Allergic Reactions: What’s in That Cookie?

FDA report finds food manufacturers don’t list ingredients that cause potentially fatal allergic reactions.

Allergic to peanuts? Before you take a bite out of that cookie, how sure are you that it doesn’t contain nuts, even if the label doesn’t list any?

While food labels are supposed to tell all, they don’t. After a two-year study, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found that a quarter of all food manufacturers don’t list ingredients that cause potentially fatal allergic reactions, The New York Times reported.

Such omissions pose a real danger to roughly 7 million Americans, about 2 percent of the population, who suffer from food allergies, says Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder and chief executive officer of The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), a nonprofit organization that works to increase public awareness about food allergies.

“We’re looking at a pretty serious food safety issue,” says Munoz-Furlong. According to FAAN, food allergies are the leading cause of anaphylaxis, a severe reaction characterized by itchy skin, swelling of the throat and difficulty breathing. Anaphylaxis results in about 30,000 emergency room visits, 2,000 hospitalizations, and 150 to 200 fatalities each year.

“The importance of reading a food label is still there, but we also need the food industry to do its part and make sure that the information on that label is accurate,” Munoz-Furlong adds.

The FDA examined 85 companies most likely to use common allergy triggers in abundance: cookie makers, candy companies and ice cream manufacturers. The study found that 25 percent of food samples tested positive for peanut allergies even though peanuts weren’t listed on the food label. Furthermore, nearly half (47 percent) didn’t check their products to ensure that all the ingredients were accurately reflected on the label.

Cross contamination a problem

Many allergens, the FDA determined, slip in undetected through cross contamination in the manufacturing process. For example, a company may be making candy bars with peanuts on one line in the morning, then switch to making candy bars without nuts on the same line in the afternoon, without cleaning the machinery. As a result, pieces of peanuts do appear in the candy bars without nuts. Or, bakers use the same utensils to stir separate mixes or reuse baking sheets between batches.

Ninety percent of food allergic reactions are caused by eight common foods, with peanuts being the leading culprit, followed by shellfish, fish, tree nuts and eggs, according to FAAN. Other leading causes are milk and milk by-products and wheat.

FAAN has been working with the FDA and the food industry to improve food labeling, Munoz-Furlong says. For example, they encourage food manufacturers to use simple consumer-friendly, English terms such as “milk” or “egg” instead of casein or albumin or whey; to stop using the phrase “non-dairy” when milk proteins are ingredients; and to avoid using the term “may contain” and other precautionary allergen statements in lieu of factual labeling.

How to protect yourself

If you are one of the 7 million Americans who has a food allergy, the FDA report is a signal that you should be extra cautious in selecting foods, according to Munoz-Furlong and the FDA.

Munoz-Furlong offers several suggestions to help you avoid foods that might pose a problem:

  • Read labels very carefully. If you don’t know what an ingredient is, don’t eat the product or call the company and ask.
  • Stick with recognizable brand names made by large companies, which tend to have better manufacturing practices.
  • Stay away from “high risk situations,” such as ice cream shops and bakeries, where ingredient lists aren’t available.

There are no medications to cure food allergies and allergy “shots” have not been proven to be effective. Strict avoidance is the only way to prevent a reaction, according to FAAN. If you do have a reaction, an injection of epinephrine, also called adrenaline, is the medication of choice.