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It’s all in the label

Nutrition listings on food products are about to change for the better.
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Milions of Americans are affected by food allergies, but up until now, ingredient listings on packages have not been complete enough for consumers to avoid accidental ingestion of foods that may make them very ill. Syndicated columnist and “Today” show contributor Phil Lempert has the low-down.

CONSUMERS ARE RELYING on food labels more than ever before. We look for calories, fiber, vitamins, fat content and even the type of fat that a product may contain. It’s the way that millions of Americans make their food choices each day.

But as good as the Nutrition Facts labels are, there are a few important pieces of information that are missing and can be life threatening.

Food labels are about to change for the better in terms of food allergens and organics.


According to the Food and Drug Administration, food allergies affect an estimated 6 to 7 million consumers in the United States. Currently there are no cures for food allergies, and the only successful method to manage these allergies is to avoid foods that contain the causative proteins.

But too often, ingredient listings have not been complete enough to serve as an effective tool for consumers.

While the FDA has not formally defined “allergens” it has listed the foods that are the most commonly known to cause serious allergenic responses:

Ninety percent of all food allergies are caused by the proteins from:

Crustaceans [e.g., crab, lobster and shrimp]






Tree nuts [almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, chestnuts, filberts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts]


The new Food Allergen Labeling Guidelines are designed to inform consumers in easy-to-understand language. One major flaw of the current regulation is the requirement to use scientific terms on the label — for example; listing albumin for eggs or whey instead of milk — which can be confusing. That will be changed so that the commonly understood terms listed above will be used.

Foods that contain a protein of one of these Major Food Allergens will also appear on the label if they are contained in a flavor.

There are a number of designations that will be allowed, and at least one of the following will appear on the label:

Product packages will now include the designation of “Contains _________” with the allergen listed in immediate proximity to the ingredient declaration. For example, “Contains soy and milk.”


An ingredient that contains one of the Major Food Allergens would contain an asterisk referring the consumer to a statement of explanation. For example, “whey” would be listed as “whey*” and would be followed by “*milk” after the complete ingredient declaration. Ingredients: Sugar, chocolate, whey*, coconut, *milk.

In terms of flavors, which are now listed as “natural flavors,” they will be listed as “natural flavors (peanuts and soy) or be listed as “natural peanut flavor” and “natural soy flavor.”

The other new label that is soon to appear on supermarket shelves is the long-awaited organic label.

It’s critical to understand some of the basics, like, “what does organic mean?”

The definition is not a simple one, and that’s why a lot of consumers reading labels on organic products have been confused. Organic products are ones that do not use or come in contact with toxic and persistent chemical pesticides and fertilizers. It also means that the ingredients are not genetically modified, irradiated and they have not been produced with sewage sludge. Organic production methods are designed to keep our air, soil and water as clean and pure as possible.

In supermarkets and health food stores, you can find three types of organic designations: “certified organic,” “grown in accordance with,” and those products that just label themselves “organic.”

“Certified organic” has been the gold standard for organic foods. That means that the product has been grown and processed according to strict organic standards. An example would be apples that have been grown in soil that has been free of pesticides for at least three years, have not been genetically modified in any manner, and are not sprayed with any synthetic pesticides or herbicides. Certification also mandates annual on-site inspections.

“Grown in accordance with” simply means that the grower or processor has followed all organic production regulations in their state.

And those products that just say organic on the label without any further explanation or detail should give consumers reason to question the claim and get more information.

These three designations will change soon, hopefully helping our label reading, instead of adding even more confusion.

100% organic, which will appear only on products that contain all organically produced ingredients.

Organic, meaning that at least 95 percent of the product’s ingredients are organically produced and that no part of the food be genetically modified, irradiated or have been produced with sewage sludge.

Made with organic, will be the label allowed on products that contain between half and 95 percent organic content.

And for products that have less than a 50 percent organic content, the organic ingredients can only be listed as organic in the ingredient panel. To read the complete detailed proposed regulations, go to As hard as the farmer might try, remember that there is always the risk of pesticide contamination through wind drift of nearby non-organic farms. The EPA tolerance level for pesticides is 5 percent, and both the current and proposed regulations prohibit the “organic” label on any crops found above that level.

The National Institutes of Health have reported that healthy adults are not at risk from consuming a normal amount of EPA- and FDA-approved pesticides.

However, they do caution that the very young, very old and people of all ages who have immune deficiencies may be at risk.

Let’s remember that nutrition is a relatively new science, and we should expect our food labels to be updated as we learn more about the effects of foods on our health and well-being.

Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru®, analyzes the food marketing industry to keep consumers up-to-date about cutting-edge marketing trends. He is a regular “Today” show contributor, columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and host of Shopping Smart of the WOR Radio Network. For more food and health information, you can check out Phil’s Web site at: