using the word “Contains” —for example, “Contains eggs, milk, wheat.”
  • In parentheses, when the ingredient is a less common form of the allergen—for example, “albumin (egg)”.

Also, any flavoring, spice, coloring, or processing aid that is or bears one of the eight major food allergens must list the allergen in plain English. For example, the label may say, “natural flavoring (soy)” or “Contains: soy.”

Take into account that these rules are applicable to US products. Imported products might have another type of regulation. For example, EU law specifies the tree nuts as being almonds, Brazil nuts, cashew nuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts. So if you are allergic to chestnut, coconut, or pine nut, it might not be listed. 

Other Allergen Statements

“May Contain”

Some labels would include other precautionary statements, such as “may contain,” “processed in a facility that also processes,” or “made on equipment with.”  However, these extra allergen statements are totally voluntary. 

Here comes the difficult part: The absence of a precautionary label does not mean that a product is safe.

 “Free” Of X Allergen

It’s also important to know that label phrases such as peanut-free, egg-free, dairy-free, etc., are not regulated. Product labels can have these phrases but be made in facilities where allergens are present.

eggless turtle cake

Baking with food allergies does not need to be frustrating! Even if you can’t use certain ingredients, you can produce amazing desserts that the whole family will love.

So even though a product claims to be “free” of x allergen, you must then read the ingredient label to be sure.

Confusing Terms

Some terms can be confusing or misleading when reading labels. For example – ‘Non-Dairy’ vs. Dairy-Free. ‘Non-Dairy’ indicates a product with less than 0.5% milk or less milk by weight – but milk is permitted. Dairy-free praise on a food label is not regulated, legislated, or defined. And even though we might assume that a dairy-free product is made without dairy ingredients, that is not always true. You must then read the ingredient label to be sure. 


Any product labeled “vegan” is no guarantee of milk allergy or egg allergy safety. Product labels can have this phrase but be made in facilities where allergens are present. You must then read the ingredient label and contact the manufacturer to be sure. 

Be Aware of What’s Not On The Label 

While the top allergens must be listed on labels in advisory statements, if you are allergic to a food that is not considered a major food allergen by the FDA, you have to be careful when you see categories like “natural flavorings” or “spices.”  

In this case, it’s best to contact the manufacturer to ensure the food is safe for you or your child to eat. 

Cross Contact

Cross-contact occurs when a food allergen comes in contact with food or an item not intended to contain that allergen. Usually, this is a big deal if you’re extremely sensitive, so you’ll want to keep it in mind. Even the smallest amount of allergens can cause allergic reactions.

Since precautionary statements are not regulated and are totally voluntary, it’s difficult to determine if the product was produced in a plant where common allergens are present. In this case, you may want to do research online and contact the manufacturer to see what is produced in the same plant to prevent cross-contact.

7 Tips to Read a Food Label When You Have Food Allergies 

While food allergies can be scary, they can be managed with the right steps. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when reading labels:

  • Be diligent – make sure to read the list of ingredients every time. Pay attention to what is and isn’t on every ingredient label. Take your reading glasses with you, if needed; some labels are too small to read.
  • Familiarize yourself with your allergen and the foods it often appears in.
  • Learn about other names the allergen can be called. 
  • Be careful when you see categories like “natural flavorings” or “spices.” The allergen can be hidden under that name. 
  • Avoid products that you need clarification on the ingredients list or production facilities.
  • Contact the manufacturer and ask them about their ingredients and manufacturing practices.
  • Look for trusted brands! Over time, you will probably find some beloved food allergy companies that consistently provide you with the foods you need or crave.

Once you have been diagnosed with a food allergy, all it takes is a little practice to avoid an allergic reaction.

With a bit of caution and preparation, you’ll be able to successfully manage your food allergy. Many resources are available to help, including precautionary labeling on different products, asking your board-certified allergist, and other online resources for accurate information.

How to Report Labeling Concerns

If you, or your loved one, had a bad reaction after consuming a product or you have labeling concerns, you can submit a report to the FDA Consumer Complaint Coordinator in your state. You can also call FDA at 1-888-SAFEFOOD. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What really means “may contains” on a food label?

This precautionary statement on food labels means that a product may or may not unintentionally contains, or has come in contact with, a specific allergen. You can also see this statement written as “processed in a facility that also processes” or “made on equipment with.” These precautionary statements are voluntary for manufacturers, so the absence of an advisory label does not mean that a product is safe.

What allergens should be listed on a food label?

In the US, it’s mandatory that the top eight major allergens, such as milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish, and crustacean shellfish are listed. As of January 1, 2023, sesame will be labeled on packaged foods sold in the U.S., in the same way, that the other top allergens.

The label says “may contain’ is it safe to eat?

 No, it is not safe! if you see your allergen (s) on a label or menu, it is unsafe for someone with an allergy to that allergen.

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