If you’re concerned about specific allergens, no doubt you’ve noticed that “circle slash” symbol on the package of various foods, often emblazoned with the words “No Nuts” or “Dairy-Free”. That must mean it’s safe for people with allergies to those ingredients, right? The answer: not necessarily.
Let’s use an example from one of the Facebook groups concerned with peanut allergy. A member posted the following picture of a package of “Birch Benders”, a popular pancake mix (symbol enlarged for emphasis):
Confused by the fact that the symbol displayed a peanut rather than a tree nut but displayed the words “Nut Free”, she wrote to the company for clarification as she was concerned for the safety of her family.
Birch Benders replied with the following advice:
Thanks for writing! We do our best to keep our products as healthy and safe for all users, but they are processed in the same facility as products that contain tree nuts. We thoroughly clean and tent our machinery between processes, but as with any packaged food, we cannot guarantee that there will be no cross-contamination. As we never wish to be a source of stress for your family, we might steer you away from our products. We apologize for any inconvenience.
This of course begs the question why the company placed this misleading claim on their package in the first place, especially since their Paleo variety contains both coconut flour and almond flour and may or may not be manufactured on the same equipment.
We reached out to Birch Benders for an explanation and are awaiting an official response from their management.
In the meantime, you may be asking yourself how this is possible. Doesn’t the symbol and “No Nuts” claim stamped on the package mean anything?
The answer again is not necessarily. Unlike standards that govern whether a product can claim to be gluten-free, the FDA has established no guidelines for what it means to be free of other allergens including peanuts, tree nuts, milk, soy, wheat, etc. So, in theory, one company’s claim of “Nut Free” could simply mean the product does not contain nuts as an ingredient even though it is manufactured on the same equipment that processes nuts. That said, this practice is misleading at best, abhorrent and dangerous at worst.
We encourage you to contact a manufacturer you are unfamiliar with even when their products display an “Allergen-Free” symbol or make the Allergen-Free claim on their packaging.
Do you have a similar story regarding an allergen-free symbol on a product your recently purchased? Please tell us about it in the comments section below.