FDA examines allergy labels in new study

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food Allergy Food allergy Allergies

Almost half of consumers with food allergies have "serious
problems" using food labels to help them avoid certain foods,
says a new study by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Published last month in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology,​ the study found that over 5 percent of Americans suffer from a doctor-diagnosed food allergies. Self-reported food allergies stand at 9 percent. But allergy sufferers who read food labels said these are often not allergy friendly. Three primary problems were identified by 40 percent of participants: when ingredients lists give a general name for an ingredient without specifying the source, such as spices and flavors; when different words are used to describe an allergen on different food products; and when food labels do not alert consumers that new ingredients have been added to a food, despite these being stated in the ingredients list. More than a quarter of allergy sufferers said the length of an ingredients list makes it hard to find the ingredient of concern, while 30 percent also said words on some ingredients lists were too technical or hard to understand. However, this last concern was addressed with the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, which was implemented on January 1 2006. The new rule, which came into effect after the data for this study had been gathered, requires that food manufacturers identify, "in plain, common language"​, the presence of any of the eight major food allergens - milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy. The present study was based on the FDA's 2001 Food Safety Survey, which included a new series of questions, approved by the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), on food allergies and labeling. The study was based on randomized telephone surveys of 4482 American adults. Other labeling issues identified by respondents with allergies include concerns with packaging statements about allergenic ingredients, such as "allergy information - contains eggs".​ Some 30 percent of participants said these statements suggested to them that the product had been screened for all foods that might cause an allergic reaction and that egg was the only allergen in the food. This is largely because at the time of the survey, food label regulations did not provide for a consistent meaning of the statement, which would ultimately vary among food manufacturers. Almost a quarter of all people with allergies reported they had bought or eaten a packaged food product within the past year that they did not know contained the food to which they were allergic. The study, which provides baseline information on food allergy prevalence and label use before the implementation of the new labeling rules in 2006, was designed to partly address the general lack of earlier population-based examinations of the issue. According to the findings, prevalence of food allergy to the eight most common allergens was 5 percent for respondents with self-reported allergies, and 3 percent for those who claimed to have doctor-diagnosed allergies. Of this groups of allergens, milk/dairy was the most commonly reported allergen, followed by fish. Soy was the least often cited allergen from the list. A food allergy occurs when the immune system mistakenly believes that a harmless substance is harmful. In its attempt to protect the body, the immune system creates IgE antibodies specific to that food. The next time the individual eats that food, the immune system releases massive amounts of chemicals and histamines in order to protect the body, thereby triggering allergic symptoms. According to FAAN, despite the attention given to peanut allergies, the most widespread allergy suffered by Americans is that of fish and seafood, in particular salmon and shrimp, which effects around 6.5 million people - mainly adults - in the US. This is twice as many people as those affected by allergies to peanuts and tree nuts. More than 170 foods have been identified as allergens, including fruits, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, poppy seeds, mollusks, peas, lentils, and beans other than green beans. Source: Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, June 2007 "Prevalence of self-reported food allergy in American adults and use of food labels" Authors: Katherine A. Vierk, Kathleen M. Koehler, Sara B. Fein, and Debra A. Street

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