CHICAGO – Approximately 5% of children and 4% of adults in the United States have a food allergy, according to the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md. Food allergens are almost always proteins, but not all food proteins are allergens.
In a person with a food allergy, the immune system reacts abnormally to a component of the food, usually a protein. Exposure in even the smallest amount may produce immediate or delayed symptoms. Some may be uncomfortable, such as hives or nausea; others may be life-threatening. There is no room for error in food manufacturing when it comes to mislabeling of allergens or cross contamination.
Consumers are counting on label accuracy when it comes to allergens. Four in 10 purchased foods with allergen labeling in 2021, according to the 2022 Food & Health Survey conducted by the International Food Information Council, Washington, with 80% purchasing products specifically because of labeling.
While one in three shoppers looked for allergen labels because of a specific allergy in their household, almost the same number do so because the absence of those ingredients is seen as better for health or because it fits within a specific diet or eating pattern. The good news is consumers trust that manufacturers and regulators are doing their jobs when it comes to allergen disclosure. Nine in 10 shoppers consider allergenic ingredient labels reliable, and 4 in 10 consider them very reliable.
Sesame added to the list
When Congress passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act in 2004, the Food and Drug Administration identified eight foods and food groups (dairy, egg, fish, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts and wheat) out of more than 160 identified food allergens as being responsible for 90% of serious food allergic reactions. In April 2021, the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education and Research Act was signed into law, declaring sesame as the ninth major food allergen recognized by the US. This change becomes effective Jan. 1, 2023, and makes sesame subject to the same language labeling disclosure requirements for the original eight major food allergens and the major allergen preventative controls requirements. Many marketers have been adding sesame to the ingredient declaration statement over the course of the past year as they have made other packaging updates.
Of the major food allergens, milk represents the most common cause of recalls due to undeclared allergens, according to the FDA. The five food types most often involved in food allergen recalls are bakery products, snack foods, candy, dairy products and dressings, such as salad dressings, sauces and gravies. Within the candy category, the FDA has received many reports of undeclared milk in dark chocolate products, highlighting this food type as a higher-risk product for consumers allergic to milk.
Sesame seeds, due to their prevalence in commercial baking and their small size, are anticipated to be the cause of many baked foods recalls in 2023.
“Sesame is the elephant in the room,” said Nathan Mirdamadi, senior food safety specialist, Commercial Food Sanitation, New Orleans, during the American Society of Baking’s BakingTech conference this past March. “It’s definitely going to be a problem, especially for bun bakers.”
Mirdamadi said the issue of sesame as an allergen shouldn’t have come as a surprise, because sesame has been recognized as an allergen in Canada since 2002.
Health Canada also includes mustard and sulfites (a food additive) on its list. While sulfites do not cause true allergic reactions, they are generally grouped with the priority allergens because sulfite-sensitive individuals may react to sulfites with allergy-like symptoms. Those who have asthma are most at risk to sulfite sensitivity and other forms of sulfite reactions.
“Regulations, very rarely, do they get any easier,” he said. “They always get more strict. So, if you’re building a plant today, we already know that in the UK celery is an allergen. In Canada, mustard is an allergen.”
Enjoy Life Foods, a free-from snacking brand acquired by Mondelez International Inc., Chicago, in 2015, takes its free-from stance even further by also excluding any gluten-containing ingredients, as well as mustard, lupin and sulfites. The brand’s tagline is “Free from 14 allergens,” and packages feature “school safe” and “certified gluten-free” logos.
Seeing the bigger picture
The free-from trend is bigger than eliminating allergens. It includes elimination of ingredients to which a growing number of consumers are intolerant or sensitive. This is when consumption of certain foods triggers a negative physiological response without impacting the immune system. Symptoms may even take a few days to surface, making diagnosis difficult. While not life-threatening, symptoms may be severe and range from gastrointestinal distress to headache to chronic fatigue.
The most common free-from claims are gluten-free and lactose-free. The elimination of the allergen “dairy” ensures the product is free from lactose. That’s because lactose is a sugar only found in mammalian milk.
Eliminating the allergen “wheat,” on the other hand, does not guarantee the product is free from gluten, as there are many sources of gluten. In addition to being present in wheat, it is found in other grains, including barley and rye. There are also many hidden sources of gluten in a formulator’s ingredient toolbox, including colors, flavors, shortenings, seasonings, etc. When making a gluten-free claim, it’s important to prioritize sourcing certified gluten-free ingredients to make label claims for the approximate 1% of Americans who have celiac disease. There are about three million US consumers who must eliminate all gluten from their diet.
There are others who have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, as well as a growing number of consumers — an estimated 30% of US adults, according to Chicago-based The NPD Group — who are trying to reduce or eliminate gluten from their diets as they believe it improves overall health. Purported benefits include improved cholesterol levels and digestion, along with increased energy and weight loss.
“Consumer packaged goods manufacturers can benefit from this trend,” said Darren Seifer, executive director, food and beverage industry analyst with The NPD Group. “Appropriately labeling a product as gluten-free can remove barriers to usage for consumers with gluten issues or those who wish to cut down on its consumption. Even if the product naturally lacks gluten, consumers might not know all the sources of gluten, and the label would quickly remove any doubt.”
Preventing cross contamination
Enjoy Life is unique in that its products are free from all major allergens and gluten. Another is The Safe + Fair Food Company, Chicago. Most of this company’s products carry a “top nine allergen free” claim and are made in an allergen-free facility. Some products, such as chips and popcorn, are produced in a facility that manufactures products containing milk, sesame, wheat and soy. While good manufacturing practices are followed at the manufacturing facility to minimize the potential cross contact of food allergens, the company makes this disclosure statement on its packages and states the product is “allergy friendly.”
One of the company’s newest products — Anything Bagel Seasoned Popcorn — was formulated without that new No. 9 allergen, sesame. The company tests its finished products for the top nine allergens, as well as coconut and Brazil nuts. While a Brazil nut is a tree nut, it is one of the most allergenic tree nuts, so the company conducts extra testing to ensure its absence.
Many marketers focus on being free from only a few allergenic, intolerant or sensitive ingredients. This typically takes place in a food where one would expect ingredients to be present and instead is carefully formulated with substitute ingredients to make the free-from claim. Simple Mills, Chicago, is one such company.
“I started Simple Mills in 2012 with a brazen vision of helping people feel better through purposeful, nutrient-dense food that easily fit into their lives and didn’t ask them to sacrifice flavor for health,” said Katlin Smith, founder and chief executive officer. “We take our gluten-free status very seriously and go above and beyond the industry standards to confirm the safety of our products. All our products are naturally 100% gluten-free. We also do extensive finished-product gluten testing conducted by a third-party laboratory.”
While free from gluten, Simple Mills products contain tree nuts, namely in the form of almond flour. Most products are free from the other major allergens; however, a few items are made with eggs and dairy. To prevent cross contamination, the company segregates allergens during ingredient storage and production, conducts full allergen cleans between production runs and tests for allergens on manufacturing equipment before use.