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Food Labels to Be More Sensitive to Allergic

Simpler, clearer language will call a peanut a peanut

THURSDAY, May 31, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- You might not know you're allergic to caseinates. But if you find out that means "milk" you could save yourself a case of hives by skipping the icing you were about to mix up for your birthday cake.

At least that's what the food industry is betting on with its new guidelines for simplifying the language on food product labels. It also plans to identify more thoroughly the ingredients that could cause food allergies.

"These guidelines will make life a lot easier and take the mystery out of label reading," says Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder of the nonprofit Food Allergy Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), the organization that spearheaded the year-long project to help consumers avoid foods that could trigger an allergic reaction.

FAAN and more than 18 food companies worked together to produce the voluntary guidelines that clarify how to best warn consumers with food allergies when choosing foods.

They agreed, says Munoz-Furlong, that food products should identify the top eight allergens that cause 90 percent of food allergies. They also agreed that food labels would avoid technical food language in favor of simpler terms that consumers would understand; for instance, the word "milk" will appear instead of (or in addition to) the word "caseinates."

Also, she says, the companies recommend more clear identification of the flavoring in food products. "Instead of seeing the words 'natural flavors,' you will see 'natural peanut or milk flavor.' The information will be right there," she says.

Finally, the guidelines describe when to use the words "may contain" in identifying possible allergens in food products, standardizing the terminology so that consumers know exactly what it means.

Food allergies affect only between 6 million and 7 million Americans, according to FAAN, but between 150 and 200 people die annually from severe allergic reactions, mostly from eating foods they thought were safe.

Peanuts are the leading cause of severe allergic reactions. Other common allergic reactions are caused by other tree nuts like walnuts and pecans, as well as fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, soy, and wheat. Allergic reactions can include swelling of the tongue and throat, difficulty breathing, hives, stomach cramps, loss of consciousness and, in extreme cases, death.

In a letter to the Food Allergy Issues Alliance (FAIA), an industry trade group, Joseph Levitt, director of the Center for Food, Safety and Applied Nutrition for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), praised the guidelines for identifying food allergens and setting uniform standards throughout the industry.

"This will be a major health benefit to the food allergy sensitive consumer," the letter states.

"The food industry is ahead of consumers in wanting to disclose the risks in certain foods," says David Klurfeld, professor and chairman of Nutrition and Food Science at Wayne State University in Detroit. "They don't want to be sued. They don't want to have to recall products."

While the guidelines are voluntary, Munoz-Furlong says, some companies like Kellogg's and General Mills have already adopted them and "we expect more companies to come on board quickly."

What To Do

To read the new guidelines and find out more about food allergies, visit the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. Information about food safety and nutrition can be found at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

HealthDay has written other articles about food allergies.

SOURCES: Interviews with Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder, Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), Fairfax, Va., and David Klurfeld, Ph.D., director, Department of Nutrition and Food Science, Wayne State University, Detroit, Mich.; Food & Drug Administration
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