26 Million Americans May Have Food Allergies: Retailers React


26 Million Americans May Have Food Allergies: Retailers React

More adults are developing food allergies, and grocers are struggling to keep up with the needs of this food-sensitive group. In a study published by JAMA Network examining 40,443 individuals, researchers concluded that more than one in ten adults are food-allergic. Of those that were allergic, 45.3 percent were allergic to multiple foods, and nearly half reported developing their allergies as adults.

Health-focused grocery stores have long listed potential allergens on shelf labels, and the FDA requires that the “big eight” allergens be listed on packaging. However, as more adults develop allergies, these warnings may not be sufficient. Allergy-aware consumers are eager for clear labelling and warnings, whether they or a family member are the ones with the allergy. Their concerns are valid and urgent, as the number of people hospitalized from allergic reactions to food increased 350% in the last decade.

Show Trumps Tell

In a 2017 paper published in “Allergy, Asthma & Clinical Immunology,” scientists found that consumers preferred the use of symbols over words for allergen warnings. In the same study, people were asked if they were willing to pay extra for allergen information on all food packages. The results were overwhelming: 75% of respondents said they were willing to pay for this, on top of their monthly grocery bill (NCBI).

Shelf Labels with Gluten-Free warning
Gluten-Free shelf labels at a Texas retailer

“In terms of their willingness to pay, the majority of consistent respondents were willing to pay up to $10 extra per month for groceries for the inclusion of allergen labels on food,” reports the study. In other words, consumers are ready and willing to spend more for ease of shopping and peace of mind.

Beyond this, a significant number of survey-takers were willing to pay in the $10-50 range and even over $50. Consumers are willing to pay for the increased cost of food labelling, and may additionally improve their perception of allergy-conscious retailers.

Shelf Labels

Confusing allergen labelling presents an opportunity for retailers to fill the needs of their shoppers. Color-coded shelf labels and warnings make shopping simple for consumers with allergies and dietary restrictions. For this group of customers (which grows larger every year), clear allergen information contributes to their purchasing decisions.

Guide to in-store dietary labels
Shelf labels for dietary restrictions

Customers buying gluten-free products are even more discerning, as gluten doesn’t fall under the Food Allergen Protection Act in the United States. There is an added layer of difficulty when shopping, as food labelling for gluten is lacking compared to other allergens. The FDA only requires the identification of “ingredients that are — or contain any protein derived from — peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, milk, eggs, wheat, fish or soybeans” (FDA).”

Retailers like PCC Natural Markets, based in Seattle, have taken the initiative ahead of the FDA by labelling gluten-free products with orange shelf tags. The color-coding system makes it easier for consumers with food sensitivities to navigate their aisles.

Current Methods

Whole Foods search filter
Whole Foods product search feature

Whole Foods recently increased their website functionally to account for allergies and dietary restrictions. Online shoppers can filter through products based on gluten-free, keto-friendly, and other attributes. The Amazon-owned grocer is one of the first major retailers to implement a product search system with dietary restrictions in mind, but other food-focused sites have had similar features for years.

In 2014, Pinterest users could start searching for recipes on the website based on their diet and  to exclude certain ingredients. The update made it easier for allergy-conscious home cooks to find recipes, but shopping for allergen-free products was still a cause for concern. Retailers have been comparatively slow to adopt the technology and filter through ingredient lists on a large scale, but health-forward stores like Whole Foods and Earth Fare are warming up to the idea. The Whole Foods website change will likely lead to future app development that allows consumers to search in-store.

What’s Next

Black and White sesame seeds
Black and white sesame, dangerous for those with the ninth most common food allergy

As allergy concerns continue to rise, consumers will be turning to retailers to help keep track of what is safe to eat and what is not. The increased number of sesame allergies is already affecting the market–the FDA is considering adding sesame, the ninth most common food allergy, to the list of necessary ingredient warnings. In the meantime, retailers have the ability to label these “fringe” allergies on shelves and websites. For the consumer with a sesame allergy, this means having a much safer shopping experience.

Frank Scorpiniti, CEO of Earth Fare, recently talked with Ken Ouimet of Engage3 on food allergies as well as many other topics. In addition to product searching, the two CEOs envision a store with full app integration to help consumers navigate aisles and avoid specific ingredients. To learn more about the future of app integration in retail, you can watch the video here.

David Esparza
Marketing Analyst at Engage3