No matter if your child was recently diagnosed with a food allergy or they’ve been living with one for years, reading food labels can be challenging.

When we think about allergic reactions to food, we think of hives, swelling, vomiting, difficulty breathing, and changes in blood pressure. But there are other, lesser-known reactions that have different symptoms. Every child with food allergies is different. Some are tolerant of small amounts of allergens, and others need to avoid even trace amounts.

With any food allergy, it’s essential to be vigilant about helping your children avoid their allergens. An exposure can cause a reaction, and its severity can range from mild to dangerous. Avoidance is the first defense against food allergies. It’s important that you understand how to read food labels so you can help your children avoid allergens.

1. Learn Labeling Laws

It’s important to know what manufacturers are required to put on their labels. These requirements are different around the world. If you travel internationally, keep that in mind!

In 2004, the U.S. passed a labeling act that required that packaged food containing any of the eight major food allergens needed to list them on the label. The eight major food allergens are:

  1. Milk
  2. Egg
  3. Wheat
  4. Soy
  5. Peanut
  6. Tree nut
  7. Fish
  8. Crustacean shellfish

However, this law does not apply to packaged foods that may contain an allergen.

2. Understand How to Read Labels

Manufacturers don’t always list the eight major allergens in a way that’s obvious or consistent. Here are three ways manufacturers list allergens:

  1. Calling out the allergen underneath the ingredients: “Contains wheat”
  2. Call out the allergen in the ingredients list: “Flour (wheat)”
  3. Bolded within the ingredients list

All of these ways of listing allergens indicates that the allergen is present in the food.

3. Understand “Trace” Foods Don’t Have to be Listed

Precautionary allergen labeling is when manufacturers list the presence of an unintended (or trace) allergen. This type of allergens occur when cross-contamination happens during manufacturing. This includes food that’s produced using equipment shared with an allergen or in close proximity to an allergen.

Terms that indicate cross-contamination include:

  • May contain
  • Might contain
  • May contain traces
  • May be present
  • Produced in a factory with
  • Produced on the same line
  • Manufactured on shared equipment with
  • Packaged in a shared facility with

Remember that manufacturers are not required to list trace foods, and they can choose whether or not to include this information on labels.

4. Know Where to Find Allergen Labeling

Trace allergen information is often under the ingredients list, but it could be somewhere else on the package. Sometimes it’s on the other side of the package, opposite from the ingredients list. Sometimes it’s under the ingredients list, but there’s marketing information between the ingredients list and the trace allergen list. Read the entire package to be sure that you don’t miss it.

5. Know that Manufacturers can Change Their Process

Manufacturers can change their process at any time without alerting their consumers. Because of this, it’s important to check food labels every time your children eat something. Reading food labels is necessary, even for foods that your children have been eating for years. Though this sounds exhausting, it will get easier as it becomes part of your routine.

6. Know Allergens can Have Many Names

Allergens have different names or are called different things depending on how they are created. “Whey” is made from milk; “marzipan” is made from almonds. The good news is that if a food contains one of the eight major food allergens, it must be included on the label.

If there’s a specific product that you’re concerned about, you can call the manufacturer to get more information about their ingredients and production processes. If you’re concerned about your child’s risk of allergies, schedule an appointment with their pediatrician today.