In lieu of a crystal ball, those watching the evolution of the gluten-free and allergen-free marketplace are gazing at several concurrent trends to prognosticate the future of products that fit into – or, for that matter, don't fit into – people's diets.
While the art of prediction is a tricky one, many industry observers concur that the health-and-wellness interest among consumers will continue in an area that spans food intolerances and allergies, as well as a more general quest to eat better.
"It looks like there is a general trend in how we are eating, not only to trim fat and sugar, but also to cut wheat or carbohydrates and have more true balance," remarks Steve Broad, CEO and co-founder with wife Annie Chun of Belvedere, Calif.-based GimMe Health Foods, which produces organic seaweed snacks and seaweed crumbles. Broad and Chun glimpsed where the marketplace was headed and started the GimMe product line after their successful launch of the Annie Chun's brand of Asian foods. "It hit us that this is something bigger, and that there is a new age of eating," Broad says, adding that there's a "perfect storm" brewing in this arena.
Market research bears out the notion that awareness of food intolerances and allergies and the preference for more natural, less processed and nutritious foods and beverages seem to be colliding.
15 million The number of Americans with moderate to severe food allergies
Source: Food Allergy Research and Education
From an intolerance and allergy perspective, it doesn't just seem like more people are having problems with foods – they actually are. The Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) group in McLean, Va., pegs the number of Americans with moderate to severe food allergies at 15 million. According to the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 20 children has a food allergy, a 50 percent increase since the late 1990s. Another study, from the New York-based nonprofit Food Allergy Initiative, shows that among those children with food allergies or intolerances, 30 percent deal with multiple food allergies.
One in 20 children has a food allergy, a 50 percent increase since the late 1990s.
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Alice Bast, founder and president of Ambler, Pa.-based National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), agrees that gluten intolerances and allergies in youngsters are increasing, and the numbers are affecting the type and number of products on the marketplace. 'If we look at our Twitter and Facebook following, it's moms who are following us and looking for recipes. We see many products in this area, like chicken nuggets, that appeal to kids," she observes.
Amy Burkhart, a physician who specializes in celiac disease, gluten intolerance and digestive health, says that today's (and tomorrow's) manufacturers can make gluten-free foods enticing to kids and help build the market for future young consumers of such products. "It is very important to children's psychological development to feel included in social events, which often revolve around eating. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard requests for gluten-free Goldfish or graham crackers that look like traditional graham crackers," Burkhart points out.
The reasons for the increase in allergies to gluten and other foods/ingredients, especially among children, are not yet clearly defined. Theories abound, from environmental to genetic factors, to the concern that antibacterial soaps have inadvertently resulted in a rise in the human body's sensitivity to certain items.
What's in Store for the Allergen-free Aisle
Whatever's causing the rise in food allergies and intolerances, the demand for products to meet those consumers' needs isn't likely to abate any time soon. A global report published by San Jose, Calif.-based Global Industry Analysts projects that within five years, the marketplace for gluten-free and allergen-free products will reach $26.5 billion.
The fact that food intolerances and allergies among children are spiking – in many cases, dramatically – gives credence to the prediction that gluten-free and allergen-free products will continue to be in demand. Those children will grow up to be purchasing consumers, of course, and, given current trends, their own children may well follow restricted diets.
Beyond those who have allergies and intolerances of various degrees, the general move toward more wholesome, healthy eating also continues. Research released last year from Chicago-based Mintel, for instance, shows that more than two-thirds of Americans (67 percent) report that they're seeking healthy foods. A strategic think tank called The Values Institute released a study this year showing that health is a primary goal among three out of four consumers. Observes the Santa Ana, Calif.-based organization's president, Mike Weisman: "More than ever, health is the new prestige barometer – meaning that most Americans would rather be called healthy than wealthy. Certainly, this trend will have major implications for marketers and retailers looking to sway consumer opinion in 2013 and beyond."
Tied in with a greater health consciousness and concerns over intolerance and sensitivity is interest in foods that are non-GMO. According to a 2013 MamboTrack Annual Natural and Organic Product Survey, conducted by Market LOHAS (Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability) and Laz PR, shoppers are spending more on organic foods, looking for non-GMO foods, and seeking foods that can be traced back to local and regional farmers and producers.
