Food Labeling: Observations on U.S. and U.K. Food Labels

Sorry for the long time between postings, my husband and I were in the U.K. visiting family. Lucky for me, his family lives an easy journey away from London, so I got to visit some of my favorite spots. I even managed to see the Enchanted Palace exhibit at Kensington Palace. If you are going to be in London during the next few weeks, I really recommend the Enchanted Palace show. One of the things I like most about visiting the U.K. is the range of gluten-free options. Every restaurant we went to either had a gluten-free menu or knew of the top of their heads which meals could be made without gluten. Not once was I asked, “huh?” or received a blank stare. It was kind of awesome.

In some ways, it is a little easier to have a gluten allergy in the U.K. First of all, the National Health Service provides a subsidy to people with celiac to offset the additional costs of gluten-free foods. Also, phrases like “stabilizer” or “emulsifier” require clarifications not required here in the U.S. Though, I have to admit, more U.S. food producers are starting to include clarifications when using such terms.

You may be wondering what I am talking about. According to the nutrition practice I visit for guidance on living with celiac, U.S. food producers do not have to clarify certain food terms (I will try to find any published articles I may have on this). They can use nebulous ingredients like “emulsifier” and “stabilizer” without having to state the origin of these ingredients. U.S. food labeling rules only require food producers to explicitly identify the eight most common allergens (i.e. – wheat, soy, tree nuts, milk, fish, shellfish, peanuts and eggs, see: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/food-allergies/AA00057). That means, if you are like me and should not consume wheat, barley or rye, current U.S. regulations are only kind of useful. Luckily, rye is not hiding out in to many things aside from rye bread and Wild Turkey, but barley is everywhere! It is hiding in salad dressings and even cold cuts. Barley, like sodium, helps to preserve foods and prolong a product’s shelf life.

Caveat: I sometimes email companies to ask if a product is gluten-free. I have had pretty good luck with responses. JellyBelly recently informed a colleague of mine that all their jelly beans are completely gluten-free.

Back to the U.K.: food labels must state the origin of derivative ingredients, like “emulsifiers” or “stabilizers”. For instance, bottles of salad dressing might say something like “emulsifier (diglyceride: fatty acid)” or “malt (barley)”. Food companies are required to produce labels that simplify ingredients to the point that an average consumer may pretty easily identify the components of every product on the shelves. Consumers in the U.K. don’t have to guess what “emulsifier” means: food producers have to state it on the label.

There are of course, still risks. If the package does not certify that the product is gluten-free on the label; it could still be made either on shared equipment or in the same facility as a gluten product (I am not sure what the U.K. guidelines for those standards are). Nonetheless, it was pretty awesome to pick up a product on any shelf in the super market and easily determine if a product was suitable and could be tossed in our shopping cart.

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