Understanding Food Allergens: What You Need to Know

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Peanut-free classrooms and cautionary food allergen labeling are nothing new for consumers in the US, where food allergies affect a large part of the population. It’s prompted some pivotal changes in allergen labeling.

One of the most notable changes was the addition of sesame to the list of major allergens in January 2023, marking it the ninth on the roster. This change is a significant stride toward enhanced safety for those with sesame allergies. 

There are a few ways to break down the allergen guidelines, but it’s good to clarify first the difference between food allergies and food intolerances:

  • A food allergy is your body’s immune system conflicting with specific proteins. This can range from mild symptoms like hives to life-threatening anaphylactic reactions.
  • Food intolerances, however, don’t trigger the immune system but can still make you not feel well.

The FDA has set stringent rules for allergen labeling to protect consumers. Manufacturers have two options: list the allergenic ingredients or use a “contains” statement. “May contain” information, while not mandatory, serves as a valuable indicator of potential cross-contact with allergens during the production process.

Here’s a list of the Big 9 Allergens:

  1. Wheat: A wheat allergy differs from gluten intolerance or celiac disease. We’re talking about staples like bread, pasta and gravy.
  2. Milk: Milk often hides in dairy products, baked goods, butter and seasonings.
  3. Egg: You might find eggs lurking in salad dressing, condiments, mayonnaise and baked goods.
  4. Fish: Watch for fish sauce, Caesar salad dressing and dishes with mixed ingredients.
  5. Shellfish: Shrimp, crab, and lobster are your typical suspects. Fun fact: clams, oysters, and squid are not counted as shellfish in the US.
  6. Peanuts: When it comes to peanut oil, how it’s processed matters, so always check the label to verify if peanuts are called out as an allergen.
  7. Tree nuts: The same goes for tree nut oil; how it’s processed determines if it contains the tree nut allergenic protein.
  8. Soy: Soybean oil can also undergo hot pressing similar to peanut and tree nut oil, so always verify on the label if soy is present.
  9. Sesame: Unlike peanut, tree nut, and soybean oil, sesame oil does contain the sesame allergen.

Overall, it’s good to check product labels and contact the manufacturer if any doubts linger.

As for cross-contact versus cross-contamination, it’s good to be well-informed. Cross-contact occurs when allergens sneak from one food to another, whether through equipment, shared surfaces, or even the hands of those handling food. To avoid these issues, be diligent about using separate equipment, communicate openly with guests regarding their needs, ensure your staff is well-informed and establish clear protocols for handling food allergies.

For those seeking additional resources, Gordon Food Service® offers a wealth of support, from food allergy training to package labeling. See your Gordon Food Service sales representative for more information.

Download a full guide on understanding allergens and food labels here.

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