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Trying to Decipher Food Labels?

Excerpt By Jamie Cohen, ABCNews.com

Kamut, albumin, casein? Huh? It seems that translating food labels these days requires a degree in "labelese." That means for parents whose kids have food allergies, every trip to the grocery store becomes a painstaking exercise in code-cracking. And for many, deciphering this label language can mean the difference between life and death.

The National Institutes of Health report that "food allergies are increasing in incidence and currently affect up to 8 percent of U.S. children, tragically leaving more than 100 dead from allergic reactions each year," explains Dr. Wesley Burks, president of the Arkansas Children's Hospital Research Institute and professor of allergy and immunology at the University of Arkansas Medical School, Little Rock.

Families of kids with food allergies depend daily on ingredient labels to keep their children healthy and safe. Just a morsel of the wrong food, even a crumb or a dusting, can result in anaphylaxis, a rapid, allergic reaction that can cause brain damage or death.

But new research shows that numerous obstacles, interfere with a parent's ability to accurately identify the allergen they must avoid.

"Food-allergic consumers are faced with myriad barriers and landmines when it comes to buying commercial products," explains Scott Sicherer, assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of asthma and immunology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

Translating Labels

A recent study, published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, asked 91 parents of kids with known food allergies to review labels taken from commercial products and indicate whether the product was safe for their child.

Moms and dads of kids with food allergies "failed miserably," says Sicherer, one of the study's lead researchers. Despite the fact that 46 percent of the subjects had a prior consultation with a dietitian to learn to read labels, only 7 percent of parents were able to correctly identify all labels that indicated milk, and only 22 percent of parents correctly identified soy protein. Peanut, wheat and egg were correctly identified by most parents.

The study's results indicate the difficulty of interpreting labels, even for educated parents, suggesting that guardians need to study label lingo with even greater diligence. Experts unanimously agree that parents and kids must learn to recognize an enemy allergen and all of its synonyms.

What's a Parent to Do?

While it is prudent for food-allergy sufferers and parents to take responsibility for their own allergies, experts are pushing for changes in current U.S. labeling practices. "We would like clarity and consistency across the board," says a spokesperson for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network echoing other experts pleas for plain-English terms and the bolding of common allergens.

"Food labels are a potential life or death situation that needs to be a priority; we are working to get it done as soon as possible," says Dr. Gillian Sheperd, a clinical associate professor of medicine at the Weill Medical College of Cornell in New York.

Until then, the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, a worldwide organization that includes families, physicians, school staff, government agency representatives, and the food and pharmaceutical industries, offers the following information to help master the most common food allergies.

Tips for Managing Milk, Peanut, Egg, and Wheat Allergies

Milk: To manage a milk allergy, beware of the following synonyms: hydrolysates, casein, protein, whey, ghee. Milk is used to make custard, pudding, nougat, sour cream, yogurt, butter, and cheese. Experts warn caution when ordering a sandwich from a deli. Deli meat slicers are frequently used for both meat and cheese products, increasing the risk of cross-contamination. Be on the lookout for those brands of canned tuna fish that may contain casein, a milk protein. Finally, beware of ordering steaks in restaurants. To add flavor, some steakhouses may lightly brush the meat with butter.

Peanut: Experts advise peanut-allergic patients avoid chocolate candies as well as foods sold in bakeries and ice cream shops unless they are absolutely certain there is no risk of cross-contact during manufacturing. Be wary of fried foods which may have been cooked in peanut oil, also known as arachis oil. African, Chinese, Indonesian, Mexican, Thai, and Vietnamese dishes often contain peanuts. It is recommended that peanut-allergic individuals avoid these types of foods and restaurants.

Egg: Eggs, or egg proteins, are also identified as albumen, alvumin, globulin, livetin, ovalbumin, ovomucin, ovomucoid, ovovitellin. Eggs have been used to create the foam or milk topping on specialty coffee drinks and are used in some bar drinks. The term "egg substitutes" can be tricky. Some commercial brands contain egg whites. Most commercially processed cooked pastas (including those used in prepared foods such as soup) contain egg or are processed on equipment shared with egg-containing pastas. Boxed, dry pastas and fresh pastas are usually egg-free. Read the label or ask about ingredients before eating pasta.

Wheat: Wheat is also known as enriched flour, farina, gluten, graham flour, high protein flour, semolina, spelt, kamut and can be found in cracker meal, bread crumbs, bran, cereal, and couscous. At least one brand of hot dogs and one brand of ice cream contain wheat. Some types of imitation crabmeat even contain wheat!

A Final Caution: Sicherer points out that foods labeled with "natural flavoring" may contain milk products or other unidentified ingredients, so be careful to watch for this type of vague label terminology that may be masking dangerous allergens.


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