New studies look into common food allergens

Two recent studies involving two of the most common food allergens — milk and peanuts — were recently published and are shining new light into what allergic consumers can do to keep themselves and their families safe.

U.S. law requires manufacturers to label food products that are major allergens, as well as food products that contain major allergenic ingredients or proteins. Allergens contained in a food product but not named on the label are a leading cause of FDA requests for food recalls, and undeclared milk is the most frequently cited allergen. Additionally, chocolates are one of the most common sources of undeclared milk associated with consumer reactions.

After receiving reports from consumers who had harmful reactions after eating dark chocolate, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) studied 94 different dark chocolate bars, testing them for the presence of milk.

What they found was that of 94 dark chocolate bars tested, only six listed milk as an ingredient. When testing the remaining 88 bars that did not list milk as an ingredient, FDA found that 51 of them actually did contain milk. In fact, the FDA study found milk in 61% of all bars tested.

According to the report, the chocolate bars were obtained from different parts of the U.S., and each bar was unique in terms of product line and/or manufacturer. Bars were divided into categories based on the statements on the labels, including:

  • “may contain milk”
  • “may contain dairy”
  • “may contain traces of milk”
  • “made on equipment shared with milk”
  • “processed in a plant that processes dairy”
  • “manufactured in a facility that uses milk”

The FDA found that milk was present in three out of every four dark chocolate products with one of these advisory statements. Some products had milk levels as high as those found in products that declared the presence of milk. The article states this is because milk can get into a dark chocolate product even when it is not added as an ingredient as most dark chocolate is produced on equipment that is also used to produce milk chocolate.

In addition to the advisory statements above, labels for chocolate bars sometimes have other claims on them including “dairy-free” or “lactose free.” However, the FDA found milk in 15% of the dark chocolates with these labels and 25% of dark chocolate products labeled “vegan” (which implies that no animal-derived products were used).

The FDA is evaluating the study findings and considering options for addressing the issues identified. Allergen contamination is included in the preventive and risk-based controls mandated by the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Under the proposed Preventive Controls for Human Food rule that is scheduled to become final this year.

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In another study, researchers found that children with peanut allergies are more likely to have an allergic reaction at home rather than at school, and that most moderate and severe accidental exposures are managed inappropriately by caregivers and physicians.

This study looked at 1,941 children who had been diagnosed with a peanut allergy to determine how exposure occurs, how serious the outcomes of the exposure are, and what treatment is given. The children involved were seven-years -old on average when the study began, and over the course of three years, 567 exposures involving 429 children had occurred, the researchers found.

Overall, 37% of the reactions took place at the child’s home, 14% occurred at another’s home, and about 10% happened at restaurants. Fewer than 10% happened at school or daycare, and nearly one-third happened at other or unknown places.

Schools and daycare centers that prohibit peanuts involved nearly 5% of peanut exposures, while schools and daycare centers that allow peanuts accounted for only 3% of accidental exposures, the researchers pointed out in a recent article.

The study’s first author, Sabrine Cherkaoui, said there are a couple of ways to interpret these findings:

“Firstly, schools and daycares that allow peanuts may be doing a good job of controlling risk due to heightened awareness of the dangers,” she said. “Secondly, when peanuts are not allowed, the child may be lulled into a false sense of security, as peanut foods may inadvertently be brought in and shared with the child.”

She went on in the article to add that the most significant finding of this study is the discovery that most moderate and severe accidental exposures are managed inappropriately by caregivers and physicians, stating that only 42% of severe peanut allergy reactions recorded in this study were evaluated by a medical professional.  In addition, more than 15% of cases went totally untreated,” she added.

“For moderate reactions, the situation is far worse,” Cherkaoui added, as medical attention was sought only 25% of the time.

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Neogen offers screening and quantitative food allergen test kits to detect all major food allergens. For more information, click here.

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