Confusing Food Labels

parfaitThe other day I was shopping for a cereal to make crunchy fruit and yogurt parfaits with a group of kids I’d never met before. I wasn’t sure if any of them had any food allergies, so I tried to find a cereal with the fewest ingredients that could potentially trigger an allergic reaction. (I’m a dietitian so I tend to think about these things!)

People can be allergic to just about any food. However, there are eight types of food that account for 90% of all food allergies. These are the ones that the government’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires food companies to list on the nutrition label. They are: milk, eggs, fish, certain shellfish, tree nuts (almonds, walnuts, pistachios, etc), wheat, peanuts, and soybeans. These foods must be listed in the ingredients, and might also be called out in a statement at the bottom of the list such as “Contains: wheat, egg”. Sounds pretty straight forward, right?

Well… these days nothing is as simple as it seems. I picked up several cereal boxes that had “gluten-free” advertised on the front, since this would mean that someone with either celiac disease or a wheat allergy could eat it. However, each of these also contained some of the other major allergens such as soy or nuts. Finally I found one – it had gluten-free written on it in big letters, and when I looked at the ingredient list I saw that none of the other allergens were listed. Perfect!

I bought the cereal and took it to the parfait party. Before we got started layering our yogurt, fruit, and cereal, I asked if any of the kids had a food allergy. No one did. As everyone was happily munching their snacks I looked at the name of the cereal – I’d been so focused on the ingredient list in the small print that I hadn’t noticed the name of the cereal: Honey Nut Squares. But wait! I was so careful to bring a cereal that didn’t contain nuts. I checked again and found no nuts listed in the ingredient list. If I had a food allergy and was given this product I wouldn’t know what to trust, the title – or the list on the side of the box.

If you’re one of the millions of people with a food allergy, you know how tricky food shopping can be. As my experience shows, even the simplest task of finding a cereal can be challenging. Make sure to always check the ingredient list of a product instead of just looking at the information written on the front or sides of the package. The ingredient list is the section that’s checked out by the FDA, and therefore it’s held to the highest standards.

-Dietitian Katrina