Allergies, Warning Labels, and Dilemmas

Allergy Warning

Food allergies affect about 10-15 million Americans today. Interestingly, a similar number of people believe they have an allergy as well! How could this be?

To answer, first let’s understand what a food allergy is:

A food allergy is a response by the body’s immune system to a suspect food. The immune system creates antibodies that attack the substance in the food that is (wrongfully) identified as harmful. The result of this attack is the creation of various chemicals in the body that cause a wide range of symptoms from hives to swelling to system shutdown.

Many people wrongfully associate some symptoms to mean they have an allergy:

1. Food intolerances – usually lactose or gluten intolerance. This is not an allergy. Our digestive system is lacking in an enzyme that can digest the food. In milk products, an enzyme known as lactase reacts with lactose. People will lactose intolerance don’t manufacture enough lactase.

2. Sensitivity to certain additives – from MSG to synthetic dyes to sulfites, some people have a reaction, but it is not an allergy.

3. Histamine attack – when people have an allergic reaction, their body creates histamines (a type of chemical) that cause various symptoms. But histamines are also found in some foods and may cause similar symptoms. The usual suspects are strawberries, chocolate, and some wines.

Whether you have an allergy or intolerance, federal regulations have mandated the labeling of allergens on processed food products. The 8 most common allergies account for 90% of all allergies in the US: Milk, Wheat/Gluten, Soy, Eggs, Peanuts, Tree Nuts, Fish, Shellfish. These 8 need to be clearly labeled when they are included in a product’s ingredients. for example:



Many products are marked as “maybe”, causing considerable frustration for people with allergies:


May Contain

Even worse are the vague warnings such as:


What do these “maybe” warnings mean? Basically it is a way for manufacturers to take the easy way out and cover their ass instead of being more diligent in manufacturing and cleanup processes. There is always a risk of cross contamination between manufacturing lines of a factory. Or human error.

When in doubt, your best bet is to call the food manufacturer for more information. If you are still not sure, stay away from a product. The more severe the allergy, the more vigilant you need to be.

Do you or a family member have a food allergy? How do you deal with ambiguous allergy warning labels?

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  • DMSJ

    For our family (with one member who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, and soy), the most difficult thing is that soy does not always have to be labeled.  (Also, the fact that it is in almost everything!)  Soybean oil does not count as a soy allergen because the concentration is low enough that some soy-allergic people are not affected by it.  Unfortunately in my son’s case, soybean oil *has* shown a reaction.  Also, soy shows up in “natural flavors” and other such vague ingredients sometimes.  In general, I am just thankful that his allergic reactions have thus far tended to be fairly mild, so accidental contamination is not a tragedy, just an annoyance.  

    • Fooducate

      Oils do not contain the protein in soy that triggers the allergic reaction. That’s the theory at least. But you are not the first to point out allergic reactions in soy derived products such as oil and lecithin. See our post on Soy Lecithin What is Soy Lecithin and Why is it Found in So Many Products?

  • EVIL food scientist

    Allergens are declared one of two ways: A “contains” statement like in the examples shown, OR the allergens are listed inside the ingredient statement (or both at the same time).
    Food plants put the “may contain”, “processed on equipment that processes XXX” , or similar “cover your ass” statements as additional information for consumers as well as at customer request.  Our facility co-packs products for some vendors who specifically request “processed on equipment that also processes (insert allergen list here)” to be on their labels.

  • Guest

    Hypochondria among modern Americans is out of control. Self-diagnosing and surfing internet quack sites, like this one. Quack, quack, quack, quack, quack.

  • Cnclarke820

    I sell a product in which the company puts processed in the same building as.  what ever because we know that for some people their reaction can be horrible even though it’s a clean build and we hand pack every product at the time of order it’s not a cover our ass thing.  We know some nut allergies are so bad that we should warn people that nut products are made in the same building.  We also refuse to label things like our spices gluten free because while not mix near the flour or anything they are mixed in the same building.  Not everyone is out to cover their butts but more to inform the customer as much as they can. If a customer as a reaction to something that may have been in contact with peanuts then we have a duty to help them make an informed choice in whether or not our products are right for them.

  • Tigalig

    My son has a life-threatening allergy to peanuts and tree nuts. We stay away from any item with a warning label. He has almost died twice so it’s simply not worth the risk. I’m thankful for the “cya” labels because frankly it drives me to better options for my child (natural food choices don’t pose the same risks).

  • Anonymous

    My son had MANY allergies that caused things like eczema and ear infections. We got good at spotting the people with fake allergies because they would eat foods that they did not realize contained nuts, almond extract, soy protein, etc. and be perfectly fine. The credibility problem makes it harder for the people with real allergies!

  • Momo

    Nice article but misses a reference to celiac which is an auto-immune condition and often confused with gluten-intolerance.

  • Carol

    Note that the “may contain” statements are not required, and are simply to alert people who have severe allergies (i.e., when even a speck of dust from said allergen can trigger a reaction — and it’s not so easy to clean up every speck of dust from a facility) … such allergies are not very common, but the statements are a courtesy to those who have them, and, yes a waiver of liability, of sorts. There are dedicated “gluten-free” processing facilities, but expect to pay more for products made in them.
    Note also that “gluten” is not the same as wheat, although wheat (and some other grains) contain it. Gluten is not one of the 8 “allergens” required to be declared in the “contains” statement or spelled out in ingredient lists (definition/regs are pending, though).