How Much Can We Trust Allergen Labels? “May Contain” Gets a Closer Look


Allergen IconsI think it was fabulous when the allergen labeling law went into effect and companies had to clearly label if a product contained one of the top eight allergens, which includes milk. I won’t lie, this has made my life easier, but there is still that grey area. Most products are made in large factories and/or packaged in them. There are multiple lines of production, many shared, or simply close by one another. In general, companies clean their equipment between batch runs, but it is true that trace amounts of an allergen may remain. For this reason, some companies have taken it upon themselves to include “may contain” or “made on shared equipment” or “made in a shared facility” warnings. I understand their reasoning; since the point of the newish labeling is to address allergens and some people do have severe or life-threatening food allergies where even trace could spell tragedy.

But, how much can the highly allergic trust these labels? Is it being disclaimed too much or not enough? A recent study delved into allergen labeling, testing for allergens in products with and without advisory labels (but that did not have the allergens in the ingredients), and interestingly enough, milk was the biggest offender.

They also tested for egg and peanut, but companies seem to be taking huge peanut precautions these days, as there were very few “offenders” (that is, companies did include a “may contain” warning with more diligence).

According to the article feature from Allergic Living, “…  almost 6 per cent of the products from smaller companies that didn’t have an advisory label for milk did, in fact, contain milk.” An “advisory label” is described as a “may contain” type label, not as a flat out statement that there is say, milk in the product. Smaller companies were found to have insufficient warnings more often than larger companies.

According to Navan Food, “Overall, the researchers found detectable residues of food (over 2.5 ppm) in 5.3% of food with advisory labeling and 1.9% without labeling.” Roughly 2/3 of these had detectable levels over 10ppm, which is considered the limit for the definition of a “trace” amount.

What does this study mean for you?

First, assess the level of the allergen you are dealing with (disclaimer: this is something you should address with your physician). If you are dealing with a mild or moderate reaction to allergens such as milk (whether it be an intolerance, sensitivity, or allergy) odds are the trace amounts found in these products are not a concern. However, it is possible for some people that consuming too many products with trace amounts, very regularly could cause some problem (especially if it is a product that actually has higher than "trace" amounts as found in the study). If you are dealing with a severe or life-threatening reaction to a food, it is essential to contact the manufacturing company to confirm the ingredients AND the processes. This study only further confirms that need.

Second, I think the fact that “smaller” companies are targeted as having more contamination issues is worth noting on the one hand, but on the other, there are many small companies out there that focus specifically on creating allergen-safe foods. We don't know if those companies were included in this study. Also, this may be because some smaller companies use whole food ingredients rather than chemical and highly processed ingredients that are often far removed from food proteins. In other words, many factors could have affected the results of this study, so if a severe food reaction is a concern for you, use caution regardless of the company’s size.

Photo Icons from Navan Foods


Article by Alisa Fleming, founder of and author of Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living.

About Author

Alisa is the founder of, Food Editor for Allergic Living magazine, and author of the best-selling dairy-free book, Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living, and the new cookbook, Eat Dairy Free: Your Essential Cookbook for Everyday Meals, Snacks, and Sweets. Alisa is also a professional recipe creator and product ambassador for the natural food industry.

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