How to Read a Food Label: Tips for Allergy Sufferers

April 2023

Those with food allergies are warriors! You know what it means to face and overcome the many necessary measures it takes to prevent allergic reactions. 

One important life-saving tactic is becoming masterfully skilled at reading and understanding food labels.

Many people have become used to reading the nutrition facts on food and beverage packaging learn about everything from the number of servings and saturated fats to the amount of dietary fiber or high fructose corn syrup.

But if you are just learning how to read a food label to check for allergens, have no fear. This simple guide will help you crack the allergen code and tackle some pretty complex food labels in a matter of seconds.

Let's start with the 9 major allergens

There are now nine foods that are considered major food allergens and are required to be listed on food labels.1

  1. Crustacean shellfish
  2. Eggs (chicken)
  3. Fish
  4. Milk (cow)
  5. Peanuts
  6. Sesame
  7. Soybean
  8. Tree nuts
  9. Wheat

This list can be helpful to see the various ingredient names for each of these nine categories that may appear on a label.

Sesame is the newest addition to the list, thanks to the passage of the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research (FASTER) Act in 2021.1 It went into effect Jan. 1, 2023 and requires food manufacturers to list sesame on packaged food labels. Learn more about sesame allergies here.

How to read a food label for allergens

As part of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) of 2004, food labels must identify the food source of all major food allergens used to make the food.1

So, when you are looking at the ingredient list for a single serving on the package (often found below the nutrition information), you should see the allergen listed either:

  • By its common or usual name – like soy, wheat, milk
  • Or in parentheses following the name of the ingredient: lecithin (soy), or whey (milk), for example.

If they aren't listed in the ingredients, then they must be included in the "contains" statement (usually found immediately after or next to the list of ingredients).

  • Example: Contains soy, wheat, and milk.

The FALCPA also requires the type of tree nut, species of fish, and crustacean shellfish to be listed, which is helpful if you are only allergic to a specific type of those.

Caution: Always read the label before you eat, even if you have eaten the product many times before. Ingredients and manufacturing processes can change at any time and without warning.

Additional cautions for allergy sufferers

Voluntary “may contain” statements
Below the ingredient list, you might notice other food allergen advisory statements or precautionary, voluntary language on food labels such as:

  • “May contain … ”
  • “Processed in facility that also processes … ”
  • “Made on equipment with …”

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidance for the food industry states that food allergen advisory statements should not be used as a substitute for adhering to current good manufacturing practices and must be truthful and not misleading.1

Depending on your reaction and cross-contamination risk severity, it may be best to avoid these products altogether if they contain allergens to which you are sensitized to.

Unregulated “free” statements
Product labels can bear "free" phrases such as “peanut-free” and “egg-free,” but such products might be made in facilities where the allergens are present. So always contact the manufacturer if you are unsure.2

Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity
While wheat has to be labeled on products, other sources of gluten—e.g., barley and rye—are not required to be disclosed. This can be particularly scary for people with celiac disease. If that’s you, it’s best to stick with products that are labeled “gluten free.”

Reading food labels like pro

There’s no need to feel anxious every time you step into a grocery aisle. With a little practice, you can become a pro at reading food labels.

And if you have any doubts, just look up the ingredients and manufacturing processes via a quick online search or phone call.

Many manufacturers will provide additional information about their products, such as describing their allergen procedures.

So don’t be afraid to get involved and ask for more information about a food label. A little extra investigating could save a life.

Tools for Understanding Allergies


Track allergy symptoms and prepare for a visit with a healthcare provider.

Learn about specific allergens, including common symptoms, management, and relief. 

Are you a healthcare provider? Get comprehensive information on hundreds of whole allergens and allergen components.

  1. Food Allergies [Internet]. Food and Drug Administration [cited 2023mar16]. Available from:
  2. How to Read a Food Label [Internet]. Food Allergy Research & Education [cited 2023mar16]. Available from: