Do Food Labels Tell the Whole Story?

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As a vegan who is lactose intolerant, I am in a bit of a quandary when I buy processed foods.  I don’t eat dairy products because I am vegan. But, it will cause me problems if I eat some unintentionally. When it doesn’t say vegan or dairy free on the label can I really be sure?

FDA rules on ingredient labeling are murky.  The label must declare ingredients if those items are added in whole to the product.  What if those ingredients are part of another ingredient like natural flavoring or gravy?  The answer is maybe.  According to this article, a label only has to list ingredients if they are substantial to the recipe.  Things like spices and flavoring do not have to be listed as anything other than spice, flavoring (see no. 10 on the article).  For instance, dairy added to flavoring doesn’t have to be listed as a separate ingredient.

This may not seem like a big deal to the FDA or food manufacturers.  It is to a vegan and even more so to someone who is lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy.  It’s no fun going through a dairy episode.  (This goes for those who have other types of food sensitivities as well.)

There is also the problem of cross contamination from equipment.  Many products are made on the same equipment as those with allergens.  Some companies are voluntarily adding this information to labels, others are not.

I find it interesting that I don’t always have a reaction to products that have no dairy but are produced on equipment that also produces food with dairy.  The Dajoba bar doesn’t bother me, but Endangered Species bars do.  I have no explanation for it except to follow my body.  If I have a reaction, I cross that food off my list.

When in doubt, I am reluctant to buy an item.  I prefer food products that clearly state whether there is dairy, vegan, or whether they have been run on machinery that also produces dairy products.  I give a big thumbs up to companies who provide this information.  I wish more would.

Education is important.  The more we know about the regulations that are applied to food labels and what the terms themselves mean we can make better purchases.



2 thoughts on “Do Food Labels Tell the Whole Story?”

  1. Thank you for this, Melody, and for the link to the FDA guidelines. I did not realize that spices could be labeled just that and not called out individually. Disappointing. I like to know what’s in my food!

    Because potentially life-threatening food allergens are an issue in our extended family, I am grateful that the FDA now requires even trace amounts of the six major food allergens, including dairy, to be labeled. See #7:

    “Note that major food allergens (as discussed under Food Allergen Labeling), regardless of whether they are present in the food in trace amounts, must be declared.”

    Excellent information! Thank you.

    1. Kathryn, Food labeling is tricky and confusing. I’m glad that they are getting better at declaring food allergens. I noticed a couple of years ago that some companies, such as chocolate bar makers, were noting things like .1% dairy in their ingredient lists. When Dajoba chocolate changed their labels to reflect this, I contacted them. They assured me there was no dairy in the chocolate bar recipe, but the .1% reflected trace amounts that might be picked up on equipment that also produced dairy products. This falls in line with item 7 that you pointed out. I’m grateful for this updated labeling. As a vegan I don’t eat dairy, but I’m also lactose intolerant. Sometimes even small amounts cause an unpleasant reaction.

      As you know from the life threatening allergy in your own family, this type of labeling is vital. I now look for that line at the bottom of the ingredients that says “May contain…” or similar wording before I read anything else.

      Thank you for your comments and pointing out this important labeling requirement!

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