They’re NOT Allergens? What it Means to be Highly Refined

One question we often field generally reads something like this:

Dear SnackSafely.com:

This product has a statement that says “Contains: Wheat” but doesn’t mention anything about the peanut oil listed as an ingredient! If I wasn’t such a careful label reader I would have missed it entirely! Should I report them?

Signed,
Irate in Indiana

To answer questions like Irate’s, we need to take a close look at a clause in Section 203 of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 – often referred to as FALCPA, the law that mandates how food products must be labeled with regard to allergens.

Here’s the clause in question (with the emphasis ours):

The term `major food allergen’ means any of the following:

(1) Milk, egg, fish (e.g., bass, flounder, or cod), Crustacean shellfish (e.g., crab, lobster, or shrimp), tree nuts (e.g., almonds, pecans, or walnuts), wheat, peanuts, and soybeans.

(2) A food ingredient that contains protein derived from a food specified in paragraph (1), except the following:

(A) Any highly refined oil derived from a food specified in paragraph (1) and any ingredient derived from such highly refined oil.

(B) A food ingredient that is exempt under paragraph (6) or (7) of section 403(w).”.

So highly refined oils are exempt from the allergen labeling regulations mandated by FALCPA.

Well, we know the Dowager Countess of Grantham (our favorite character from Downton Abbey) is highly refined, but what exactly are highly refined oils and why are they treated differently from the foods from which they are derived?

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In a nutshell, highly refined oils are edible oils “resulting from a process that involves de-gumming, neutralizing, bleaching, and deodorizing the oils extracted from plant-based starting materials such as soybeans and peanuts.”

One benefit of the refining process is that undesirable free fatty acids, gums and phosphatides are removed, eliminating undesired odors and imparting uniform color and consistency to the oil.  The other is that the resulting oil is left virtually free of allergenic proteins, according to the Institute of Shortening and Edible Oils (ISEO).

Great. So now we know what highly refined oils are and why they are exempted from labeling requirements. But are they safe for allergic individuals to consume?

This is what FARE has to say about peanut oil:

The FDA exempts highly refined peanut oil from being labeled as an allergen. Studies show that most individuals with peanut allergy can safely eat peanut oil (but not cold-pressed, expelled or extruded peanut oil – sometimes represented as gourmet oils). If you are allergic to peanuts, ask your doctor whether or not you should avoid peanut oil.

This is prudent advice that should be applied to all highly refined oils derived from your allergens of concern… ask your doctor.

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We know from feedback we receive from our readers that many families coping with food allergies choose to avoid highly refined oils derived from their allergens of concern. Many do so at the advice of their physician, others do so simply to err on the side of safety.

What does your family do? Please let us know by leaving a comment below.

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15 COMMENTS

  1. My son’s consumption of fries fried in “refined” peanut oil resulted in wheezing, which clued us to get him checked out for a peanut allergy. No surprises – he is allergic to peanuts, all tree nuts, and sesame. We avoid peanut oil and all other oils derived from items he is allergic too (i.e. coconut oil, almond oil, sesame oil, etc.)

  2. my daughter tests mildly allergic to tree nuts and peanuts but goes into anaphylaxus from contact, consumption or inhalation. When she eats french fries fried in highly refined peanut oil, she itches. Her reaction is milder than to whole peanut proteins but her allergist says to stay away from it all because even a mild reaction can be severe the next time.

  3. I love the word MOST. The data is so behind the times when it comes to legislation. Maybe in 2004 Most was a bigger number but now many people are seeing that a label needs to be transparent for ALL. If my child was exposed to something and had an anaphylactic reaction to it from something not on the label that was a top 8 do I get to have her life back? Can I sue FALPA, the company or the FDA. I think the important thing is Labeling needs to be 100% transparent there is no wiggle room for exposure to a peanut oil, protein, dust. Most can fly on a plane without incident but many can not. Same deal why would anyone try to justify not being accurate when it comes to an ingredient derived from a plant that is a top allergen. People have gone into anaphylaxis from refined peanut oil. Thank you for sharing this!

    • I agree. Who are they to decide what risk a parent wants to take for their child’s life?
      Why do they think it’s ok for them to decide that because MOST people might consume something safely that it’s somehow ok to withhold the information from us?
      It’s no real burden for manufacturers to be transparent. It’s incredibly insensitive do decide some people don’t deserve information about allergens that could kill them or their child.
      The “harm” to manufacturers in entering more words onto their labels is nothing compared to the harm to a person killed by the undisclosed allergens.

