The inability to eat certain ingredients has led to something of a cottage industry within the food and beverage segment, as parents of allergic children have resorted to their own ends in creating safe snacks and treats.

Whether due to regulations or consumer concerns (or even a combination of the two), allergen awareness is more notable than ever. At the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Expo this year, a number of suppliers featured allergen notices about the samples being served. While serving bites of cheesecake featuring a peanut butter flavor, the representatives of one large company in particular made sure to mention the allergens present each time the sample was served. In fact, the server refused to give a bite to one attendee who appeared to be under the age of 18, noting that they were only serving adults due to the allergens present in the sample.

According to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), about 12 million Americans suffer from a food allergy, as the number of food-allergic consumers has grown tremendously in recent decades. This growth could be the result of increased awareness or improved diagnoses. For example, gastrointestinal issues resulting from a milk allergy might have been regarded as simply a weak stomach a generation ago. Granted, there is the possibility that consumers are too quick to self-diagnose their food intolerance as a full-fledged allergy, but the numbers are dramatic. The FAAN notes that, between 1997 and 2002, peanut allergies doubled from one in 250 children to one in 125. This suggests that close to 1% of children might suffer from peanut allergies alone.

Of the 12 million Americans with food allergies, approximately 6.9 million are allergic to seafood, and 3.3 million are allergic to peanuts or tree nuts, according to FAAN. Figures from the group indicate one in every 17 youngsters under the age of three suffers from a food allergy, as do some 2.2 million school-aged children. In fact, it is in schools where the effects of allergen awareness may be most profound. When one student suffers from a food allergy, many entire classes are prohibited from having a range of snacks, and this peripheral effect could well have untold consequences upon the tastes and preferences of an entire generation.

The front of Coca Loco snack bars from Enjoy Life feature an “Allergen Free” logo, as well as the phrases “nut and gluten free” and “made in a dedicated bakery” featured prominently.

School Responsibilities

The National Association of Secondary School Principals has outlined guidelines for “managing students with food allergies,” noting the schools, the students, their parents and physicians must work together to minimize risks and “provide a safe educational environment.” The guidelines call for the child’s family to work with the school to develop a plan to accommodate the child’s needs, to provide instructions and medications, and to educate the child in the self-management of the food allergy. The schools must be “knowledgeable about and follow applicable federal laws…;” review the records submitted by the parents and physicians; include food-allergic students in school activities (“Students should not be excluded from school activities solely based on their food allergy.”); coordinate with the school nurse to make sure any medications are appropriately stored; enforce a “no eating” policy on school buses “with exceptions made only to accommodate special needs under federal or similar laws, or school district policy;” and take threats or harassment against an allergic child “seriously.” The student must not trade food with other students, not eat anything with unknown ingredients or known to contain any allergen, be “proactive in the care and management of their food allergies and reactions based on their development level” and immediately notify an adult if they have eaten something possibly containing the food to which they are allergic.

This inability to eat certain ingredients has led to something of a cottage industry within the food and beverage segment, as parents of allergic children have resorted to creating safe snacks and treats themselves. The companies may be small, but they are numerous, each with a story something like that of Gak’s Snacks: “Our son was a toddler when he was diagnosed eight years ago with multiple food allergies,” explains Jill Robbings, president of the company. “The medical part of coping we learned quickly: Total avoidance of even traces of various foods.”

It was the emotional side that proved challenging and prompted Robbings to write an allergy cookbook and eventually to create ready-made products including cookies and coffee cakes, as well as allergen-tested ingredients. The same story can be heard in small companies throughout the industry, as desperate parents have taken matters into their own hands. Furthermore, major companies are joining the bandwagon by offering allergen-free products and, probably more importantly (no doubt prompted by regulations and parental pressure), labeling products to make consumers aware of exactly what is in the product and what might have come into contact with it during the manufacture.

The Food Allergy Initiative offers this poster as "a great way of letting everyone know your child's classroom is peanut free."

Too Much

Despite the preponderance of these labels, there are fears that fewer individuals are taking them seriously. A 2003 FAAN survey found 85% of parents surveyed heeded the warnings; by 2006, that number had dropped to 75%. “They are ignoring the warnings, because the warnings are on too many products,” fears Anne Munoz-Furlong, CEO and founder of FAAN. “They have become numb to these warnings.”

