Food allergies and intolerances are here to stay

24th March 2016
From Chris Morrison

You have only to look at the shelves in your local supermarket to see there has been an increasing trend of products catering to food allergies and intolerances, with product categories like “free from” growing by the day. At the same time, consumers are demanding clearer information on ingredients and potential allergens, increasingly concerned about ingredients from gluten to refined sugars. While it is easy to dismiss this food trend as a smokescreen for fashion, could food allergies actually be on the rise?

A worrying trend

In recent years we have seen more and more products catering for those with food allergies and intolerances. Private label products in this category are diversifying especially quickly as retailers have developed entire ranges catering to these growing niche requirements. According to research from The Grocer, one-fifth of UK consumers – and one-third of young consumers – now regularly shop the ‘free-from’ section. To meet new consumer demands there has also been concerted efforts in the industry to make information on allergens clearer, both to meet regulatory requirements and champion these credentials to consumers. Improved traceability in the supply chain now also means that it is easier to guarantee that products do not contain allergens or come from facilities where that allergen is likely to be present, reducing the level of risk exposed in launching “free from” brands. This has led to more products such as gluten free, etc. being created. However, demands for information continue to rise and the consumer is very much now in the driving seat.

Allergies are the new black

Food trends are now increasing associated with health and body image and the rise of social media has further strengthened these bonds. Undoubtedly, food products such as gluten free have become more fashionable with endorsement by celebrities. Previously designed for those with gluten intolerance or coeliac disease, celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow have imposed a gluten-free diet on their families, and the trend is growing. There has also been evidence that some middle class parents are causing malnourishment in children by banning them from consuming gluten, eggs, nuts or other nutritious food groups because of allergy fears. So the question when it comes to allergens is, are we more concerned with style over substance?

Assessing the evidence

According to recent research and Freedom of Information requests made to health authorities, hospital admissions in England due to food reactions rose from 2,758 in 2004 to 4,744 in 2015, showing there is a growing need for food products for allergy sufferers. Worryingly, for anaphylactic shock specifically – the most severe of allergic reactions – admissions almost doubled. If this trend continues, there will be almost four times as many admissions in 2040 than there were in 2015. This trend does not stand alone in the UK: it is supported by research from the US where The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that food allergies among US children increased approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011 and currently 15 million Americans have food allergies. Alternatively, this could be from an improved ability to diagnose allergies; or it could be a population that is more willing to seek help when they feel they are having a reaction. Whatever the case, food allergies and intolerances are now playing a greater role in our society.

The growing demand for clearer information and niche products designed for food allergies and intolerances seems to be here to stay. Whether down to biology or driven by fashion, transparency of information is essential across private label to ensure consumers can make informed food decisions and protect themselves against risk.

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