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Today we are discussing how to research allergens in food, personal care items, and cleaning products.
Is there soy in that??? Can I even have this? Is this cake safe for my child to eat? Can my grandbaby eat these crackers?
Argh!!! If you’ve ever been stumped researching products for potential allergens then this post is for you.
I am part of several groups dedicated to people (or their loved ones) living with allergies or food intolerances. One issue that seems to come up frequently is whether a food or product contains a particular allergen. I know I definitely struggled in the beginning, and it would have been very helpful to have someone guide me along.
So, here you go, my best tips for how to research allergens in different foods, cleaning products, cosmetics, etc (lets call them “products” from now on.) 😉
Research~Know your allergen
Okay, so this seems simple right. Why am I even mentioning it? Well, even though it should be simple and easy, you need to know all the names and little hidey places that your particular allergen could be hiding in, under, betwixt or between. Although labeling is much better than in the past, its still not clear cut and easy to identify allergens, especially in beauty, skin care and cleaning products!
When I was first diagnosed with an allergy to soy, I was downright amazed at all the products that contained soy. Not to over-exaggerate but SOY IS EVERYWHERE! Coffee creamer, seasoning blends, eggs, meat, cosmetics, shampoo, cleaning products, candles, upholstery, tea bags, ink-I could go on and on. Oh, wait, I already did, in this post “There’s Soy in That? Other Names for Soy and Common Hiding Places.” 🙂
Many allergens can be called different things in different products. For example, for a dairy intolerance, you would want to watch out things like butter, cream, casein, casein hydrolysate, diacetyl, lactoferrin, rennet casein, whey, etc. This article from Food Allergy Research & Education (F.A.R.E) is a good overview of milk allergies and this list could be very helpful in having a quick reference for your particular allergen.
Allergens can also be present as the base for another food or product. For example, Xanthan Gum can be derived from soy, wheat, or corn. So, some would be okay, and some would not. This could explain the “phantom” reactions when you just don’t know what you were exposed to that triggered the reaction. In my case, I even react to conventionally grown meat and eggs. Unfortunately, in the United States, most conventional and even organically grown animals are fed a diet of soy. I have learned to be wary of “vegetarian feed”. Luckily, I have been able to source soy free chicken from a local farm, Botany Bay Farm and I buy only 100% grass fed and finished beef.
Bottomline, in order to successfully avoid a potential allergic reaction, you need to be familiar with all the different names that could indicate the presence of your allergen.
Research~Google is your friend
Seriously, google can totally be your friend when you are looking for allergen safe products. I can’t even tell you how many times I would try to make a recipe, then realize one of my favorite, go-to products contained soy. A general google search is my first solution to find safe alternatives.
You might need to change up your search terms to find exactly what you are looking for. Try changing up the word order. I have also found that it helps to be specific like soy free mayonnaise or soy free onion soup mix, etc.
Research~Find some good go-to Resources
Another tip would be to find a couple of really good websites that consistently list up new information about your allergen. Of course, naturallyliz.com would be your first choice. 😉
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- Food Allergy Research & Education (F.A.R.E)
Always check the packaging
Okay, let me repeat. ALWAYS CHECK THE PACKAGING!!!!
Formula’s, recipes, ingredients, components of ingredients, can all change at any time. What was once safe, may not always be safe. So, ALWAYS CHECK THE PACKAGING!!!
Often times, product packaging will list if a particular allergen is contained in the product or if there is a potential for cross reactions. While this labeling is great, there are a couple of caveat’s:
Lack of labeling
Unfortunately, in the United States, only certain “allergens” are required to be reported. For example, soybean oil that is highly refined is not required to be labeled. The idea being that this highly deodorized, stripped, refined and bleached oil no longer contains the proteins that trigger allergic response. First of all, EEEEWWWW! gross and secondly, yes, soy allergy suffers can react to soybean oil (like me!).
Terms like “natural flavors” are ambiguous at best. People with food allergies or intolerances should be wary of “natural flavors”. Natural flavors can literally mean anything. In fact, even saying that the natural flavors is “all natural” really doesn’t help. Soy, corn, wheat, nuts are “all natural” even considered vegetarian. My advice, ALWAYS question “natural flavors”. Now don’t take me wrong, I’m not saying that you can’t have this product or “natural flavors” always mean soy. I am saying, question it! Research, look up the product info, contact the manufacturer before you make a choice to try a product.
Okay, okay, before you start throwing tomatoes at me, let me explain. So, the complete opposite problem from no or incomplete labeling, is over labeling with “may contain” statements. Nowadays, lots of companies list “may contain” or “manufactured in a facility that also processes X, Y, Z.” Manufacturers are using the “may contain” statement as a blanket disclaimer statement, basically CYA at its finest. Of course, I would rather know that there is a potential allergen in my product, but some manufacturers are putting this on every single thing just to avoid the liability. This misuse of the labeling often causes unnecessary restrictions on perfectly safe food.