Part of the problem could well rest in the products. The study tested products with a warning label and found 93% did not actually contain an allergen. As Munoz-Furlong explains, “A lot of companies tell us their legal counsel has advised them to put labels on their products to protect their liability.” She hopes the study will prompt the industry and government to review and revise the food allergy warning system.

Last year, the FDA implemented new labeling regulations that it claims address 90% of documented food allergies. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act went into effect in January of 2006, mandating food manufacturers to declare food allergens in plain language on their ingredient lists. These regulations demand labeling of eight major food allergens in the U.S.: milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy. In other parts of the world, regulations can be more stringent. Since 2005, the E.U. has dictated that products must label 12 allergens, and others are expected to join the list soon. Already, the market for products without allergens is booming. According to Mintel, the number of “free-from” products in the U.K. has grown by more than 300% since 2000, as the U.S. likewise has seen a promulgation of “may contain” labeling.

While such labels may have good intentions (a heightened sense of responsibility to eliminate any possible consumer doubt), consumers tend to view the “may contain” labels as a legal cop-out, leading to the FAAN-noted mistrust of the labels. Further compromising the labeling system could be the almost routine list of products being recalled due to undeclared ingredients or contamination—in products from companies large and small. Luckily, the industry and others are looking into counteracting food allergies, with methods of variable promise.

As noted in the April 29, 2007, Parade magazine, “In clinical studies across the country, doctors and researchers are experimenting with new methods such as: Chinese herbs to neutralize the allergic switches; injections of modified allergens that work much the same way as allergy shots do in hay-fever sufferers; and desensitizing kids…by increasing doses of allergens.” The efforts appear to be paying off or to have potential: one notable researcher believes effective treatments, at least for peanut allergies, are less than five years away.

With the number of gluten-free products on store shelves well into the thousands, it is not surprising to see new introductions catering to more than one mainstream trend. Take, for instance, thinkproducts’ thinkOrganic cherry nut bar. This raw fruit and nut snack bar mentions “gluten free” on the front of the package. Furthermore, the ingredients legend makes sure to note “organic” before every ingredient.

Safe Areas

In the meantime, allergic and food intolerant consumers are left to search for safe foods, and one of the most prolific segments in the allergen area in recent years has been in the realm of gluten-free foods for those suffering from celiac disease (CD), a digestive disease which damages the small intestine and which interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food and whose sufferers cannot tolerate gluten. Far more prevalent than once believed, the University of Chicago estimates one in 133 people cannot eat wheat, rye or barley for fear of damaging the small intestine and a variety of other maladies; for those with a relative unable to consume gluten, the number is even more intimidating: one in 22. Furthermore, there is a significant percentage of the population self-diagnosing their own food allergies. The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology’s June 2007 issue featured a study examining self-reported food allergies. Among all survey respondents, “The prevalence of self-reported food allergy is 9.1%,” the study finds, “with 5.3% of all respondents reporting a doctor-diagnosed food allergy.” It also examined labeling as it relates to those consumers, finding, “Several label issues, such as words on some ingredient lists being too technical or hard to understand and food labels not always alerting persons to new ingredients, were reported as serious or very serious obstacles for managing an allergy.”

Whether technically allergic to gluten or not, a growing number of Americans believe gluten has contributed to ills ranging from infertility to anxiety to gas. For the record, doctors are reluctant to attribute many of these conditions to gluten. However, store shelves now feature more than 1,500 gluten-free foods for individuals seeking to avoid the ingredient, according to the Mintel Global New Products Database (GNPD). The items also fetch a greater price: 227g of gluten-free pasta retails for more than $3—more than triple the price for a package one third the size of regular noodles. The sheer bulk of products with gluten in a variety of forms has led researchers to ponder an interesting proposition: perhaps the incidence of gluten-intolerant consumers is rising because wheat’s prevalence in the Western diet causes consumers to overdose on it.

On the foodservice side, gluten-free menus are, if not common, at least less unusual than in the recent past. P.F. Chang’s, Chick-Fil-A, Subway and Adobo Grill are just a few of the nationwide chains featuring menus specifically tailored to consumers suffering from CD. Sufferers are lucky to live in a digital age, where the Internet abounds with websites devoted to gluten-free restaurant menus and retail products. Considering the growing mistrust of product labels, communicating to these consumers should start at the website level.