We have already come a good distance along our food allergy journey, but there is still much to learn. (You can click on Life with Food Allergies to see the previous posts in this series.) Today we will focus on how to read the label on food packages. This is not an issue to take lightly. Many anaphylactic reactions occur because of people’s failure to, or just a complete disregard of, reading the ingredients in packaged foods.
What I Wish I Knew…
Read Every and All Labels (R.E.A.L.)
- The first point that I want to make is to once again encourage you to stay away from packaged foods as much as possible. Go straight to the real food. It is the safest and healthiest option for you. There are many examples of doing this: making homemade cookies with allowed ingredients instead of packaged cookies; making homemade broth from the meat and vegetables that you are using for another dish instead of buying canned or boxed broth; and so on.
How to read labels properly:
- All food is required by law to have the ingredients listed on the package. If you find a food package that is not labeled (this can sometimes happen with ethnic foods), then stay away from it. It’s really not worth the risk.
- Do not rely solely on the warnings often found at the end of the ingredient list with the words “contains…” or rely solely on the kosher label. While they are a good place to start, you must read every ingredient of every label all the time. I like the acronym R.E.A.L. – Read Every and All Labels – read every label all the time.
- Do not rely on past “safe” food. Food companies constantly change their ingredients. You never know when they might put an allergy ingredient into a packaged food that was previously safe to eat. This can happen especially when the package design changes. But don’t rely just on that redesign — still read every label all the time.
- When you look at a food label, particularly those that are packed with all kinds of preservatives, fillers, and other bad stuff, you have no idea how to pronounce the ingredient, let alone know what it is. Know your ingredient names. I went through a series a while back listing out the alternative ingredient names for the top allergens. You can find all the posts under “Must Read” in the sidebar. You can also click on each of the lists here: peanut, dairy, egg, wheat, soy, and corn.
- Finally, you have to know whether food made on “shared equipment” with the allergen is allowed or not. I did a post about this issue last year called Warning: May Contain, and I highly recommend you read it. Don’t rely on my words though. You must consult your allergist about this issue.
If you follow these steps every time you read a food label, the likelihood of allergic reaction decreases. Notice that I did not say it won’t happen. There is always a chance, even with every possible precaution and safeguard, that an allergic reaction can occur. It’s just the nature of the disease. As always, have your rescue medication updated and available.
Do you have anything to add about reading ingredient labels, whether advice or a personal experience?
Next week, we will explore How to Stay Safe when Eating at Restaurants.