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Allergic reaction: as the number of food allergy sufferers grows, retailers and suppliers are responding with safe and tasty options.

They're hiding everywhere. Ingredients that can cause adverse reactions in millions of consumers are lurking in packaged foods, beverages, fresh offerings and baked goods. For those shoppers living with food allergies, preparing and eating meals is a constant chore. For some, it can be as serious as a matter of life and death.

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The statistics are staggering: According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), four out of every 100 children in the U.S. have a food allergy, a term described as a potentially serious immune response to eating specific foods or food additives. Diagnosis of the condition is clearly on the rise. From 1997 to 2007, the prevalence of reported food allergies increased 18% among children under age 18 years.

More prevalent in children than adults, food allergies are often outgrown, although for some, food allergies can be a lifelong concern. There are eight types of foods that account for over 90% of allergic reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat. Reactions to these ingredients vary and can range from a tingling sensation around the mouth and lips to hives and even death.

"Four or five years ago, you just didn't see as much of it out there, and now you're seeing family doctors start to diagnose kids with food allergies starting at a much younger age," says Scott Mandell, president and CEO of Enjoy Life, a Schiller Park, Ill-based manufacturer of products that are free of the eight most common food allergens. "It has gotten so important that many school districts have prohibited any type of nut in their schools, and I think that has increased some of the awareness of food allergies in the overall marketplace."

Observers note that the diagnosis of a food allergy is often a life changing experience that can have a direct impact on every member of the particular household, since concerns about cross contamination often force many families to adopt an allergen-free lifestyle once an individual member is diagnosed. Furthermore, for moms attempting to shop and prepare for a child suffering with a food allergy, buying allergen-free products that the entire family can enjoy is easier than purchasing multiple varieties of products to suit everyone in the house.

"The demand has grown significantly over the last number of years," says Mandell. "We started really because we saw a demand in the market and thought it was a growing demand, since the need and the prevalence of food allergies would be growing over time."

Tabor Burke, president and CEO of St. Louis-based Allergy Friendly Foods, which manufactures convenient, ready-made dishes under the Allergaroo brand, recognized the need for allergen-free foods while shopping for her two children with multiple food allergies.

"I had to cook everything from scratch and I remember going through the grocery stores reading labels and wanting to cry," she says. "In my own mind, I was hoping I could find something that was already prepared that I could heat up just to have a break once in a while, and that option just wasn't available. I saw this huge hole in the segment, and I thought that if this was what I wanted as a mother other parents would want it as well."

While many allergen-free snack foods such as cereal bars and cookies exist, finding appropriate complete prepared meals that are nutritious and delicious can be a challenge. It is worth noting that food allergies often restrict families from dining out, placing an even greater emphasis on the need for clean dinner options and individual ingredients.

GOING GLUTEN FREE

When analyzing allergen-free foods and the potential assortment a grocer should stock, it is imperative to factor in gluten-free offerings, which are in increasing demand from a growing group of consumers suffering from a condition called celiac disease. Once considered a rare disease of childhood, celiac disease is now thought to inflict one in 133 people in the U.S., 97% of whom are not even aware that they're living with the condition.

A protein found in wheat, rye, oats, barley and certain related grain hybrids, gluten is typically found in many baked goods and cereals, but it can also be a hidden ingredient in prepared soups, condiments and frozen prepared meals. Unlike a food allergy, celiac disease is a lifelong condition and the only known cure for the ailment is adherence to a gluten-free diet.

"What's really different about celiac disease is that there is no medicine," says Alice Bast, executive director of the Ambler, Pa.-based National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. "With celiac disease your autoimmune system is compromised, and you're setting yourself up for all kinds of problems. It can eventually lead to cancer and other complications."
Food allergies in children

Percentage of children in the U.S. under age 18 who had a reported food
or digestive allergy in the past year.

Less than five years 4.7%
5-17 years 3.7%
Male 3.7%
Female 4.1%
Non-Hispanic white 4.1%
Non-Hispanic black 4.0%
Hispanic 3.0%

TOTAL 3.9%

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/National Center for
Health Statistics National Health Interview Survey, 2007

Note: Table made from bar graph.


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As a result of the uptick in diagnoses of celiac disease, the sales of gluten-free foods have grown considerably. According to SPINS, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research and consulting firm for the natural products industry, sales of grocery, packaged produce, frozen and refrigerated foods that are labeled gluten-free increased 16.2% to $637.3 million in the conventional channel for the 52 weeks ended Nov. 1. It is worth noting that the segment is surprisingly smaller in the natural channel, where it posted $378.4 million in sales for the same period.