So, where do you draw the line?
For me, I avoid anything with “may contain”. Better safe than sorry. However, I do use some products with “manufactured in a facility that also processes soy”. I personally tend to make this choice based on the product and the manufacturer.
Ultimately, its up to you and your own comfort level. My advice is follow your gut and consult your medical professional.
Look at product FAQ’S
Probably my number one tip!!!!
Most manufacturers will list allergen information on their websites. I always start with the product itself, either on the packaging and/or on the product information on companies websites. Often times, the product page on a manufacturer’s website will show more information that the actual physical product. If you are unable to find the information on the companies product page then try their Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) page.
More often than not, I am able to find allergen information in the manufacturers FAQ’s. In fact, I really only take a quick perusal of the product page before I move on to the FAQ’s as that is where I usually find the best allergen info!!!
Contact the manufacturer
When all else fails you can contact the manufacturer. My experience and personal opinion is to email the company instead of calling. While I have tried both methods, I find that I get better information and more accurate answers via email than when calling. I think this is for several reasons:
- Answer is in writing-For you this should be a bit more reassurance. Manufacturers really don’t want to put bad information in writing (hello liability!) so they are more likely to take the extra time to really research your question.
- Time to research-When you call a company, you are usually getting their receptionist or front line customer service reps. These folks might be super great at their job, but they aren’t usually the most educated about all the nitty gritty details of the products. When you call, their job is to answer your question as quickly as possible then move on to the next caller. When you email, they will usually send your question into a different queue to make sure that it is answered correctly.
Explain what you are wanting to know and why. You don’t have to be verbose but explain your concern. Be polite, courteous, and straight to the point. For example, I usually say something like:
Hi, I am interested in your Purple People Eater Fizzy Drink. The ingredients state it contains “natural flavors”, what is contained in the “natural flavors”? I have a soy allergy so I want to make sure there is no soy in your product. Thank you so much for your help!
Most of the time, I have had fantastic response to these emails. Usually, you are going to get one of four responses:
- Yes the product contains “allergen”: Sometimes the answer is that yes the product does in fact contain soy. Well good, glad to know, moving on.
- No the product doesn’t contain “allergen”: Yay, something I can try. Woo hoo! Notice, I said “try”. I have had a few products that the manufacturer claimed was safe, trigger a reaction but not very often.
- No response: Okay, if you are not going to respond to me then you obviously don’t want my business, or don’t want to put in writing that your product does or does not contain something. Either way, moving on!
- Vague, non-committal responses: For my situation, I err on the side of caution and avoid these products. One big name, super common allergy medication actually said,
Unfortunately, it is impossible to test for every ingredient and we cannot guarantee that our products are soy-free. Also, some of the ingredients in the product may have been purchased by us from outside distributors and we cannot say with absolute certainty that cross- contamination with soy did not occur at their facilities.
Because consumer safety is of the utmost importance to us, we recommend reviewing product ingredient listings with your physician, who is familiar with your medical history, and therefore is in the best position to advise you on the use of XYZ Products.
Some of the big name companies say things like, “We follow the FDA guidelines for allergen notification so if a product contains the allergen it will be on the label.” Umm, yeah, so what about soybean oil? Not required to be labeled, but the product could still contain soy. After one such response, I actually went ahead and tried one of my favorite seasonings (that I had used forever before the soy allergy) and totally had a reaction. Super disappointed 🙁
Again, this is my experience and my personal opinion. You have to make the judgement call based on your own intuition and the advice of your medical professional.
Here are some helpful resources that make a good starting point to learning about avoiding allergens.
- FDA Have Food Allergies: Read the Label
- Food Allergen labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 Questions and Answers
- FDA Food Allergies: What you need to know
- Soy-A Priority Food Allergen This is from the Government of Canada but does a great overview
- Soy Allergies: Spotting Problems on Food Labels by WebMD
How to research allergens ~ Summary
Okay, so to summarize:
- Research-know the terms, different names, and hiding spots for your allergen
- Research-use searches to find safe products
- Research-find some good resources you can go to
- Always check the packaging!!!
- How to research allergens:
- Read the packaging
- Review the manufacturers product page on their website
- Check the manufacturers FAQ’s for allergen information
- Email the manufacturer if it is still unclear if the product is safe for you
I hope you feel more comfortable on how to research allergens in your foods, cleaning products, and personal care products. With some research and preparation you can take some of the fear, confusion, and frustration out of living with a food allergies.
Is there anything I missed? What are your best tips for researching potential allergens? Please comment below and subscribe to get updates when new info is published.