As of yesterday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is requiring nearly all food products labeled for sale in the US to provide simple, direct guidance on the presence of allergy-inducing ingredients.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) requires that food manufacturers identify, "in plain, common language", the presence of any of the eight major food allergens - milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy.
"The eight major food allergens account for 90 percent of all documented food allergic reactions, and some reactions may be severe or life-threatening," said Robert Brackett, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
The nation's Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) estimates that 11 million people in the US - or 1-in-25 Americans - are affected by food allergies, meaning that contact with, or ingestion, of certain foods causes serious reactions.
In addition, numerous studies attest to the dramatic rise in food allergies in the United States. In fact, the number of children who have food allergies has quadrupled over the last few decades, and the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology reports that the number of children allergic to peanuts increased two-fold over a single five-year period from 1997 to 2002.
With no cure for food allergies, avoidance is the only way to prevent a reaction.
And with one in three Americans currently believing they have some form of food intolerance, foods and beverages specifically made for allergy sufferers remains a fast growing segment.
Indeed, a recent report from Research and Markets identified that an increasing awareness of the problem among the general public, along with high-profile media coverage, has created an active and growing, if sometimes difficult to understand, market for free-from products.
"Considering these factors - the rise in the incidence of food allergies, the FALCPA, customer buying trends, confusion about food allergies, and ongoing media coverage - it is believed that the market for free-from products will enjoy continued growth," the company had said.
"However, growth will not occur in all segments and it will likely come with sharp shifts as new information becomes available. Barring a medical breakthrough, the free-from market also will become an increasingly differentiated food category as labeling and awareness makes these products stand out in consumers' minds."
The new US rules also require that the FDA conducts inspections and issues a report within 18 months to ensure that food manufacturers are complying with practices "to reduce or eliminate cross-contact of a food with any major food allergens that are not intentional ingredients of the food".
However, food manufacturers are not required to relabel or recall products labeled before January 1. As a result, the FDA has cautioned consumers that there will be a transition period of "undetermined length" before all packaged food carries the new allergen labeling.
A food allergy occurs when the immune system mistakenly believes that a harmless substance is harmful. In its attempt to protect the body, the immune system creates IgE antibodies specific to that food. The next time the individual eats that food, the immune system releases massive amounts of chemicals and histamines in order to protect the body, thereby triggering allergic symptoms.
According to the FAAN, despite the attention given to peanut allergies, the most widespread allergy suffered by Americans is that of fish and seafood, in particular salmon and shrimp, which effects around 6.5 million people - mainly adults - in the US. This is twice as many people as those affected by allergies to peanuts and tree nuts.
More than 170 foods have been identified as allergens, including fruits, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, poppy seeds, mollusks, peas, lentils, and beans other than green beans.