However, as anyone who has sampled gluten-free products can attest, there are many taste and texture challenges that present themselves in the process of manufacturing a gluten-free good. "In the consumer's mind, there are still some negative inferences with the term 'gluten free,'" says Jerry Safir, president and founder of Chelsea, Mass.-based Kettle Cuisine, a manufacturer of gluten-free soups. "Some people still equate gluten free with not tasting good, but I think that is changing."

According to Angela Ichwan, CEO of Beaverton, Ore.-based Arico Natural Foods, many Americans are not accustomed to the flavor of alternative flours, such as those made from rice, buckwheat, or teff, that are often used in gluten-free products. "The challenge is to find ingredients that can have functional purpose to make the product moist or crispy and then on top of that to make sure that the product has good taste and texture," she says.

Bast points out that many traditional ethnic foods, such as Asian products made available by Thai Kitchen, are naturally free of gluten and some of the common allergens. "The manufacturers are saying they want to produce a gluten-free product, and what they try to do is mimic the conventional product," she says. "They need to be looking at ingredients that are naturally gluten-free, such as spices that can be added to make the product more appealing."

Just as manufacturers face numerous challenges when developing an allergen-free or gluten-free product, retailers also have the daunting task of choosing how to best merchandise these products. Although the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 requires manufacturers to clearly state on their labels if any of the eight most common allergens are used in production, shopping for safe alternatives remains a time consuming task.

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"For parents of children with allergies and celiac disease, the most important thing for them to know is that the products are labeled properly," says Bast, who recommends that retailers clearly flag gluten-free and allergen-free products on the shelf edge. She claims that there have been 2,800 recalls related to food allergies over the last 10 years, resulting in a shopping base of parents that are nervous and are looking for a retail brand they can trust.

So what can retailers do to better organize their allergen-free offerings and become a trusted source of information for consumers? Industry insiders debate whether or not an integrated or a segregated section works best.

According to Ichwan, placing allergen-free foods alongside conventional items increases maximum foot traffic and exposure of the items. She also notes that many moms are looking for a one-stop-shopping solution to fulfill their entire family's needs.

Bast says that while having a separate section for allergen-free foods might create an actual destination for the category, the prevalence of available allergen-free and gluten-free foods is beginning to make it cumbersome to include all of the offerings in one designated area. She believes that integrating the products has the potential to "normalize" the offerings, although she urges retailers to be logical. The majority of gluten-free consumers, for example, stay far away from the bakery section, which typically carries many contaminated goods, so stocking gluten-free breads in that area would not be the wisest choice.

Regardless of where the products are merchandised, proper signage is crucial to the category's success. Not only will clearly labeling products make them easier for consumers with food allergies to spot, but having a consistent approach across the store demonstrates a retailer's dedication to the gluten-free and allergen-free shopper.

As with other wellness categories, having accessible educational materials readily available will only further demonstrate a retailer's commitment to the allergen-free shopper base. Some insiders suggest that grocers make detailed lists of where specific allergen-free foods, such as nut-free items, can be found throughout the store so that shoppers can quickly locate safe foods in various departments of the outlet.

"There have been some market basket studies that have definitely shown that a gluten-free or allergen-free shopper spends significantly more on their basket than one who does not have gluten-free or allergen-free foods," says Mandell, who notes that allergen-free or gluten-free products are at about a 25% price premium. "So, the more educated the store staff can be, the better chance the retailer has of getting more of that shopper's dollar."

Ichwan adds that the internet is a very efficient way to target consumers suffering with food allergies, since many people consult the web for suitable product choices when they first learn of their diagnosis. Manufacturers, such as British Columbia-based Nature's Path, which offers a variety of gluten-free cereals, bars and waffles, are also opting to use blogs and social networking sites to reach the ever-growing base of food allergy consumers.

"We found that the gluten-free community is really active online, so we do outreach that way," says Kylie McMullan, who notes that the company will send product samples to bloggers who tend to document their experiences with gluten-free and allergen-free goods. She adds that the company plans to expand its gluten-free assortment in the upcoming year and will place a greater emphasis on educating the trade about its efforts at various trade shows across the country.

Looking forward, the segment for allergen-free and gluten-free foods is anticipated to grow as health professionals are expected to continue to make more connections between food and physical and mental health. Insiders say that as the awareness and education about food allergies increases, a growing group of consumers are even choosing to self-diagnose themselves after noticing some sort of physical or mental improvement from following an allergen-free diet.

"There is not as much science as I'd like, but there are just so many anecdotal things relating conditions to food," says Shafir. "I think people are really focusing on processed food and are wondering how much of it is causing behavioral and development issues."
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Title Annotation:SELLING WELLNESS
Author:Palazzo, Suzanne Vita
Publication:Grocery Headquarters
Date:Feb 1, 2009
Words:1943
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