Going Back To School: Nutrition Labels And Allergies

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, August 19, 2015

I have a mini-battle in my house at the beginning of every school week over how many times my son can buy lunch in the cafeteria. He loves to buy lunch and would do it every day if I allowed it. I always assumed it was the experience that drove his interest: standing in line with friends, making choices, charging his account. One week I got the real scoop: “Mom, I’m not allowed to eat with my friend because he has allergies,” he told me.

As it turns out, at my son’s school those children who bring lunch aren’t permitted to eat at the restricted allergy table in the cafeteria, even if they bring an allergen-free lunch from home. I never knew this and had not considered the social implications of sitting at the allergy-safe table, either by necessity or by choice.

With September around the corner and kids heading back to school, it’s worth thinking about the case for better labeling on the food we eat. We live in a world where dietary restrictions are very well accommodated, whether you’re allergic or following a restricted diet by choice. Eating according to preference or to avoid allergens is not a trend—it’s a theme of health consciousness that is only increasing—and CPG manufacturers could certainly do a better job of labeling their products for navigation and consumption in the public space.



Not every school has cafeteria service and rules do vary when it comes to accommodating children with allergies and dietary restrictions outside of the home. In my experience, children with allergies are pretty adept at recognizing ingredients and know to check out the nutrition label before they consume a product. But what about those parents, teachers and other children who don’t have allergies? How do those without allergies accommodate people who do?

Improving packaging labels to more clearly identify allergy risks could go a long way toward helping everyone make safe food choices for any group, not just for children or schools. Creating consistent and recognizable icons that are prominent on both the primary (external) package as well as secondary packaging for on-the-go items would help in both the selection and serving of products when food allergies are a concern. Even when the products are not packaged for re-sale with full nutrition labels, having food allergy alerts visible on the outside of the package would provide helpful and potentially life-saving information. 

Of course, creating new labeling standards and changing package labels is both time consuming and expensive. So, why should manufacturers even consider it? For one thing, households with school-age kids are a big market and there is a real need for products that are safe to serve around those with restricted diets. Beyond the obvious opportunity to serve those with allergies or restricted diets, there is an even larger market of people who provide food to those with allergies who are less capable at recognizing potential risks. People who don’t live with the concern of following a restricted diet may have a harder time identifying what is safe to serve when the need arises. By packaging a product in a way that makes it safer for all, manufactures can better compete and grow market share among the growing number of shoppers for whom food safety is a concern.

By definition, dietary trends change and foods to accept and avoid will change with them. Food allergies, however, are a growing concern and I expect we’ll see a greater need for accommodation that extends far beyond the schoolyard. Getting ahead of the trend and setting new standards for more clear and consistent labeling will put manufacturers in a position to win with the growing number of consumers who consider food safety before they make a purchase.

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