People with food allergies have to make careful calculations when choosing a place outside their homes for a meal. According to Food Allergy Research and Education, 33 million Americans live with food allergies–making it extremely likely that foodservice workers will encounter someone with a food allergy or intolerance multiple times in just one shift.1
If you’re preparing or serving food to the public, it is critical to get in the practice of reading food labels to identify potential allergens and be prepared to offer your customers allergy-safe menu options.
Read on for our quick guide on how allergen information appears on food labels.
Read the ingredient list
You’ll first want to look for a list of ingredients on the original packaging of any prepared food items. The ingredient list is the foundation of understanding what a food product contains.
Ingredients are typically listed in descending order by weight, meaning the most prominent ingredients are listed first. Allergens are often indicated in bold, UPPERCASE, or highlighted to draw attention. You should be familiar with the names of allergens you need to avoid, as they may have different names or be listed as derivatives.
Know the common allergens
The most common food allergens in the US include peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, wheat, fish, shellfish, and sesame. Check the ingredient list for any of these allergens. Remember that some allergens can be present in unexpected forms, such as casein (milk protein) or albumin (egg protein).
Look for allergen warnings
Manufacturers often include allergen warnings, such as "Contains" or "May contain," to indicate the presence of allergens. These warnings are typically placed near the ingredient list. If a product contains allergens, it will be stated here, even if they are not listed in the ingredient list. When a label uses the warning “Contains,” it means that the allergen is present in the product.
Cross-contact can occur when allergens are unintentionally present in a food product due to shared processing equipment or facilities. Labels may include statements like "Manufactured in a facility that also processes peanuts" or "May contain." These types of warnings mean the product might have been near the allergen sometime during the production process. The product does not contain the allergen, but this warning is used as a precaution to note the potential cross-contamination risk. It is a voluntary statement that not all manufacturers will use, but it should be taken seriously.
Approach with extreme caution
If a customer tells you that they have severe allergies or specific dietary requirements (or any allergy, really), it is your responsibility to ensure the message gets shared throughout the kitchen. Following best practices for avoiding cross-contact, like having a separate allergen-safe area for food prep and having plate stickers to identify allergen-safe dishes, can easily help you and everyone in your kitchen protect customers from an allergic reaction.
Remember, food labels are subject to change, so it's essential to review them each time you purchase a product, even if you have bought it before. Taking the time to read and understand food labels can significantly reduce the risk of accidental exposure to allergens and help you make safe food choices.
1: Food Allergy Research and Education: Facts and Statistics