What Consumers Want in a Label: Food Allergen Edition
Over 50 million people in America are living with food allergies, with more and more diagnosed each year. This condition isn’t one that you can take a medication for, it is an everyday, vigilant effort on behalf of the sufferer and their families to avoid the foods containing the ingredients that trigger an allergic response. In food manufacturing, it’s a pretty well-known fact that an allergen statement must accompany a nutrition label on a packaged food product. And while this is helpful in alerting the consumer of the presence of the top 8 food allergens, there is so much more that a consumer suffering with food allergies wants out of their nutrition label. In an attempt to connect manufacturers with their direct audience for a deeper dive, we sat down with Allison McGill, a woman who wears many hats: an elementary school teacher, mom of 2 and an active member in the food allergen community. Allison uses her blog and social pages to educate and advocate for other moms who parent children with food allergies by offering support, recipes and even her personal experiences with emergency situations with her own son who suffers from nut allergies (among others.) As trends continue to snowball towards products that speak to personal dietary preferences, food allergies naturally surface within that realm. As a result, consumers are more aware than ever of the information given on a nutrition label, it’s accuracy and the importance of it’s accompanying statements. Let me hand the mic over to Allison, she’s got some great insight that will bridge the gap and help you understand your customer on an even greater level.
Hi Allison! Thank you so much in advance for all of your help with this! Your voice on this subject is so appreciated. So tell us, why is nutrition transparency and accuracy on a nutrition facts panel so important to you personally?
My 7 year old son, Grady, is anaphylactic to peanuts and eggs. He was diagnosed with his peanut allergy just after his second birthday. We discovered his egg allergy about 9 months later. We depend on accurate and easy-to-read ingredient labels to ensure the food we are feeding our son is safe.
As a mother with children having food allergies within their home, what is your day to day like? What hurdles do you encounter?
Every day takes extra planning. Food allergies have affected almost every part of our daily life.
- We are constantly reading ingredient labels. Whether we are buying food at the grocery store, preparing a meal, or using non-food products, we are constantly reading labels.
- Handwashing is a constant in our home, whether before eating, or just coming in from outside. It is automatic.
- Every time we leave the home, we have to plan our day. We need to bring safe snacks for Grady, as well as all of his medications, just in case. Food allergies don’t allow for spontaneity in our family.
- We carry wipes everywhere we go. Hand washing and wiping down surfaces are imperative to ensuring Grady is safe.
- Grady is constantly around his allergens. At school, students still bring foods into his classroom that are not safe for him. He comes home for lunch every day to minimize his chances of having a reaction.
- When we go bowling, shopping, to a movie, etc., we have to wipe down surfaces Grady will touch.
Because of how vigilant you have to be in your day to day against food allergens, what would your ideal nutrition label look like?
The ideal ingredient label would:
- Always be in black print. If the packaging is dark, then ingredients should be listed in a white box. Dark print is easier to read than white.
- All allergens are listed in bold at the bottom of the ingredient label. It can be difficult to spot allergens when listed within the ingredients.
- May contain statements and “Produced in a facility with________” should be mandatory. A lot of research goes into finding out if a product is actually safe. When may contain statements are absent, it can be misleading.
- All allergens are listed by their common name whether a food product or non-food product.
- Print is large and easy to read
How often do you feel that manufacturers change their product recipe without alerting their customers? What has been your experience with this?
We have encountered recipe changes a few different times. It’s frustrating when products are manufactured in different facilities and therefore, ingredients change. This can be difficult to navigate because the packaging looks the same between the products. A change in recipe isn’t realized until an ingredient label is read. For example Hershey’s Cookies and Cream Kisses are peanut and egg-free, but their bars aren’t safe. The margarine I buy is dairy free in town, but the same margarine, with the same packaging at Walmart, contains milk. These inconsistencies make buying safe foods difficult for us and for those asking what they can safely feed my child.
What companies have been amazing to work with as far as understanding your needs when they’ve changed their recipe? And what companies haven’t been so great? Give us an idea about this experience.
I haven’t contacted companies specifically regarding recipe changes. However, companies like Americolor, Chapman’s, Wilton, and Catelli, to name a few, have allergen information on their websites that help customers navigate their products easily. They are also good about responding to any inquiries a customer may have.
I have dealt with small businesses before that haven’t notified customers of ingredient changes. They struggled to understand the importance of ensuring their ingredient labels were accurate. A huge misconception was that if a food-allergic person ingested a small amount of their allergen, they’d still be fine. There is a big need for food allergy education.
What would you like manufacturers and CPG companies to know about food allergens? And about your experience. If you could advise them somehow, what would you say?
If I was given the chance to discuss food allergies with manufacturers, I would want them to know that food allergies are a serious disease; That even a small trace of an allergen can have serious impacts on any food allergic person. Food labels and transparency are the only way anyone living with food allergies can ensure their own safety. If customers can’t easily access allergen information, or if food labels are unclear, that is increasing the chance of a reaction. Also, when information isn’t accessible, it is difficult to trust brands and companies.
What are your thoughts on the new FDA regulated format for nutritional labels in 2020 regarding allergens?
I think priority needs to be placed on increasing the number of foods listed as major allergens. Foods like sesame, peas, sulphites, and mustard are becoming increasingly common allergens. Food allergies are on the rise in general, and it has been 5-7 years since regulations have been reviewed. The FDA also needs to streamline their regulations for “may contain” and where allergens are listed in the food label.
Anything else you would like to add?
I think in general, more education and awareness are needed around food allergies. I find that when ingredient labels are inconsistent, manufacturers are unclear about production, or allergen information isn’t easily accessible, food allergies are even harder to navigate. When there are so many inconsistencies, it adds to the stress of food allergies. When you discover you’ve misread a food label, or a food you thought was safe has been manufactured in a facility that contains your allergen, it’s a terrifying experience.
In a Nutshell (We had to)
Food manufacturing is a complicated process that requires accuracy of the highest level, for obvious reasons. This is why we exist. At LabelCalc, it is our mission to aid the food manufacturer in being nutritionally transparent with their customers. We aim to make our process so seamless that making updates to a nutrition label is as simple as an ingredient change in a product recipe that will automatically update all related products. Most recently, we’ve added the value of connecting our clients with their customers so that they can understand the “why” behind current consumer demands as a part of our regular practices. When we connect and advocate for one another, we all stand to win.
Need help with updating your allergen statement to accompany your nutrition label? Contact us today.