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Nut Allergies: Spotting Problems on Food Labels

With a food allergy, it’s always important for you to know what you’re eating. Reading labels is your best way to stay safe. Here are some tips and tricks to make it work for you.

Any packaged food has to show on the label if it contains milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, or soybeans. Look on the food label -- "Contains: Nuts" or "Contains: Peanuts" -- on the ingredients list.

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Nutty Words to Watch For

  • Artificial nuts
  • Nuts of any sort, including coconut
  • Nut butters and oils
  • Peanut products, such as peanut flour,  peanut starch, and peanut oil (including foods fried in it)

Where Peanuts Hide

  • Many processed foods like ice cream, snack foods, biscuits, baked goods, and candy
  • Ethnic food including African, Chinese, Indonesian, Mexican, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisine, to name a few
  • Many flavorings, thickeners, and sauces.  Even artificial nuts -- used on sundaes
  • Roasted and fried foods -- like roasted chicken -- may have peanut oil in them

Where Tree Nuts Hide

Like peanuts, tree nuts can be hidden in many foods. They may even be in non-food products like lotions (shea butter, for example) and shampoos.

Be especially careful with:

  • Sauces (like Worcestershire sauce, barbecue sauce, or pesto)
  • Natural flavorings and extracts
  • Salad dressing, and gravies

See the list above under peanut allergies for other places tree nuts may be found.

How to Choose Safe Foods

  • Stick with packaged and labeled foods. Food from salad bars, deli counters, and bakeries is more likely to accidentally have your allergy triggers in it.
  • Read food labels every time you buy a product -- even if it's something you buy every week. Food manufacturers change ingredients all the time. A food that has been safe for you and your family may not always be.
  • If you see an ingredient you're not sure about, be careful. Look it up first. Consider contacting the manufacturer if you need more info.
  • Buying a different size or low-fat version? Read food labels. Low-fat or reduced-calorie versions of familiar foods may have very different ingredients. Sizing (like snack-sized packs) or packaging (a can vs. a carton) can affect ingredients. Some products may have different ingredients in different parts of the country.
  • Check labels on medications and toiletries. Food allergens can show up in drugs, cosmetics, shampoos, soaps, and lotions.
  • Do ask and tell. At restaurants, let the staff, servers, managers, cooks, or chef know about your food allergy and special accommodations that you might need. Don’t be afraid to ask how a dish is prepared. Sometimes it can be hard to tell everything that is in a dish based on how it is listed on the menu.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on October 24, 2012

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