Food intolerance and allergies are creating growing demand for allergen-free products. Liz Sloan reveals the factors behind the boom, and the widespread opportunities emerging
North America is having an allergy attack. Airlines are eliminating peanuts and many schools are adding milk to their allergen-based 'banned' food lists. The National Restaurant Association joined the Food Allergy Buddy Dining Card Program, whereby personalized cards easily communicate real — or perceived — food 'allergies' to chefs in America's 900,000+ restaurants. Even McDonald's has been sued for providing inconsistent information on the wheat and milk ingredients in its French fries.
For reasons not entirely understood, allergies are increasing worldwide, fuelling an $18 billion global market. A government study found that US allergy prevalence increased 74 per cent from 1980 to 1996, and that asthma rates in children under age 5 have jumped 160 per cent from 1980 to 1994.
Allergy sufferers make up a very large and growing market. According to Information Resources Inc's (IRI) MedProfiler, 53 per cent — or 149 million — Americans say they suffer from allergies and 83 per cent treat their condition.
Clearly, North American consumers are going to make sure that the market for allergen-free dietary supplements; over-the-counter (OTC) 'look-alike' allergy remedies; and gluten, lactose, dairy and other 'free' foods have a very bright future.
Food allergies: bigger than life
According to government and medical association statistics, about 12 million Americans suffer from true food allergies and 72 million from intolerances. The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) reports that eight foods account for 90 per cent of all reactions in the US — milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios, pecans, etc.), wheat, soy, fish, and shell fish, although true allergies have been linked to 170 foods. FAAN reports that 2.2 per cent of school-age children have a food allergy, as do one in 17 under age 3.
New guidelines, published by the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology in 2006, report the most common food allergens in infants and young children are cow's milk, hen's eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts and pecans), soybeans and wheat. Although sensitivity to most allergens is lost in late childhood, allergies to peanuts, tree nuts and seafood are likely to continue throughout the child's life. Only 20 per cent of the children with a peanut allergy lose their sensitivity. AAAAI reports that eight per cent of children younger than six years experience food intolerances. Of this group, 2-4 per cent appear to have allergic reactions to food. In adults, an estimated 1-2 per cent are sensitive to foods or food additives.
While these 'real' numbers are in actuality very serious, but very small, it is the current trend of self-diagnosis that is driving growth in the allergen-free markets. The Hartman Group has consistently found that about half of all consumers they interview claim to have one or more food allergies or sensitivities in their family. Furthermore, they find the vast majority of these 'allergies' were self-diagnosed and that relatively few have been discussed with a physician.
In the 2006 Natural Marketing Institute's HealthBeat Interactive study, one-quarter of adults who believe they have a food allergy said they were allergic to dairy/milk, 19 per cent shellfish, 10 per cent fish, 15 per cent peanuts, 14 per cent tree nuts, 11 per cent sulfites, 10 per cent wheat, nine per cent eggs, five per cent soy and 43 per cent other foods or ingredients — all well above the real incidence values. Mintel's Food Allergies and Intolerance US 2005 Report found that women are considerably more likely than men to say that they have a food allergy or intolerance, as are those aged 28 to 40.
Over- and self-diagnosing is particularly prevalent when children are involved. In a recent University of Portsmouth study of 1,000 parents, 54 per cent of their children were on a restricted diet because their parents believed they were allergic to cow's milk, wheat, eggs or other additives. Later testing confirmed that only 2-6 per cent of these kids actually had clinically confirmed sensitivities or allergies.
Gluten free — directed at those with intolerances to wheat, rye and barley proteins — is one of the most explosive 'free' food categories. Although three million Americans suffer from the auto-immune intestinal disorder, celiac disease, characterized by an immunologically toxic reaction to gluten, millions more are afflicted with gluten intolerance. NIH describes gluten intolerance as 'unwidely recognized and under-diagnosed.' Packaged Facts' report, The US Market for Food Allergy Products, predicts that celiac disease will increase ten-fold globally in the next few years.
