Confusing Food Labels
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
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