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Food Allergy Resources

Grocery Shopping for a Child with Food Allergies

May 2008

Learn how to successfully shop for your food allergic child

Purchasing food for a child who has severe food allergies is not necessarily a simple matter, especially if your child is allergic to multiple items. Every item has to be scrutinized to determine if it contains the forbidden allergens.

Although at first it can be quite overwhelming, let us assure you that grocery shopping for your food-allergic child really will become much easier with practice. A lot of the hard work comes at the beginning, when you are first learning how to determine if a product is safe for your child, and you are first trying to find a selection of foods that your child can and will eat. After you get past this hurdle, it will all become second nature to you!

Know What You Should Be Avoiding

Ask your child's allergist to provide you with a complete list of all the things to which your child is allergic. Obtain lists of all of the ways these items may be listed on an ingredient label.

Kids With Food Allergies provides complete allergen avoidance lists to assist with decoding the various names for allergen-derived ingredients. Complete lists are available for milk, egg, soy, peanut, tree nuts and wheat.

The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network also offers lists of derivative names for food allergens.

In the U.S., the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) states that if a product's ingredients include any of the top 8 allergens (milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, crustacean shellfish), these potentially allergenic ingredients must be listed in plain language on the ingredient statement or in a "may contain," "contains," section immediately following the ingredient statement. This law also applies to allergens present in colors, flavors, or spice blends. Be aware, however, that the presence of potential allergens other than the "top 8" (such as sesame), might not be listed so clearly. For example, if your child is allergic to sesame, you may need to avoid "natural flavoring," since it may contain sesame. Also, highly refined oils from the eight major allergenic sources like peanut or soy have a labeling law exemption, because studies show that they may be safely eaten by food allergic people. Don't rely on the "contains" statement alone; always read each ingredient.

Read Ingredient Labels to Check for Allergens

Always Check the Ingredient Statement

Knowing exactly what is in the food which you feed to your child is one of the main keys to avoiding allergic reactions. Don't rely on visual inspections of food items to determine whether or not a particular item is safe for your child! You cannot always tell what is in a food by looking at it. Instead, learn how to read product labels, and then check the ingredient statement of every item you purchase, every time you purchase it. Keep in mind that ingredients can and do change without notice; the product that was safe last week may not be safe today, and there are some labeling law loopholes that result in the ingredient labels not telling you everything you may need to know.

For more information, see our articles on Careful Label Reading, Frequently Asked Questions about FALCPA, Non-Dairy Labeling, and Know Your Natural Flavorings.

Be Aware that Different Versions of Products Can Have Different Ingredients

"Low-fat" or "reduced-fat" versions of products contain different ingredients than "regular" versions. "Snack size" versions of snack or candy items can contain different ingredients and/or be processed on different equipment than the full size versions. Different types of containers of the same product (i.e., shelf-stable carton vs. can) may contain different ingredients. Ingredients for a product may also differ from one manufacturing plant to another, due to local supplier variations or equipment variations at different plants throughout the country. Once again, always check the ingredient statement of every item you serve to your child, every time you buy or receive it.

Understand the Risks of Cross-Contamination

For most children with severe food allergies, cross-contamination is an important issue for you to address. Most food manufacturers use the same equipment to produce a variety of different products. Cross-contamination occurs when small amounts of residue from one product are still on the machinery when the next product is being produced. This results in minute amounts of the ingredients of product #1 ending up in product #2 even though these ingredients may not be listed on the ingredient statement of product #2.

Look for "May Contain" Warnings

Many food manufacturers do place warnings on the product box that the product "may contain traces of" an allergen or that it is "produced on machinery that also processes" allergens, or that it is "produced in a facility that processes" allergens. These potential cross-contamination warning statements are usually placed near the ingredient statement. Unfortunately, U.S. labeling laws do not require these warnings. Therefore, the absence of a "may contain traces of X" notice does not necessarily mean that the product does not contain traces of X. When in doubt, contact the product's manufacturer to inquire about the cross-contamination risk.

For more information, see our articles on Frequently Asked Questions about FALCPA and Cross Contamination of Foods with Allergenic Ingredients.

Watch Out for High-Risk Items

The following foods have a very high risk of cross-contamination:
  • Imported foods
  • Nuts
  • Chocolate candies
  • Foods from deli counters
  • Foods from salad bars
  • Items sold in bulk bins or barrels
  • Produce that is next to open bins of nuts
  • Bakery items
  • Fried foods, especially breaded, fried foods

For more information, see our article on Risky Items at the Food Market.

Learn How Kosher Labeling May Help You

Many parents of dairy-allergic children find it useful to check for the Kosher labeling of a product to help determine if the product contains dairy. "Kosher" foods are foods which meet Jewish dietary laws. For a full explanation of how this might help you, see our article on Kosher Labeling and Milk Allergy.

Check Medications

Vitamins and Medications can contain allergens
Allergen labeling laws do not apply to over-the-counter or prescription medications, but do apply to vitamins and supplements.
Be sure to check the ingredients (especially the "inactive ingredients") of prescription and over-the-counter medications, food supplements, and vitamins. To find the ingredient statement of a prescription medication, ask your pharmacist for a copy of the medication's package insert. Don't assume that medications are safe for your child or that the doctor who wrote the prescription was aware of all of the medication's ingredients. Also, you will need to familiarize yourself with the complete list of derivative names for each allergen you are avoiding as the FALCPA labeling law does not apply to medications.

Check Ingredients of Non-Food Items, Too

In addition to checking the ingredient labels of all of the food that you purchase, you also need to check the ingredients of lip balms, cosmetics, soaps, skin care lotions, shampoos, ointments, and so forth. All of these items (including those that are labeled "hypoallergenic") frequently contain food ingredients. You should also check the ingredients of the household cleaning products that you use, especially if citrus is a problem for your child. Also, you will need to familiarize yourself with the complete list of derivative names for each allergen you are avoiding as the FALCPA labeling law does not apply to non-food items like personal care products.

Take a Good Look at Your Pet's Food

Many pet foods contain ingredients to which your child may be allergic. Examples include peanuts and whey (a milk derivative) in bird seed, egg in puppy food, and peanut butter inside your dog's chew toy. Children can come into contact with a pet's food either from contact with the pet, from being licked by the pet, or from handling the food itself. For more information, see our Pet Food Allergy Alert! article. Also, you will need to familiarize yourself with the complete list of derivative names for each allergen you are avoiding as the FALCPA labeling law does not apply to pet foods.

Take Advantage of the Teaching Moments

When your child is first diagnosed, it is best if you can make the first few trips to the market without the kids. You'll need to allow plenty of extra time to read labels, look into products you hadn't noticed before, etc. But once your child is older you can use your trips to the grocery store to teach your child about food allergy management. Point out the obvious allergens so that your child can learn to recognize them. You can't expect a child to avoid peanuts, for example, if she doesn't know what a peanut looks like! Once your child acquires basic reading skills he can begin to learn how to read labels to make responsible and safe food choices.

Approved by KFA Medical Advisory Team February 2008.

Kids With Food Allergies is a nonprofit charity. More than 80% of KFA's financial support comes from donors like you. If KFA has helped you in some way, please make a donation to support our work.

Page last updated 7/29/2012

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