Ironically, the gluten-free market is also being driven by popular media, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, and quasi-professional reports linking gluten and autism, learning disabilities and stunted growth in children. Many consumers are also blaming gluten for a wide range of digestive ailments.
Packaged Facts' report, 2006 Gluten-Free Foods and Beverages, estimates US retail sales of gluten-free foods/beverages will reach $696.4 million in 2006, up 27.1 per cent over 2005, and projects gluten-free foods will top $1.7 billion by 2010. SPINS/ACNielsen confirms new gluten-free product introductions jumped 9.1 per cent in natural supermarkets in 2005.
In conventional channels, sales of gluten-free foods outpaced total category growth in nearly all major categories. In the natural channel, gluten free posted an 11.9 per cent sales gain across nine key categories, led by a 47 per cent sales increase for candy and 28 per cent for frozen entrees.
While the US has yet to set a formal definition for gluten free — although it is mandated to provide one by August 2008 — corn, rice, potatoes, soy, buckwheat, millet, montina, tapioca, quinoa, teff, amaranth and sorghum are generally accepted as flours for use in gluten-free products.
Non-gluten-containing starches and gums — like TIC Gum's guar and agar gums, or xanthan, locust bean gum, hydroxypropylmethylcellulose, carrageenan, and other specialty gums and hydrocolloids — are also used in gluten-free formulations. Corn Products International has introduced Expandex Modified Tapioca Starch, Tropical Traditions organic gluten-free coconut flour and Mitsubishi International Food Ingredients Metolose methylcellulose for gluten-free bakery applications.
Gluten intolerance also leads to malabsorption of nutrients including iron, folic acid, calcium and fat-soluble vitamins. Because most gluten-sensitive people avoid baked and cereal products, dietary-fibre intake may also be low and should be compensated for in formulation. BASF's Dry Vitamin A Acetate 250 DC/FGP can be marketed as allergen free and gluten free.
According to the NIH 30 million to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant; 70 per cent of African Americans, 75 per cent of Native Americans and 90 per cent of Asian Americans. And as America's ethnic mix continues to shift — with one in three American children already non-Caucasian — the lactose- and dairy-free markets will become more important.
ACNielsen reports sales of all food products that make a lactose-free claim at $2.2 billion in food, drug and mass outlets, excluding Wal-Mart, for the year ending 12/3/05 with a sales gain of 8.9 per cent over the previous year. Packaged Facts' report, 2006 No and Low Lactose Food and Beverage, puts retail sales of no- and low-lactose dairy products at $523.5 million by year end 2006, up 7.3 per cent over last year. IRI estimates sales for Lactaid Milk at just over $500 million across all retail venues in 2005.
Alternative dairy products include soy milk, rice milk, imitation cheese, soy frozen dessert, etc. Packaged Facts estimates that the segment of the dairy-alternative market that has benefited from food allergies or intolerances will be $1.392 billion by year end 2006 — almost double the low- and no-lactose market — and that this market will grow to $2 billion by 2010. Mintel estimates that about 30 per cent of soy retail sales are attributable to food allergy or intolerance. In 2004, Mintel estimated free-from-egg product sales at $18 million.
Where it's going
As Americans continue to assess their own 'allergic' potential, expect more additives and preservatives to come into question. Packaged Facts found that 33 per cent were already actively avoiding artificial sweeteners, 32 per cent preservatives, 27 per cent MSG, 24 per cent food colouring/dyes, and more. One in 10 adults reports they are allergic to sulfites.
Lastly, expect marketers' increased use of such labels as 'Allergen-free'; 'No dairy, no eggs, no refined sugars'; and 'Yeast, wheat, corn, soy and gluten-free.' And don't just look for them on foods, but on cleaning and laundry products and personal products for sensitive hair, skin and teeth.