Addressing food allergies

A host of allergen-free foods are expected to hit the shelves this year.

By Carol Radice

For some people, a food allergy can re­sult in an upset stomach or a slight rash. For others, the reaction can be life threatening. But even mild food allergies or intolerances can make grocery shopping a daunting task.

While the obvious advice might be to simply avoid certain foods, the reality is not as straightforward. Peanut allergy sufferers, for example, need to avoid many types of salad dressings, hot chocolate, Asian and Mexican dishes and specialty pizzas.

Recognizing this untapped market, a number of companies have emerged over the past decade to develop allergen-free products, even dedicating entire manufacturing facilities to producing products without nuts, for example. Some mainstream manufacturers have also begun introducing products aimed at consumers with food allergies.

Scott Mandell, president and CEO of Schiller Park, Ill.-based Enjoy Life Foods, says when his company was started nearly a decade ago, few companies focused on offering products targeted to this consumer despite the fact that millions of people had some type of food allergy. “Responding to this need, we created a brand free of gluten and all common allergens,” he says. “Having our own dedicated facility means there is zero chance of contamination, something not every company can claim.”

According to Mandell, current statistics show that one in three Americans modify their diets with the belief that they, or a loved one, have a food allergy or intolerance.

While ensuring an allergen-free product can be challenging, he says the products also have to taste good. To keep track, Enjoy Life Foods turns to its large database on a regular basis and enlists the help of its consumers to shape changes to existing products as well as obtaining input for new ones. Sometimes the company sends out test samples and uses its website to gather feedback.

Enjoy Life Foods also uses social media outlets such as Facebook to promote its products and get feedback on new items. “We recently made changes to our granola based on consumer input, which in the end was a significant improvement in taste,“ he says. “Allergy consumers are very brand loyal and want to help any way they can. When one person discovers safe foods are available, word gets out.”

Safe and tasty

Back in the early ‘80s, the options for consumers with food allergies were even more limited, notes Laura Kuykendall, senior marketing manager at the Laval, Quebec, Canada-based Glutino Food Group, a manufacturer/distributor specializing in gluten-free products, ranging from bakery and baking mixes to snacks, frozen meals and other items under the Glutino and Gluten-Free Pantry labels. “Our company was founded solely on the idea of addressing the needs of consumers with food allergy and intolerance issues. At that time, there wasn’t a lot of awareness of the size and scope of the issue, let alone choices for consumers that tasted good,” says Kuykendall.

“Two decades ago, our goal was to produce delicious tasting products that were gluten free and wheat free that could go toe-to-toe with any mainstream product in terms of taste,” she says. “A lot has changed for the better since then and today the industry has evolved in terms of awareness and options. We’re happy to see retailers have additional brands to feature and make ourselves available to them to help them understand what a gluten-free set should look like.”

Since 2000, Lawrence, Mass.-based Ian’s Natural Foods has focused on offering healthier food options for kids by providing convenient, tasty solutions, including allergy-free choices. “We’re proud of the fact that we have offered allergy-free products for the past 10 years, before it was a fashionable marketing hook,” says Dena Zigun, brand manager. “The number of consumers with food allergies has grown in the past 10 years. Today, research shows one in 100 people have celiac issues, something facing children as well as adults. With this in mind, our goal was to provide food for kids that looks and tastes just like the conventional products their friends are eating but are free of certain allergens. It was important to us that once out of the package our items blend in with conventional offerings.”

For parents to be able to trust that what they are buying is healthy for their kids is critical, notes Zigun. “Trust is paramount when it comes to food for kids, particularly for those with food allergies. Mom needs to absolutely be sure that the product is not only free of the allergens it claims it is, but that it was made in a safe environment,” she says. Zigun notes that while many of Ian’s products are geared toward young kids many of their consumers continue to buy their products for their older kids and teens because they trust the brand.

“We also wanted it to have the same convenience features other foods have, including portability or easy to heat and eat that kids can do it themselves,” says Zigun. “Our Waffle­wich breakfast sandwiches are a great example of this—they microwave up beautifully in minutes. We spend a lot of time with focus groups, discerning what works and what doesn’t, where we need to tweak, etc.”

