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Allergy-Prone Endangered by
Confusing Food Labels



Excerpt By E. J. Mundell, Reuters Health

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Do you know what ammonium caseinate is? How about lactalbumin, or casein? These items, all milk derivatives, appear often on the ingredients lists of foods that--if consumed--could endanger the health of Americans allergic to milk.

In fact, a study presented at a meeting here Sunday found that just 7% of parents of allergic children could correctly spot milk as an ingredient in foods found in grocery stores across the nation. Labels were also a problem for parents of youngsters allergic to a variety of foods, including peanuts, egg, soy, fish and wheat.

"In the United States, food ingredient information is written for regulators and scientists, not for the average consumer," said Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder and CEO of the nonprofit advocacy group Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). She spoke to reporters during the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Experts estimate that 6 to 7 million Americans are allergic to at least one type of food. Despite precautions, over 30,000 incidents of severe food reactions occur in the US every year, including up to 200 deaths.

Because there is no cure for food allergy, a careful reading of food ingredient labeling is the best defense against harmful reaction. But according to Munoz-Furlong, "that's not always as easy as it sounds."

In a study conducted at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, Dr. Preeti Joshi and colleagues had 91 parents of children with food allergies read the package ingredient lists of 23 products available in most US supermarkets.

The researchers found that less than 1 in 10 parents spotted milk as an ingredient 100% of the time.

"With milk, the major problem occurred when symbols were used on food packaging, such as 'D' to indicate dairy, as opposed to the word milk, or other words indicating milk," Joshi told reporters. "The other thing that caused problems was the use of other words such as casein or whey."

Individuals with an allergy to soy may also be stumped by confusing food labels, she said. Less than one in four (22%) parents correctly spotted soy as an ingredient each time it appeared. While the word 'soy' was often found on the ingredients list, it "was often embedded in a long list of ingredients in very small font," and easily missed, Joshi said.

Parents also struggled to correctly identify peanut, with 46% failing to catch it in all five of the products in which it was found, according to the researchers. On one popular snack food, for example, the phrase "may contain traces of peanut" appeared separately from the ingredients list, causing many parents to miss it.

Those looking out for wheat and egg were more successful, Joshi said, with close to 90% of parents identifying them as ingredients in all products in which they appeared.

Munoz-Furlong said many large food companies have tried to make ingredients lists clearer and simpler since FAAN issued its voluntary Food Allergy Guidelines last year.

"We're already getting feedback from consumers that some labels in the marketplace are now updated for these guidelines--they are much easier to read and understand," she said. But more needs to be done. "What we are hearing, unfortunately, from small- to mid-sized companies is that until the FDA regulates it and requires it, they will not do anything."

In the meantime, Munoz-Furlong urged food-allergic individuals and the parents of allergic children to become better informed. "They need to learn, for example, that some products that shout 'non-dairy' on the front of the ingredients, on the back of the package list in very small, nondescript letter 'casein--a milk derivative.' This is also usually buried in the middle of a very lengthy ingredients statement."

FAAN continues to pressure industry for clearer, simpler language. Munoz-Furlong hopes that someday, "when a doctor tells a mother of a 2-year-old child to go home and avoid milk and eggs, she won't need a PhD in food science to decipher the information presented on ingredients statements."


Reference Source 89

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