Understanding food labels
- You can’t tell just by looking at a food if it’s safe to eat – it’s necessary to check labels. Reading labels can take extra time, but it’s an important part of managing your allergies day-to-day.
1. Food allergens may be present in places you don’t normally expect.
2. Food companies may change ingredients without telling consumers.
Ingredient label reading tips
- Read the label before serving a food even if it has been “safe” in the past.
- Read ingredient lists carefully from start to finish. Food companies do not have to make allergens stand out in any way (e.g. bolding, italicizing, or underlining the print).
- Do not buy a packaged food product that does not have an ingredient label.
- If you’re not sure about a product, call the company to find out if it contains an allergen.
- Do not buy food from bulk bins even if the bins have labels. Shoppers may have used the same scoops in different bins, and this can cause cross-contamination.
- Labelling laws do not cover certain products. Read labels on non-food products such as vitamins, skin creams and pet food. These can contain food allergens. Other examples are modeling clay which may contain wheat, and finger paint, which may contain egg.
- Do not eat food with a precautionary statement such as “may contain”, “processed in a facility…” or “made in a factory that also processes”. Don’t try to guess whether there is a risk based on the type of statement used, even if you have had the product before. Researchers have found that some products with these statements actually contain enough allergen to cause an allergic reaction.
- Food companies may use “free from” statements such as “peanut free” or “milk free”. Read these carefully as they do not replace the need to read the ingredient list.
Health Canada labelling
You used to have to do a bit of detective work to decipher food labels. Not anymore. Now companies have to use words like “milk” instead of “casein”, and spell out ingredients in plain language that consumers can easily understand.
This holds true for any of the government’s priority food allergens: peanut; tree nuts; soy; wheat and triticale; egg; milk; fish; crustaceans and molluscs; sesame; and mustard. According to food labelling regulations, the common name of the priority food allergens, gluten sources (wheat, triticale, barley, rye, oats) and added sulphites must be included on a food label.
“May contain” statements
Confused about the “may contain” statements you see on some packaged foods? You’re not alone.
Canadian manufacturers may use Precautionary Statements such as “may contain”, but they are not required or regulated by Health Canada. Some companies voluntarily use these statements on pre-packaged food labels if the food comes in contact with other products containing allergens, which may contaminate the original food. This is called cross-contamination.
Individual food companies add “may contain” statements at their discretion but when they do, these statements are legally required to be truthful and not misleading.
- Labelling requirements differ from country to country, so be vigilant when you’re travelling outside of Canada.
- Precautionary statements often appear at the end of the ingredient list, but not always. Check the entire package for a “may contain” or similar statement.
- Not sure whether a product may contain an allergen? Call the company to ask.
- Understanding how to avoid contact with a food allergen will help prevent allergic reactions.
Children pay attention to what you do. When they see you read labels, they will learn that this is important.
Even from a young age, your child can learn how to read a food label with your help. Start practicing when your child begins to read. Practice label reading at home and when shopping. This is a good way for your child to learn skills with you present. Over time, this will become a habit for your child.
Praise your child for reading food labels carefully. They should know you are proud of them for taking the right steps to stay safe.
Your child can also practice teaching others how to read a food label. A fun school activity is having an allergy-friendly food drive where students can bring in a product that doesn’t contain one of the top priority food allergens. For example, everyone can bring in a food with no milk, or no eggs. This is a great challenge where students learn how to properly read food labels, and it will also help them to develop a greater understanding of what it’s like to have food allergies. Learn more about hosting an allergy-friendly food drive.
- The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)
The CFIA takes food safety and labelling seriously. If you report a potential labelling issue, they may examine your product and record the lot/batch number on the package. This number identifies a specific plant (factory) and production date and time. The CFIA may visit the plant to inspect the facilities and the product made, according to the batch number. If a labelling error has occurred, the product may be recalled. Learn more on our Reporting a reaction page.
Label reading activities
Choose a few food packages from your kitchen cupboards and read the labels carefully. This is an easy way to practice label reading. Remember to look for precautionary statements on the package.
Give yourself more time for grocery shopping so you can read food labels carefully. As you become used to different products, label reading will become a habit and grocery shopping will take less time.