It can be very tricky to find products that are truly allergy-safe, gluten-free, tree-nut free and so on. The key is not just in reading the label because labels are often not clear and the laws on labeling for food allergens is fuzzy at best.
In fact, labels can often be incredibly deceiving. The key, rather, is to be a conscious consumer. Know what is in the products you are eating, and do not rely on the label to tell you what's really in it.
Here's a rundown on labeling and why it's rarely 100% accurate:
1) It is not mandatory for companies to label their cross-contaminated products as such. It is strictly optional. When you see "may contain ..." or "packaged in a facility with .." or "produced on the same equipment as ..." that company has taken it upon themselves to add that to their label. So that means, many companies out there are not disclosing this information on their labels.
2) Labels can be deceiving. Many products are labeled "gluten-free" because the ingredients contain no gluten, but the product may be produced in a facility (and often even on the same equipment) with other products that do contain gluten. According to the FDA, a product can also be labeled "gluten-free" but have up to 20ppm of gluten. You may have also seen "certified gluten-free" on some products, which is an independent certification by GFCO that means it contains less than 10ppm of gluten and 5ppm of gliadin.
Here's an example of mislabeling. There is a new product out and it claims on the package "we're not nuts!" meaning, they are not made out of tree-nuts. The package also has a "gluten-free" symbol. Yet reading further on the package you will find in tiny letters "may contain traces of tree-nuts, wheat and dairy."
Let's review this. They are advertising a product as being a nut-alternative. Yet, this product may contain traces of nuts. Clearly, they are not targeting people with nut-allergies, so who then? And while the product may be labeled "gluten-free" because the ingredients are technically free of gluten, their manufacturing processes are not gluten-free and therefore you may find trace amounts of gluten in this product.
And this is a big one, because many people do not realize this:
3) Some companies produce their product in one facility and ship it to another facility for packaging.
That means that while the facility in which they produce the product may be safe, their packaging facility may not be. This is why it's crucial to always call the company and ask questions about their production and packaging facilities.
4) Many companies share facilities with other companies or they simply make a wide variety of products - many not being gluten-free or nut-free.
5) Hidden ingredients? FALCPA is strictly a law that was passed to make sure the actual ingredients are described properly on the package. For example, if a product contains "spices" in the ingredient list and those spices have wheat, the company must disclose that on the label otherwise it would be a hidden ingredient. And they have to be specific, if the ingredients say "nut" they must clarify as to which nut it contains.
You can learn more about FDA guidelines regarding gluten-free and food-allergen labeling here.
Click here to read part 2 of "Tips on Finding Allergy-safe Foods and How to Be a Conscious Consumer".. broken up into two segments for easier reading!