According to a recent study by the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”), an alarming percentage of dark chocolate products contain milk, despite labeling that indicates otherwise.

In response to complaints from consumers who had eaten dark chocolate and experienced harmful reactions, FDA tested 100 dark chocolate bars for the presence of undeclared milk. The bars chosen came from different parts of the US and each bar was unique in terms of product line and/or manufacturer.

Researchers then sorted the bars into categories based on claims made on the label. Categories included: precautionary statements such as “may contain milk” or “may contain traces of milk; statements such as “allergen-free” or “dairy-free,” no mention of milk on the label; and inconsistent statements.

According to the study authors, the results were alarming. “First of all, milk-allergic consumers should be aware that a high proportion of the dark chocolates we tested contained milk, even when the label failed to list milk as an ingredient,” says researcher Binaifer Bedford, M.S., an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education fellow at FDA.

In particular, 55 of the 93 bars tested, or 59%, did not clearly indicate the presence of milk, but nevertheless were found to contain milk. Bars labeled “dairy-free” or “allergen-free” were the least likely to contain milk, but even so, two of the 17 tested contained milk. And six of eleven bars labeled “traces of milk” contained enough milk to potentially cause serious reactions in some individuals.

While milk contamination may be unintentional, traces of milk may wind up in dark chocolate products that share equipment with milk or white chocolate, according to researchers. Bedford advises that, “because consumers can’t be sure that a statement about milk is completely accurate, they may want to contact the manufacturer to find out how it controls for allergens such as milk during production.” Information about the manufacturer, packer, or distributor is required to appear on packaged food labeling.

US law requires manufacturers of foods with one of eight major allergens – milk, wheat, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and soybeans – to list the ingredient on the product label. This requirement helps to ensure that consumers know what’s in their food.

And yet, undeclared allergens, or ingredients not listed on the label, remain a leading cause of food recall requests by FDA. From September 2009 to September 2012, approximately one-third of foods reported to FDA as serious health risks involved undeclared allergens.

Consumers can access a full list of recently recalled foods. They can also report a food product containing undeclared allergens by completing an online form on the FDA website, or by contacting the FDA consumer complaint coordinator for their state. FDA can then follow up with any needed inspections and testing. Alerted to a labeling problem, many manufacturers recall such food products and correct labeling statements voluntarily.

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