Some parents get proactive about food allergies

By Mona Doyle

Food marketers need to pay more attention to the food allergy market-which goes far beyond allergic children and adults-to the hidden opportunities for healthier children’s snacks.

Food allergies are proliferating and creating new markets for allergy-free foods and beverages. The most common allergies are to dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, seafood, shellfish, soy and wheat (wheat gluten poses a special hazard to those with celiac disease). Although only 4% to 8% of children and 6% to 8% of adults (depending on whom you ask or believe) have medically confirmed food allergies and/or sensitivities, the sales impact of allergies is much broader. Some parents are avoiding gluten in the hopes of preventing A.D.D. (attention deficit disorder) and intestinal disorders. Some are avoiding peanuts or shellfish now so their children won’t develop allergies in the future.

Many of the actually and potentially afflicted are self-diagnosed. Many more are multipliers. When one child in a household is allergic, some parents find it safer to avoid having peanuts, eggs, milk or whatever IT is, in the house or the school cafeteria at all so there aren’t any accidents. The caution may extend to the homes of their grandparents. It wasn’t until I went shopping with Anna that I realized that one little girl’s mild allergy to eggs could change the eating patterns of at least six adults, and all the children in her nursery school class.

Anna is a nutritionally aware and articulate mother of 3-year-old Carol, who has a moderate but medically confirmed allergy to eggs. Anna does most of her food shopping at Whole Foods but also buys Safeway’s Organic O brand products at Genuardi’s, meat and poultry at Costco, and fish at a local fish market. She was a vegetarian as a teenager but went back to meat when she got married, mostly to keep her husband company. She is an avid label reader. Since learning that Carol is moderately allergic to eggs, Anna has done extensive reading and become a food allergy advisor to her large circle of friends.

“We don’t keep any eggs in the house, just to be safe. My mom and dad are careful about what they keep in the house-so are my in-laws. No one wants to risk a mistake. When I make cupcakes for a class or a bake sale, I make sure they are free of eggs, gluten, dairy products and peanuts so that most of the kids will be able to eat them with no problems.”

Even though a medical test showed that the Carol’s moderate egg allergy is unlikely to trigger any drastic reactions, Anna avidly avoids eggs as products and/or ingredients. In addition to buying EnerG brand Egg Replacers and not buying eggs or anything containing them, she believes that avoiding high-incidence allergy-foods like peanuts and shellfish will prevent Carol from developing other allergies.

“We want to give Carol a good start, and that means avoiding allergens, buying organics, whole grain, and natural foods, and minimizing her intake of sugars, sodium and highly processed foods. I specially avoid buying traditional kid foods because almost all of them are too sugary.” Anna expects to let down her guard when Carol turns four, at which time the likelihood of her developing new food allergies goes way down.

Anna shops carefully, believing she has to recheck labels on items she buys over and over. “You never know when they are going to change ingredients. Formulations change, and the fact that they were okay last month doesn’t mean they are okay now.”

In spite of all her caution, she thinks of herself as flexible and willing to compromise on most products. Her favorite brand of macaroni and cheese is Amy’s egg-free organic, but when Whole Foods is out of it, she buys Kraft’s egg-free whole wheat version at Genuardi’s. “I have a list of priorities, and egg-free is on top of that list right now. The Kraft product is not organic and too processed, but if I didn’t make trade-offs, Carol wouldn’t eat.”

Anna does buy products with labels that admit that products containing eggs or peanuts are produced in different areas of the same facility, as long as the label also states that good manufacturing practices are followed. On the other hand, if the label acknowledges that products containing eggs or peanuts are made on the same machinery as the product she is considering, she doesn’t buy it.

Her current favorite products include Tofutti Cuties (1/2-cup-size ice cream sandwiches) and Nana’s No Gluten Chocolate Crunch Cookies which also have “no eggs, no dairy and no refined sugar.” You may be as surprised as I was to learn that 3-year- old Carol’s favorite snack foods are semi-thawed kernels of (organic) frozen corn and refrigerated shredded mozzarella cheese, both eaten right out of the big bag.

“I buy the big bags of shredded mozzarella but have to limit Carol’s use because she would keep taking and eating handfuls until it was gone. It’s great protein and a wonderful snack, but has too much sodium to let her go whole hog. She has almost as much fun spreading it on pizza shells as she does eating it out of hand.”

(Both Carol and Anna are slender, but hearing about the snack appeal of handfuls of shredded cheese made me wonder how much of the shredded cheese market is driven by kids and how much of a role it plays in childhood obesity. After all, the historical rise in obesity runs parallel with the introduction and spread of zipper bags of shredded cheese and string cheese.)

Besides eating the shredded cheese, Carol loves to spread it on pizza shells, along with sauce and veggies. She loves dipping even more than spreading. “Her favorite dips are tomato sauce, hummus and whipped cream. She also loves to have her own little packages, so I’m open to products that are easy, delicious, natural and little enough for her. Little packages and little bites are important because they are appealing. Except for shredded cheese or ice cream, she doesn’t usually eat much at one time.” (There could be a market for 100-calorie or mini-packs of frozen corn or shredded cheese.)

Intrigued with what I heard from Anna, I asked a cross section of panelists what they knew of food allergy households, and got immediate corroboration. “My grandson has a severe peanut allergy that includes tree nuts. There is nothing in their house remotely resembling a nut/peanut of any kind. When they travel by air with him, they request that peanuts not be served. Continental Airlines is most cooperative. We do have peanut products in our house, but when he is coming to visit, everything is hidden and put out of reach so there is no possibility of contact. The same in his classroom. It needs to be nut free.”

Another of our panelists is an international flight attendant. “Our strict allergy policy is important to passengers with kids. Several weeks ago we had a passenger (child) with a severe peanut allergy on board. The rule is not to serve peanuts three rows in front of the allergic passenger and three rows behind, but we felt that would cause hard feelings so just didn’t serve the peanuts to anyone.” Talk about multipliers! That’s 50 to 300 people not eating peanuts on that flight because one child is allergic.

The bottom line is that both real and threatened allergies have become important factors in food selection. Mainstream as well as niche food marketers should be paying attention to them. The government mandates that food labels disclose whether products contain milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat. Right now, the disclosures and free symbols and labels are all a hodgepodge of sizes, colors and placement, and concerned parents feel they have to read the fine print on every label. Simplifying this, perhaps on the front label, could go far in catching their eye and capturing their hearts.

Mona Doyle is CEO of The Consumer Network Inc., a firm that regularly takes the pulse of consumers on packaging issues. She publishes The Shopper Report newsletter. Contact her at 800-291-0100 or