Allergen-free food companies have known for years that the key to providing solutions on retail shelves for allergy-prone children lies in awareness of the problem. A new study published this week in the journal Pediatrics may help their cause even more. The study reveals that 1 in 12 children have a food allergy, twice as high as previously thought.
The study surveyed 40,000 parents of children younger than 18 and found that 6 million kids in the U.S. suffer from a food allergy. That's nearly 8 percent of kids, while 40 percent of those had suffered from a severe allergic reaction. Peanuts were found to be the most common allergen, followed by milk and shellfish.
"My previous research showed probably no more than 3 percent of children are allergic to foods," said Eugene Wang, creator of Sophie's Kitchen, which offers allergen-free, vegan seafood made from the conjac root. "Now we're getting a lot more insight into how bad this really is."
Wang started the company when he realized his daughter, Sophie—the company's namesake—was severely allergic to shellfish. Being intolerant to seafood, himself, Wang reasoned that the allergy was either genetic or that ocean pollutants were making seafood intolerable for him and his daughter. With so many pollutants in our environment and ocean, Wang said "you never know what's out there making you feel allergic."
Currently, there is no other seafood analog in the market like Sophie's Kitchen products, which include shrimp, calamari and fish fillets, among others. This new study shows that the business opportunity is huge, said Wang. "A journal article like this is like a gold mine for us, marketing wise," echoed Susan Carskadon, who handles marketing and public relations for Sophie's. "The onus is on Sophie's Kitchen and on many other innovative companies to actually be the educators."
Allergy-free food companies have been riding the research wave for a decade, when a study came out of the University of Maryland stating that Celiac disease was more prevalence than first thought and affected one in 133 Americans. Then, about six years ago the Center for Disease Control published that food allergies affected 12 million Americans.
"Even though we have the research numbers, I don't think a lot of people really understand how severe the problem is," said Wang. "How many parents really understand their kids have an allergic problem to nuts or to seafood?"
Scott Mandell, CEO of Enjoy Life Foods, a Chicago-based company which makes cookies, snacks, granola and bagels free of the eight most common allergens, said the market is quite a bit bigger than first thought, and the study will be helpful to increase distribution. "This type of information gives us something credible to use when describing why our products are so important in the marketplace," he said.
Allergen-free foods invade the ballpark
As a testament to how far public awareness has come, Enjoy Life Foods now provides products for the concession stands in Chicago's Wrigley Field. The Cubs approached the company, wanting to provide gluten-free and allergen-free food options for families. Mandell said the project will be a pilot for future partnerships. Baseball games are nearly synonymous with peanuts, but patrons at Wrigley Field can now munch on allergen-free cookies and trail mix.
"Our goal is just to produce great tasting products that everyone can eat," said Mandell. "It's not, 'Here's special food for people who have food allergies.' Rather, here's food that everyone can eat, including people who have food allergies."
As public awareness of allergies increases, so does the demand for local natural health and grocery stores to stock solutions.
"We get calls all the time from consumers asking 'Where can I get your product?'" said Dena Zigun, brand manager for Ian's Natural Foods, a Lawrence, Mass.-based allergen-free children's food company with breakfast, entrees, snacks and fries. "They're not finding it in as many local stores as they like." Zigun said the company plans to include this new study in retailer presentations to help them understand the market for allergen-free foods.
The second biggest impact of the study, said Zigun, is greater awareness of allergen-free foods with secondary caregivers, such as the mom of a child's best friend or a babysitter. Ian's packages its foods with a big red banner across the top that states what the food is free from to make it easy for shoppers. This is also fodder for convincing retailers to stock allergen-free, because the need for these foods goes beyond those who have allergies.
Are you allergic to your supplement?
But allergies aren't solely caused by what's in our food—even nutritional supplements, which parents may give children to supplement their diets, could pose problems.
"We need to feed our body nutrients that are targeted and effective and are not delivered with binders, anti-caking agents and stabilizers," said Myra Michelle Eby, founder of BoulderCeuticals, a whole food, organic nutritional supplements company in Boulder, Colo. "It's unbelievable what's on the shelves of a health foods' store," she said, citing sodium benzoate and artificial colors, which research has linked to hyperactivity in kids.
While this ingredient isn't classified as a traditional food allergy, perhaps it should be. Fillers and preservatives are food additives that could create an adverse effect in a child's health, which is the essence of a food allergy.
All the food manufacturers NewHope360 talked to were optimistic about how this study could impact sales. "It's hard to isolate the effect of a particular study or news piece," said Zigun, "But we've been experiencing double-digit growth rates over the last several years," indicating that allergen-free foods are necessary now more than ever.