The 411 on Dark Chocolate and Milk Allergies

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The 411 on Dark Chocolate and Milk Allergies

Some research suggests 75 percent of black folks are lactose intolerant
If you’re allergic to milk and you love dark chocolate, how do you know whether you can indulge in a candy bar without having an allergic reaction? That’s what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wanted to learn, especially after receiving reports that consumers had harmful reactions after eating dark chocolate.

Milk is a permitted ingredient in dark chocolate, but it is also one of eight major food allergens. U.S. law requires manufacturers to label food products that are major allergens, as well as food products that contain major allergenic ingredients or proteins. Allergens contained in a food product but not named on the label are a leading cause of FDA requests for food recalls, and undeclared milk is the most frequently cited allergen. Chocolates are one of the most common sources of undeclared milk associated with consumer reactions.

FDA tested nearly 100 dark chocolate bars for the presence of milk. Earlier this year, the agency issued preliminary findings and is now releasing more information about its research. The bars tested by FDA were obtained from different parts of the U.S., and each bar was unique in terms of product line or manufacturer. Bars were divided into categories based on the statements on the labels.

The bottom line? Unfortunately, you can’t always tell if dark chocolate contains milk by reading the ingredients list. FDA researchers found that of 94 dark chocolate bars tested, only six listed milk as an ingredient. When testing the remaining 88 bars that did not list milk as an ingredient, FDA found that 51 of them actually did contain milk. In fact, the FDA study found milk in 61 percent of all bars tested.

In part, that’s because milk can get into a dark chocolate product even when it is not added as an ingredient. Most dark chocolate is produced on equipment that is also used to produce milk chocolate. In these cases, it is possible that traces of milk may inadvertently wind up in the dark chocolate.

To inform consumers that dark chocolate products may contain milk even if not intentionally added, many chocolate manufacturers print “advisory” messages on the label. There’s quite a variety of advisory messages, such as:

may contain milk
may contain dairy
may contain traces of milk
made on equipment shared with milk
processed in a plant that processes dairy
manufactured in a facility that uses milk
FDA found that milk was present in three out of every four dark chocolate products with one of these advisory statements. Some products had milk levels as high as those found in products that declared the presence of milk.

When the National Confectioners Association (NCA) was asked for its advice, a spokesperson said that “consumers with milk allergies should not consume dark chocolate products that come with advisory statements, since these products may indeed contain milk proteins.”

Another problem is that advisory messages may appear to be conflicting if they are accompanied by dairy-free or vegan statements. “Even a consumer who carefully reads the label may be confused by a statement such as ‘vegan’ (which implies that no animal-derived products were used) along with an advisory—or ‘may contain’ statement—referring to the presence of milk,” says Stefano Luccioli, M.D., a senior medical advisor at FDA.

In addition to these advisory statements, labels for chocolate bars may make other claims. Some say “dairy-free” or “lactose free,” but FDA found milk in 15 percent of the dark chocolates with this label. And 25 percent of dark chocolate products labeled only “vegan” were found to contain milk.

You shouldn’t assume that dark chocolate contains no milk if the label does not mention it at all. “Milk-allergic consumers should be aware that 33 percent of the dark chocolates with no mention of milk anywhere on the label were, in fact, found to contain milk,” Luccioli says.

Consumers who are sensitive or allergic to milk should know that dark chocolate products are a high-risk food if you’re highly milk allergic.
Start by checking the ingredients list to see if it includes milk.
Read all the label statements on dark chocolate products and avoid those with an advisory statement for milk, even if these products feature other (and conflicting) statements, such as “dairy-free” or “vegan.”
View even products with dairy-free claims or without any mention of milk with caution, unless the manufacturer is a trusted source or uses dedicated equipment for making milk-free chocolate products.
“The chocolate industry will continue to make every effort to understand the needs of allergic consumers and communicate the potential presence of milk allergens in dark chocolate through advisory labeling,” says Laura Shumow, director of scientific and regulatory affairs at NCA.

FDA is evaluating the study findings and considering options for addressing the issues identified in the study. Under the proposed Preventive Controls for Human Food rule scheduled to become final this fall, food manufacturers would be required to implement a food safety plan that identifies safeguards in place to prevent or significantly reduce such hazards as food allergens.

The proposed rule includes provisions to prevent unintended cross-contact between foods that contain allergens and those not intended to contain them. Firms covered by the final rule would have from one to three years after the rule becomes final to comply, depending on the size of the firm.

Photo: Depositphotos

Roslyn Daniels