    • I wholeheartedly agree also! I have been diagnosed with many food allergies and recently began investigating the “natural flavor” ingredient in many foods. Most companies will not disclose what it is even after a lengthy email exchange, and are hiding behind their supplier’s proprietary information. For one company, I was told that they use “Soybean oil as a processing aid” but soy (nor any derivative thereof) is not listed as an ingredient. Upon further investigation, because the soybean oil is “highly refined” it is exempt from the labeling process as they claim that the soy protein has been removed. This is ludicrous!! How are we to stay away from our allergens if the food companies are not transparent in their labeling, and the FDA is giving them a pass. So frustrating.

  4. I realize that the discussion here is about allergens. I would just like to make one other important point, highly refined oils are not nutritious. In fact, arguments could made they are in fact harmful to our health. Don’t eat highly refined oil, allergic or not. Problem solved. Foods with such complicated ingredients lists are NOT foods you want yourself or a child to consume. Whole, unprocessed foods is the way to go, you always know what you’re getting. FOOD!

  5. We never risk it. Our physician supports that and also highly encourages us to avoid it. It’s simply not worth it. I never want my daughter to have to use her epi-pen. Ever.

  6. They state that most shouldn’t be affected or it’s virtually free of the allergen protein… They can just not use it since chances with life are not taken in our family. Life is risky enough no additional risk is necessary!! Plus – most of the time when you ask a server about oils they really don’t know or understand.

  7. The FDA doesn’t appear all that concerned with the lives of the people they are trying to protect.

    Perhaps the people at the FDA should stop wearing their seatbelts in their cars on the way to work tmrw because “MOST” car trips don’t result in fatalities!

    Do the people at the FDA responsible for deciding what protections we get want to forego the protections they receive to protect themselves in their daily life because “MOST” of the time nothing happens? Ex, elevator inspections in their building, brake inspections by their mechanic, health inspections at their local restaurant, refrigeration for their food…
    The day one of their children is killed by an allergen in their food that was not labeled may be the day they get it. Perhaps they should be reminded that just because you have no food allergies today, doesn’t mean you won’t develop a life threatening allergy (at any time without warning). It is getting more and more common.

  8. I react the same way to highly refined soy oil as I do to any other soy product. Please every one that has reaction to the refined oil needs to file a complaint with the FDA so that we can get the allergen charts to indicate the allergen. The present FDA policy is to exempt the highly refined oils from being listed. And as most of us with allergies know this can be life threatening. It will not get changed unless those of us with allergies step up and file complaints.

  9. I was advised by my daughter’s GI doctor to give her fiber gummies and I explained that they have coconut oil in them and she is allergic to coconut. She told me that the oil is so super refined that there shouldn’t be any reaction. We ended up at the hospital with a anaphylactic reaction. I will never again trust anything listed with refined oils.

  10. Yes, mostly as shea nut oil is in a lot of sun tan lotions and skin lotion and a rash has been present upon usage. And nuts seen hidden in a lot of products. My son is PN/TN ana. I find is odd personally that oils, refined or not are not listed. Oils are oils, period! Then the parent/person, etc can decide for themselves, as it seems by these comments we are anyway. But now we are un-informed, which is more confusing! My husband is allergic to shellfish, so we watch for fish oils as well, but he feels an itchy throat and does not need an epi-pen.

    I should not need a science degree to shop for basic need for by 10 year old son…crazy!

  11. My nut, soy etc allergic son has had an anaphylactic reaction to peanut oil. However for his anaphylactic soy allergy, he eats highly refined soy oil and soy lecithin without issue. Our allergist says this is because of the level of tolerance for each allergen in the same person. So it isn’t for us just an issue of do we avoid but rather what we avoid for each allergy in the same person.

  12. In our house, the rule of thumb is “when in doubt, do without”. I don’t play Russian roulette with my son’s life. He’s had severe food allergies since birth and is still severely allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. We just avoid anything that even mentions either on the label. We are very meticulous about reading labels and we have very detailed discussions with waitstaff and sometimes even the chef when eating out. He’s never had to use his epipen and we hope he never will. There are plenty of foods to eat that are peanut/tree nut free.

  13. Unfortunately, the economics of mass food production makes it impossible to stick to one particular type of oil and need the flexibility to use different oil. Peanut oil is frequently used due to its low cost and makes a good oil for frying. I have peanut allergies myself but can safely consume products made with or fried in heat processed peanut oils. The FDA is basing its guidelines on solid science and the fact that the reality is it is safe for overwhelming number of those with allergies. If you you find that risk unacceptable then your alternative is to only make your own food or buy some extremely expensive boutique brand.

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