Join the Meeting Place for Moms!
Talk to other moms, share advice, and have fun!

(minimum 6 characters)

Do you rely on nutritional labels for 'accuracy' regarding ingredients?

Posted by on Dec. 10, 2012 at 5:24 PM
  • 25 Replies

Eating M&M's was a big deal for Nicholas Vanech when he was 10 years old. He was allergic to tree nuts (almonds, etc.), so candy was always a gamble for him, but the chocolate candy label only said "may contain peanuts," which he knew he wasn't allergic to. So he popped them in his mouth.

It wasn't long before Nicholas, now 18, went into anaphylactic shock, a severe allergic reaction that causes the tongue and throat to swell, making it difficult to breathe and requiring a trip to the emergency room.

"I called [the candy manufacturer] after my son's reaction," said Denise Vanech, Nicholas's mother."I said, 'Is it possible that he could have been exposed to tree nuts from your product?' They said, 'Yeah. It's the same facility.'"

That was nearly a decade ago.

Since then, food labeling in the United States (and at Mars, Inc.) has undergone significant changes to prevent customers from experiencing allergic reactions, but there's still a long way to go, experts say.

"It's a very difficult topic to find a perfect solution for," said Dr. Scott Sicherer, a professor and researcher at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. "Companies can always make a mistake and have recalls if a product is found to have a mislabeled an ingredient in it. Unless someone gets sick from it, they wouldn't know it was there."

The Food and Drug Administration and manufacturers have issued 20 recalls in the last 60 days for undeclared allergens in food products, including Chicken of the Sea tuna, which had undeclared soy; two kinds of Wegmans brownie mix with undeclared milk; and two kinds of ice cream with undeclared pecans, according to FDA records.

An ABC News analysis found more than 400 recalls for undeclared allergens in food reported to the FDA since March 2009. More than 140 of them were for desserts and snack foods, like cookies, candy and ice cream. Repeat brand recalls were often from grocery stores, such as Kroger, Publix, Whole Foods Market and Wegmans.

Eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts, and wheat make up 90 percent of food allergies, according to a 2008 CDC report that found an 18 percent rise in children diagnosed with food allergies between 1997 and 2007.

Federal law requires manufacturers to list the top eight allergens on food labels in plain English -- "milk" instead of "casein," for example. The law, called the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, went into effect in 2006.

But other allergens, like sesame, don't have to be called out on food labels. It's also possible that products that don't contain an allergen can become contaminated with it if the allergen-free product is made or packaged in the same factory as a product containing that allergen.

"Advisory labeling, some people call this precautionary labeling," Sicherer said, "those types of comments are totally voluntary. They're not part of the law."

As such, the labels aren't consistent with one another. Labels can say "may contain peanuts," or "made in a facility that also processes nuts," which many allergic people find confusing. It's possible a manufacturer failed to write an advisory or that the manufacturer over-labeled on items that were at low risk for contamination.

Food safety lawyer Bill Marler said he's never had a case in which someone had an allergic reaction because a manufacturer failed to say it intentionally put nuts or milk in its product, but he's had cross-contamination cases.

"I think there's probably a lot more of these not-straight-up labeling issues," he said. "I do think the manufacturing process is open to mistakes being made, especially when they're making multiple types of food in the same facility."

In 2001, Marler fought for a Seattle boy whose mother had to hold him down as emergency doctors gave him two shots of epinephrine. The boy had eaten a health bar that was supposedly milk-free, but he soon became nauseous and broke out in hives. His mother re-read the label looking for milk, to which her son was severely allergic, but it wasn't there.

Marler said he also remembered an old case in which a fruit basket was nut-free but caused an allergic reaction because nut dust from another fruit basket contaminated it.

"It didn't kill the kid, but it came really close," Marler said.

Dr. Donna Hummell, an allergist at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt University said chocolate and candy are often especially risky foods for people with nut allergies to eat.

"If you can buy it with almonds in it or buy it plain or buy it with peanuts in it, it's better to watch out," Hummell said.

You don't need to tell that to Nicholas's mom. Vanech has made countless phone calls to food manufacturers over the years to keep her son safe.

She can tell you that her son can eat pretzel M&M's because they're not made in the same facility as almond M&M's. She knows that Ben and Jerry's always makes chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream before making flavors with nuts, but since Nicholas is allergic to eggs, too, he can't eat their vanilla. She also knows that Breyers ice cream always sanitizes machinery between flavors, so their egg-free vanilla is safe for Nicholas to eat.

