For Children With Allergies, Reading Food Labels Is Crucial

It's estimated that one in every 13 children in the United States has a food allergy. Food allergy reactions can range from a rash to respiratory distress and even death. The uncertainty of how a child will react when exposed to food allergens is a great concern for parents.

"It's impossible to know how a child will react to a food allergen. Just because the child had a mild reaction before doesn't mean it won't be more severe the next time," says Joyce Rabbat, MD, medical director of the pediatric allergy division at Loyola University Health System and an assistant professor in the department of pediatrics and division of allergy and immunology at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

Rabbat says avoiding the allergen is extremely important for a child with a food allergy and reading food labels is crucial for keeping the child safe.

"Avoidance is the mainstay of treatment. For a child who's allergic, ingesting even a small amount of the allergen could result in an allergic reaction. This is why becoming familiar with what to recognize on food labels is of utmost importance," Rabbat says.

Though a 2004 law mandated that food labels list major food allergens, not all possible allergens need to be listed. The only food allergens that must be listed are milk, eggs, soybean, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish.

"Any food not on the list doesn't have to be listed on food labels. In addition, manufacturers aren't required to list possible cross-contact or cross-contamination of the food with allergens. Many will print these potential cross contaminates, though this isn't required by law. It's important for parents to be vigilant," Rabbat adds.

Rabbat also notes that ingredients usually are listed in order of quantity.

"The first few ingredients are the main ingredients represented in higher quantities. This is important because every child has a threshold of reactivity; in select cases, patients may tolerate small quantities of the food. But if too much is ingested, they may react. It's important to discuss food allergen avoidance with your allergist, to determine what's safe for an individual to eat, and what to avoid."

— Source: Loyola University Health System