Morning glory

For companies such as Nature’s Path, based in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, gluten-free options have become a growing part of the mix. The company recently extended its gluten-free product line with two varieties of Sunrise Cereal.

“We are constantly doing research and asking customers what they are looking for in a breakfast product,” says Nicola Shaw, brand manager for Sunrise Cereal. “What we learned is that consumers were looking for gluten-free alternatives that had a better nutritional profile in which they did not have to give up taste and healthiness. Given that celiac is an autoimmune disorder, we wanted to provide consumers with an organic gluten-free cereal option.”

Sunrise Cereals include ancient whole grains such as quinoa and amaranth, which are complete proteins, as well as flax seed for omega 3s and inulin as a source of prebiotic fiber. Unlike other gluten-free cereals, the cereals are not made with corn or rice, ingredients that lack fiber and are higher in sugar, according to company officials.

Focusing on gluten-free bakery offerings, Minneapolis-based French Meadow Bakery, a division of Rich Products Corp., offers a gluten-free product portfolio that includes breads, tortillas, pizza crusts, rolls and muffins as well as desserts. “We saw an opportunity to lead the gluten-free dessert market in the in-store bakery category by providing readily accessible, great tasting, fully finished cakes for celebrations such birthdays,” says category manager Tina Battistoni-Paul. “The in-store bakery department is where the majority of consumers go to purchase cakes and desserts for celebrations so it makes sense to feature gluten-free offerings here.”

A matter of trust

Understanding the need for credibility and trust, French Meadow Bakery manufactures its gluten-free products in a dedicated gluten-free facility. “Our plant and products are certified gluten-free by the Gluten Free Certification Organization and also carry the following claims:  lactose free, casein free, peanut free and zero trans fat,” she says.

For other companies such as Cherrybrook Kitchen the need to create allergy-free products began as a personal one. “Patsy Rosen­berg, the owner of our company was diagnosed with food allergies a decade ago and realized most baking mixes on the market contained eggs, dairy and gluten,” says Sallie Bowling, vice president of sales for the Burlington, Mass.-based company. “She started developing recipes for herself that were peanut free, wheat free egg free, dairy free and nut free. Her friends and family enjoyed them so much she decided to start the company. What’s great about our products is that people have no idea that these cookies, cakes and frostings are allergy friendly or that our wheat-free products contain no gluten because they taste so delicious.”

Today, Cherrybrook Kitchen products are available nationally in major retailers such as Kroger, Stop & Shop and Shaw’s. With so many companies vying for a piece of the food allergy business, Bowling suggests retailers focus on aspects such as safety. “Consumers need to know these products truly are safe for them and their families to eat. The second issue is taste. Although the taste profiles of most allergy-free products have come a long way there are still some that have not evolved. With so many choices retailers and consumers, there’s no reason to settle for anything less than terrific. It’s easy to sell the first box of anything off the shelf, it’s the repeat business they need to focus on,” she says.

Officials at Boulder, Colo.-based Earth Balance have also witnessed the evolution of the category. When the company introduced its spreads a decade ago, the focus was on consumers looking to lower their cholesterol intake Since then, the company has gained a loyal following, in part because its spreads don’t contain dairy, which is appealing to lactose intolerant and vegan consumers. “It is ironic that we are intimately embraced by dairy avoiders because that was never the intention of our platform when we launched our products,” says general manager T.J. McIntyre.

Having the only nationally distributed, dairy-free spread has made Earth Balance a staple in many kitchens, according to company officials. It also hasn’t hurt that celebrities such as Alicia Silverstone have provided a publicity boost. In 2009, Earth Balance introduced an all-natural, buttery-type spread which is vegan, soy free, has zero grams of trans fat per serving, does not contain hydrogenated oils or artificial ingredients of any kind and is an excellent source of omega 3s.

“We launched a soy-free version of our best selling spread because it was our number one consumer request. The spread, which is a blend of palm fruit, canola, safflower and olive oils, is a great option for anyone avoiding soy-based products and in addition to being soy free it contains no dairy and is naturally gluten free,” says McIntyre, noting that in a short time the product has quickly jumped to being one of its top-selling items.