"It's not a joke," Nicholas wrote in an email."I get frustrated when someone passes off my allergy as some type of intolerance or tries to coax me into eating something."

When it comes to food labels, Nicholas's advice to younger children with new food allergies is to "READ THEM," he typed, adding that it's not worth the risk to go into anaphylactic shock. He said he never leaves home without an EpiPen and reads ingredients even before he buys food.

"I think the best advice I can give to younger children with food allergies is to not to be afraid to speak up about your allergies," he wrote. "Don't be embarrassed; you haven't done anything wrong and, yes, it is OK to tell a friend or a waiter/waitress more than once if they don't seem to 'get it.'"

Mars, Inc., which manufactures M&M's, was not immediately available to comment on its manufacturing processes at the time of Nicholas's allergic reaction.

Should't the people who suffer from severe allergies be hyper aware of what they eat? Should everything be spelled out in a label or in the form of a warning?

by on Dec. 10, 2012 at 5:24 PM
Add your quick reply below:
You must be a member to reply to this post.
Replies (1-10):
by on Dec. 10, 2012 at 5:27 PM

 Fortunately nobody in our family has food allergies so I haven't worried about that.

But most labels now have warnings on them that say "May contain wheat or peanuts" etc. etc. for example.

by Bronze Member on Dec. 10, 2012 at 5:44 PM

Should all the ingredients in a food be listed?—of course it should. And the short list of major allergens are perfectly reasonable to require documenting. If you can't keep records well enough to create an ingredients list, you don't deserve a license to produce foodstuffs for sale. As for cross-contamination issues, I think that's a "caveat emptor" situation. There are just too many food production facilities, including ones that do contract work, to be able to trust that there isn't cross-contamination.

by on Dec. 10, 2012 at 5:50 PM
1 mom liked this

 I don't rely on labels, but my family doesn't have any food allergies.  I'm sure it would be quite a different story if one of us did have food allergies.  I would certainly want to know that the food my family member ate was safe for them.  The food industry absolutely should be held accountable for what they place on their labeling and do their due diligence to prevent as much cross contamination as possible.  If, like with M&M's there is a label saying "May Contain Peanuts" or something to that effect, the consumer definately has to decide for themselves if it's worth the risk of consuming.

by Wenchy on Dec. 10, 2012 at 5:54 PM
3 moms liked this

Maybe we should only be eating foods that have a really short ingredient list?

by on Dec. 10, 2012 at 5:55 PM
1 mom liked this
As a mom with a child with Celiac, I read every label but also contact companies to learn what their natual flavorings contain.
Posted on the NEW CafeMom Mobile
by Ruby Member on Dec. 10, 2012 at 5:58 PM
DD has severe food allergies. We are hyper aware, but food manufacturers need to do a better job as well. 1.5 years ago after eating allergen free trail mix by Enjoy Life, (because of her other allergies,) DD had her first (& hopefully only) anaphylaxis. I saved her life & came to learn that she is deathly allergic to sunflower seeds. Do you know, sunflower oil *may* be in many products? Many items say, "contains one of the following oils:..." That's ridiculous! Choose an oil! Some companies now list sunflower seeds with other allergens. Some companies, like Gerbers, don't seperately list the common allergens & put egg in all their infant food pasta! Ridiculous! I could go on, but they could do better too.
Posted on the NEW CafeMom Mobile
by Whoopie on Dec. 10, 2012 at 6:00 PM

I buy few ready made items and do not routinely cook for anyone with an allergy, but I do peruse labels- I do not like HFCS or added salt and chemicals- best to avoid the ready made stuff altogether-

by Whoopie on Dec. 10, 2012 at 6:01 PM
2 moms liked this 

by Ruby Member on Dec. 10, 2012 at 6:04 PM

Thankfully i don't have much label reading to do. I read the labels for ready-made snacks is send to DS school because they need to be peanut and dairy free but other than that we really only eat whole foods.

Soup though...i eat a lot of canned soup and i can't ever recall looking at a label.

by Whoopie on Dec. 10, 2012 at 6:07 PM

You need to read the labels, some soups are terrible- homemade soup is so easy to make and then you can control what ingredients are added.

Quoting UpSheRises:

Thankfully i don't have much label reading to do. I read the labels for ready-made snacks is send to DS school because they need to be peanut and dairy free but other than that we really only eat whole foods.

Soup though...i eat a lot of canned soup and i can't ever recall looking at a label.

Add your quick reply below:
You must be a member to reply to this post.
Join the Meeting Place for Moms!
Talk to other moms, share advice, and have fun!

(minimum 6 characters)