May 2

A Brief History of the Big Nine Food Allergens 


The United States Classifies Nine Ingredients as Major Food Allergens— Here’s a Brief History So You Can Be Informed About What You’re Serving

Food allergies are serious business. A whopping 32 million Americans experience life-threatening reactions to certain food items—and this number is only growing. 

While over 160 ingredients are known to cause allergic reactions, only nine have been declared major allergens by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

These include: 

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Tree nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Wheat
  • Soybeans
  • Sesame (added in 2021)

As you can see, these are all very common ingredients. Being the service professionals that we are, it’s imperative that we know a thing or two about menu ingredients. We must work with guests to avoid unintentionally sending someone into anaphylactic shock. 

To help you in this pursuit, we’re here to discuss how nine ingredients became classified as Major Allergens in the United States (so you remember them) and what you can do to keep everyone safe. 

The Food, Drugs & Cosmetic Act of 1938

Okay, let’s detour quickly and discuss the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act (FDCA) passed in 1938 because this is the foundation for US regulations on food products and more in the US. 

The FDCA set forth a series of laws that allowed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorization to oversee and regulate the production, sale, and distribution of foods, drugs, medical devices, and cosmetics. This ultimately led to the FDA’s ability to set standards around food allergens, among other things. 

And while this might be the first time you’ve heard of the FDCA—we should all be grateful for its existence! The primary purpose is to protect everyone from shitty, untested products. 

Without it, we might still be prescribed medicine like the elixir sulfanilamide, which led to a mass poisoning disaster, killing over 100 people across 15 states (this event was a big influencer in writing the FDCA).

Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004

More than six decades later, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCP) amended the FDCA to define “major food allergens.” 

The FALCP Act also required that any ingredient or food that contained what the FDA classified as a major food allergen be clearly labeled on food labels using the common name in the ingredients list or separately in a “contains” statement

At the time, there were only eight ingredients considered major allergens, known as the Big Eight. This list included milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans (everything listed above except sesame). 

As mentioned earlier, FALCPA concluded that while there are allergic reactions to many, many ingredients, only eight (at the time) account for over 90% of all documented food allergies and life-threatening reactions. 

There are always exceptions, and one of those is that foods sold at retail and food service establishments that are not pre-packaged don’t need to label allergens—which is why you don’t always see labels on menus (though it’s still helpful!). 

Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research Act of 2021

Food allergy awareness is constantly evolving, and most recently, President Biden signed the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research Act (phew, AKA FASTER) into law. 

FASTER added sesame as a ninth major food allergen, updating the Big Eight into the Big Nine. 

While the law was passed in 2021, food manufacturers and distributors didn’t need to implement the labeling requirements until January 2023. It is the most recent change to be aware of and again primarily applies to pre-packaged foods for distribution. 

Additionally, the act requires The Department of Health and Human Services to report on food allergy research and data collection activities to build further insights. 

What’s This Got To Do With Restaurants?

On the surface, these laws have much more to do with manufactured and pre-packed ingredients and food items—but they help everyone selling and serving food to guests. 

By labeling the Big Nine food allergens, restaurants have (pretty much) all the information they need to help prevent a customer from having a severe allergic reaction. 

Knowing that an ingredient or food item contains a major allergen, employers can train staff to handle allergenic ingredients carefully, avoid cross-contamination, and inform waitstaff of menu items containing allergens to serve guests better.

As mentioned, these ingredients are common, but sometimes certain sauces or dishes containing them are not so obvious. It’s essential for everyone, from management to staff, to communicate, build awareness and stay informed about food allergies. 

Some states, specifically Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Rhode Island, and Virginia, have laws to help restaurants make dining safer for those with food allergies. 

According to our friends at Trust20, an allergic reaction sends three people to the emergency room every ten minutes, and 50% of fatal allergic reactions occur outside the home. 

With those numbers, it’s completely and entirely worth it for anyone handling food to educate themselves about food allergies. 

If you’re a worker ready to take that step or an employer looking to train your staff, Trust20 offers a fantastic Food Allergy Certificate Training course that only takes about an hour to an hour and a half to complete. 

The course goes over what a food allergy is, what foods cause allergic reactions, how to read and understand food labels, identify the signs of an allergic reaction, and how to reduce the risk of causing an allergic response in a customer. 

Check it out today!


About the author

Ashley McNally likes to cook, loves to bake, and is always dreaming of her next meal. With over 13 years of experience working in various roles within a restaurant — McNally has made a home in hospitality.

About the author

Ashley McNally likes to cook, loves to bake, and is always dreaming of her next meal. With over 13 years of experience working in various roles within a restaurant — McNally has made a home in hospitality.


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