Given that 40 million consumers have been identified as having celiac disease or are choosing to eat gluten-free for other dietary reasons Aimee Sands, marketing director for Annie’s Homegrown, based in Napa, Calif., says this presents a huge opportunity for retailers to add items to their lineup that cater to this growing consumer group. “These people are very interested in easily finding products that fit into their lifestyle needs,” she says. “After hearing from our consumers that they’d like us to offer more gluten-free options we recently launched a gluten-free version of our Bunny Cookies and our Rice Pasta and Extra Cheesy Cheddar macaroni dinner. It was important to us that these two items were delicious enough to stand on their own so that families with members who have food allergies could all eat the same thing. All the ingredients are clearly called out on the front panel of our packaging so that busy consumers can quickly find the allergy information.”

Easy to find

Battistoni-Paul notes that while retailers have made strides, they are still often challenged in determining the best way to merchandise gluten-free products and target this shopper segment. “To complicate the issue, to date, people with a gluten intolerance or celiac disease haven’t had many options, aside from ordering products online or picking them up at health food stores. So the added challenge is that target consumers don’t know to look in a mainstream supermarket, let alone where in the store to go for the products,” she says. Two places French Meadow products sell best, according to Battistoni-Paul, are the in the natural foods section and the in-store bakery.

To help retailers overcome some of these merchandising challenges, French Meadow officials have created a turnkey rack, which enables a retailer to display products in one centralized location and create a destination. “Our sales team also lends value-added support in the stores we serve by educating store associates about our products, participating in health fairs and grand openings and engaging customers to drive awareness,” she says. “With French Meadow Bakery, retailers get more than just products, they get a knowledgeable partner to help them integrate gluten-free products into the store and generate consumer awareness to drive sales.”

While gluten-free is gaining most of the attention in the category, Mandell says he’d like retailers to consider giving equal attention the larger food allergy category. Down the road he’d love to see dual placement, both within the allergy set and among conventional products is ideal, but for now he’s content with placement in the food allergy set.

To help product attributes stand out, Enjoy Life features a green logo in the lower left corner of all its packages which lets consumers know the products are allergy friendly. Citing the merchandising efforts made by Whole Foods and Wegman’s, Mandell says he’d like to see more retailers get involved at that level. “Each of these retailers has asked us to give talks to their employees about the challenges of living gluten-free so that their staff can educate themselves on the topic. Many traditional grocers are loosing customers to these two companies because they don’t have the assortment nor do they do anything above and beyond to build loyalty and show customers they care about their food allergy needs. Given the higher basket ring associated with this consumer group retailers who don’t cater to their needs are leaving money on the table,” says Mandell.

Understanding the frustration consumers have not only finding products, but determining which are safe for their family officials at Ian’s decided to feature its products in an easy-to-see bright yellow package. The company also includes a prominent red banner on its allergy-free line of products.

“We did this so Moms can easily discern which of our products are safest for their child,” says Zigun. “Customers who try one of our products and are happy with the experience are likely to try our other products.”

For 2010, she sees interest continuing and expanded distribution for the company’s nut-free, dry snack options such as its Berry Cherry and Sour Apple and Cherry FruitaBits. Zigun calls FruitaBits “crunchy fruit snacks coated in a fruit puree which come in individual sleeves making them great school snacks.” Mix to Go is another product Zigun expects to grow in 2010. This snack mix comes in individual serving sizes and is available in two flavors, Rodeo and Jungle, she says.

Glutino’s Kuykendall describes the consumer shopping this category as a label reader and someone who has learned to recognize “safe brands,” regardless of where the products are placed in the store. “With our products for example, shoppers see our brand mark and immediately associate it with wheat-free/gluten-free,” she says. While dual placement would be nice, she says she is comfortable with the fact that most retailers have chosen to make gluten-free products a subset of their natural and organic set. “People looking for these products have a comfort level finding them in the natural set because there is more of an implied trust factor here.”

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