For people with food allergies, ingredient labels are like a book that's missing a few chapters — you're not getting the whole story. Included on many packages are vague words like "spices," "seasonings," and the ever-popular (and sometimes creepy) "added color."
If you happen not to be one of the 12 million Americans with a food allergy, don't think this issue doesn't matter. With one in 25 people affected, chances are someone you care about deals with this problem on a daily basis.
Since 2006, food manufacturers have been required by the Food and Drug Administration to tell you if a product contains milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat or soybeans. These account for approximately 90 per cent of all food allergies.
If you're allergic to something not in that group, deciphering labels is more challenging.
"Nonspecific labeling is a real issue for people who have less-common food allergies, including spices," says Dr. Marc Riedl, co-director of UCLA's Food Allergy Clinic.
When my younger sister, who has a severe mustard allergy, came to visit, I thought I was being a careful shopper when I purchased Trader Joe's Fat Free Balsamic Vinaigrette salad dressing. Before pouring, I showed her the bottle. She declined the dressing, pointing out the mystery ingredient "spices."
The next day I called Trader Joe's, which has more than 340 stores in 26 states, and was told that the dressing does, indeed, contain mustard. Good thing my sister is label-savvy, or our dinner could have ended with a trip to the ER.
In fact, some 30,000 people in the United States go to emergency rooms each year with allergic reactions to food. More alarming, there are approximately 200 deaths every year in this country due to food allergies.
Obviously, food allergies are a tricky business, and fuzzy labels are not the only culprit. But why not make life easier for allergic consumers and just list all ingredients?
"For most food manufacturing companies … there is concern over that secret recipe, or the proprietary formulation," explained Matt Sloan, vice president of marketing for Trader Joe's.
Curious, I called back Trader Joe's customer relations, as well as Safeway and Kroger, to inquire about store-brand ketchups. All three companies said the recipe was proprietary, but I could ask about specific ingredients. Did the ketchup contain mustard and garlic? Trader Joe's gave me an immediate answer. Safeway and Kroger provided the information within 24 hours.
There's likely another reason for vague food labels: shame. Center for Science in the Public Interest director Michael F. Jacobson speculated that some manufacturers would be embarrassed if consumers knew what's really in their ingredients, especially when it comes to coloring additives.
Mr. Jacobson explained that companies don't want to reveal that "artificial colors" or "color added" often means that the desiccated bodies of bugs were used to give food a red hue.
CSPI first petitioned the FDA about this in 1998, after a University of Michigan allergist determined that his patient had nearly died from eating a red popsicle. The allergist discovered that color additives extracted from the dried bodies of the tiny female cochineal insect had caused the life-threatening allergic reaction.
Starting in 2011, food and makeup labels must disclose that a scale insect is an ingredient. But don't expect the label to include "smooshed bugs." Instead, look for "carmine" or "cochineal extract."
In a public statement, Mr. Jacobson observed: "That's useful progress. But, ideally, FDA should have exterminated these critter-based colorings altogether" because of the risk of serious allergic reactions.
If this isn't enough to make you buggy, there's another twist on labels. When I visited a Costco Warehouse, Kirkland Chocolate Raisins beckoned, until I read: "This product is packaged on equipment that also processes peanuts and walnuts."
A Costco spokesman explained the raisins take a ride on an enrobing machine, which coats treats with chocolate. On any given day, the conveyor belt might carry tree nuts and peanuts, in addition to raisins.
But don't they clean the machine between foods? That question turned out to be beside the point. The issue of concern is airborne allergens. In other words, peanut dust might stay in the air and land on the raisins — important information for people, like me, with a peanut allergy.
There are some highly sensitive people who could react to this kind of exposure, according to UCLA's Dr. Riedl. In this case, the label is complete and accurate — unlike many others that don't tell you all you need to know.
Emily Dwass is a Los Angeles-area writer and contributor to FairWarning, an online news publication focused on consumer safety and health. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. A longer version of this article appears at http://www.fairwarning.org.