It’s important to know how to read a nutrition label for allergens, particularly when introducing a new product to your cafeteria, or making a replacement or substitution. As food labels change periodically, make sure your staff checks labels for allergens every time a product is purchased. It’s also highly recommended to keep the label in your records for a minimum of 24 hours after the product is served to a student with food allergies.

As the protein found in the food is responsible for causing the allergic reaction, it’s helpful to have an understanding of the most common proteins, for example, whey and casein found in milk. It’s important to note that food allergens are almost always proteins, but not all food proteins are allergens.

The FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) regulates food labels, which must follow the regulations of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA). Effective on January 1, 2006, this law requires that all food labels in the United States list the allergen in one of two ways in the ingredient list. For simplicity purposes, let’s call this Method A and Method B.

Method A:

The word “contains”, followed by the name of the food source from the major food allergen is printed immediately after or adjacent to the list of ingredients, in the same size font.

Method A

Organic rolled oats, sugar, sea salt, oat fiber, rice flour, whey, water, yeast.

Contains: Milk

Method B:

The allergen may be listed along with the ingredients (instead of a separate “contains” line). However, the common/usual name of the major food allergen must be printed in parentheses after the name of the food source.

Method B

Organic rolled oats, sugar, sea salt, oat fiber, rice flour, whey (milk), water, yeast.

What can I use as a substitute?

The easiest strategy for planning menus for students with allergens is to avoid them, if possible. Review the current food offerings in your program, and determine if a student with a food allergy can create a reimbursable meal from the other options served.

When creating new menu items, consider the most prevalent food allergens in your district, and try your best to avoid using that particular product. Substitutions can also be used if necessary. See below for a list of ideas and examples to use as substitutions.

  • Milk – coconut milk, almond milk, soy milk
  • Eggs – egg substitute products (Be careful! These products are often made with eggs whites and egg proteins)
  • Peanuts– almonds, sunflower seeds
  • Tree nuts – seeds (sunflower, chia, pumpkin, and flaxseeds)
  • Wheat – amaranth, barley, corn, oat, quinoa, rice, rye, and tapioca
  • Fish/Shellfish – protein foods (chicken, beef, chickpeas, lentils, quinoa)
  • Soybeans – lentils and quinoa

There are also substitutions which can be used in baking, for example:

  • 1 cup of milk = substitute for 1 cup of water
  • 1 egg = 1 banana (in cakes)
  • 1 egg = 2 tablespoons of cornstarch
  • 1 egg = 2 tablespoons of water + 1 tablespoon of oil + 2 teaspoons of baking powder

Did you know?

Egg white, because ovalbumin, the most prevalent egg protein that causes allergic reactions, is found in the egg white.

Approximately 35% of people with peanut allergies are also allergic to tree nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, pecans, etc.

No, “dairy-free” is not a term regulated by the FDA, so there is no guarantee it does not contain milk proteins. While the term “non-dairy” is regulated by the FDA, the product can contain milk proteins and still be labeled as “non-dairy”. Therefore, no, a product with these labels is not safe for a student with a milk allergy.

Do you have experience managing allergens in your program? Please share in the comments below!

Be on the lookout for the final part of this blog series- coming soon!