I’m sure many of you with allergies have experienced the unpleasant reality of discovering that a product you have eaten for years and known to be allergen free (in my case, free of soy) suddenly begins to provoke an allergic reaction every time you eat it. This has been happening to me recently when I cook with several dried herbs and spices. I am familiar enough with what my reaction to soy is like so I can say with certainty that these herbs and spices in question now definitely contain some amounts of soy. The ingredient list, of course, does not mention soy. So yesterday morning I called the manufacturer to ask if there was any hidden soy in their chili powder and cinnamon.
The first response to my questions was what I was expecting… an emphatic “there is nothing in any of those products that is not listed on the label.” When I mentioned that I was aware that some spices contain binders that are made of soy and asked if this could be a possibility, the response was not quite as emphatic. When I asked about possible cross contamination, the response was a lengthy lecture about cross contamination not being an issue, because any amounts of soy that found its way into the product through cross contamination would be so small that it would not be important… a statement anyone with a severe allergy knows is not true. When I mentioned that the soy allergy was life threatening and asked if she could tell me positively that none of these herbs or spices contain soy, the entire tone of the conversation changed. And of course the answer was no, they would not give me an absolute assurance that the items were soy free… and since the allergy was life threatening, their advice would be for me to avoid these products completely.
I make a lot of these phone calls, and the results are almost always disappointing. As unbelievable as it sounds, it appears that many of these customer service representatives who are dispensing allergen information to the public aren’t aware of the different forms an allergen may take. I have spoken to company representatives who have reluctantly given me an unlisted ingredient list that contained obvious soy derivatives, all the while continuing to insist that the product did not contain soy… simply because they did not know that some of these ingredients were derived from soy. I’m sure there is a similar ignorance for other allergens.
So there you have it. The current labeling law, while a step in the right direction, is not the solution that many of us were hoping for. In some ways I think the law promotes a sense of false security, because if a label does not list an allergen, the common assumption would be that there is none of the allergen in the product. Unfortunately, trusting completely in the labeling can make allergic people very, very sick.