For most people, packaged food is a welcome convenience. Canned, bottled, and prepared foods can be a meal in themselves, or simply help cut out 30 minutes of extra preparation when you don’t have the time to spare. You can trust that the label will more or less reflect what you’re actually getting when you open up the package. But if you have food allergies or sensitivities, you could be gambling with your life.
Why Don’t Labels Disclose Potential Contaminants?
For me it’s not quite so serious. Just the other day, I ate some canned food that should have been gluten-free. It wasn’t. I have no idea exactly why I had the reaction I did. It could have been trace amounts of wheat that got mixed in during packaging on shared equipment. It could have been undisclosed barley or rye used in processing the item. It could have been an ingredient contaminated with gluten used as a flavor enhancer.
There’s nothing quite like eating food that should be perfectly safe, only to realize too late that something is wrong. In my case, “too late” meant I got to spend the next 24 hours doubled over with horrific stomach pain, a rash of sores in my mouth, and a killer headache. But at least eating gluten won’t send me into anaphylactic shock.
It shouldn’t be this difficult to determine whether packaged food is safe to eat or not – food manufacturers know if their products have the potential to become contaminated, but they often choose not to disclose that possibility.
Many products will have a warning if there’s a danger of contamination from shared equipment, but this one didn’t. The FDA does not require such labeling – so unless a company has come out and stated specifically that they use a dedicated processing facility free of potential contamination, there’s no way to know if your food is really safe. And while wheat, the major source of gluten in most foods, is required to be labeled as a potential allergen, other gluten-containing grains like barley and rye can easily slip under the radar. If they’re used in processing and not the final product, they may not be listed as ingredients at all – and to some people, these trace amounts can be dangerous.
Why Don’t Labels Tell Us Where Ingredients Come From?
This is also true of other potential allergens not recognized a “major” allergens by the FDA. Corn allergies can be especially difficult to navigate, as most packaged foods and pharmaceuticals contain corn derivatives, but labels aren’t required to disclose when they’re present. And the name of the ingredient may be something more or less incomprehensible like “hydrolyzed vegetable protein” or “sorbic acid.”
Often, the only way to find out where these mystery ingredients were derived is by calling the manufacturer. Sometimes they won’t even know. Unless the source for these ingredients is milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, or soybeans, the manufacturer doesn’t have to tell you where it came from. And usually they won’t.
This essentially makes it legal to gamble with the lives of people with severe and less common food allergies. Most people will only become ill from an allergic reaction, which isn’t pleasant by any stretch of the imagination, but probably won’t kill them, either. But not everyone’s so fortunate, and people with serious food allergies should have the right to be able to sit down and eat without risking anaphylactic shock because of confusing and obscure ingredient labeling.
What Exactly Is “Natural Flavor”?
Unfortunately, labels like “natural flavor” or “spices” are often used to obscure the ingredients in food. Some of these can be seriously gross (and mess up a vegetarian or vegan diet), but some can be downright dangerous.
Right now, asking the manufacturer or avoiding any products listing “natural flavor” as an ingredient are†the only solutions for those with allergies or food sensitivities other than the “big 8.” If you have a very mild reaction or it takes a significant quantity to set you off, it might be safe to take a chance and see. But if you have a serious food allergy, you may have to avoid anything with this “ingredient” entirely just to be safe.
Improvements In Food Safety
It’s not enough for the FDA to merely suggest that possible sources of contamination be acknowledged. And it’s not enough for only 8 major allergens to be acknowledged in plain English on food labels.
Rather, food labels need to be required to openly disclose all possible sources of contamination, and the sources of all ingredients need to be easily identifiable. Ingredients like “hydrolyzed vegetable protein” can be made from corn, wheat, soy, or just about anything – the source should be present on the label. And “natural flavors” should have to be disclosed in easy-to-understand language. For some of us, it’s a simple matter of quality of life – but for others, the potential consequences are much more serious.
Until stricter food labeling laws are passed, I encourage people with food sensitivities to cook from scratch as much as possible. I know it’s not always possible, especially if you have a busy schedule. But when eating the wrong thing can land you in the hospital or force you to miss days of work, the extra effort is worth it. For once, you’ll be able to know exactly what’s in your food.
Photo credit: cogito ergo imago via Flickr