Still, despite the growing number of consumers diagnosed with allergies and intolerances, nutrition professionals emphasize balance and moderation among those who aren't medically advised to restrict or reduce their intake of certain foods. Janet Helm, a registered dietitian and author of the Nutrition Unplugged blog, cautions that the "free-from" movement may be just that: a movement. She notes that there's an important distinction between the real and growing number of Americans with diagnosed allergies and intolerances and those who self-diagnose as sensitive to certain foods or who claim they're interested in "free-from" products for other reasons.
"You are what you eat, not what you delete. Food sensitivities seem to have become the next big diet craze. And while yes, there are allergies and intolerances, and it is important for people to get tested, is deleting foods the secret to losing weight?" she asks, adding that the health halo around free-from foods may have unintended effects on nutrition. One example, notes Helm, is the real dietary need for whole grains and fiber, both of which may be lower in some gluten-free foods.
Likewise, Dee Sandquist, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the Chicago-based Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, specializing in celiac disease and gluten-free diets, says that there are different tracks to gluten-free and allergen-free eating. "Definitely, there have been more people diagnosed, and there also are more people self-selecting," she notes. "There is one scenario in which people are seeking the health halo, and then there is another scenario for the true celiacs who need to know that they are celiac. That is why it is recommended for people to get tested for celiac first, and then go from there."
Burkhart, too, underscores the importance of being diagnosed by a health care provider, and advises a balanced approach when it comes to eating. "Real food is best: fruits, vegetables, hormone-free meats, and whole grains. Eat a variety of foods and focus on the things you can have, not the items you can't," she advises.
Tag, You're It
Manufacturers of foods geared to those with food allergies and intolerances, as well as those who are looking for what they think of as wholesome, organic or better-for-you options, are investing in the future. These companies, which span small startups as well as major international corporations, continue to develop products and accompanying packaging and promotions, and are looking at both short- and long-term prospects.
GimMe's Broad says that seaweed-based snacks are positioned well for the long haul because of their health benefits and appeal among various market segments. "For us, probably the most exciting thing is how well we are doing among kids, from toddlers to teens to those in their early 20s who are glomming onto seaweed," he notes, pointing out that sea vegetables are more nutrient-dense than land vegetables.
Other providers of foods designed for those following restricted eating plans are also anticipating an evolving marketplace in which food allergies are more prevalent. Cybele Pascal, mom of a food-allergic child and author of "Whole Foods Allergy Cookbook," recently launched a line of Cybele's Free to Eat cookies, which have a broad appeal among allergy sufferers. "It's not enough to focus on one allergen. I've made my cookies free of the top eight allergens," she explains. "They're so delicious, you don't need to be allergic to love them."
To convey the allergen message to consumers, the Cybele's Free to Eat Cookies package is designed to attract notice at the point of sale. The packages feature a unique graphic with a set of colorful icons to illustrate that the cookies are free of dairy, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish.
Other food manufacturers are placing their free-froms right on the front of the package. At Natural Products Expo West, Elevation Brands LLC unveiled new products and packaging for its Ian's brand of allergy-friendly food. Framingham, Mass.-based Ian's has added a leaf as the apostrophe in its logo to reinforce the all-natural aspect of the product line. The new packaging features quick-read panels with icons and the descriptors – No Gluten, No Wheat, No Eggs, No Dairy – that make it instantly easy to understand what the products don't contain.
As more consumers seek gluten-free products and other free-from foods that fit into either their restricted eating plans or their desired diets, packaging is becoming a pivotal way for manufacturers to reach and educate consumers. Helm, for her part, notes that during the recent National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, she noted that some package labels had veritable lists of free-froms.
Retailers are taking their own steps to make it easier for shoppers to find foods that meet their particular dietary situations. Grocers such as PCC Markets and Giant Foods (see the stories in this report) have created special shelf tags spotlighting gluten-free products.
Earlier this spring, Whole Foods Markets said that all products containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in its stores must be clearly labeled by 2018. By taking that step, Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market is the first national grocery chain to impose a deadline for total GMO transparency.