At least a quarter of Americans actively avoid products with allergens when they go shopping. That adds up to 85 million underserved consumers who get stressed out looking for food and beverages for themselves or loved ones, according to research from McKinsey and Co. That’s a valuable untapped market, especially since allergen-avoidant consumers are particularly loyal to brands that cater to their needs.
Despite the growing prevalence of food allergies – afflicting about 8% of children and 11% of adults – U.S. consumers remain woefully uneducated about the mandatory labels designed to protect them.
That’s the crux of the latest research from the nonprofit Food Allergy and Research Education (FARE) and the Center for Food Allergy & Asthma Research (CFAAR) at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.
The study, published in “The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice,” found that consumers suffering from food allergies are mostly unaware of U.S. allergen labeling practices and buy products with certain allergen statements more often than others, even though the statements themselves remain largely unregulated.
U.S. regulators compel companies to label any products that include the top allergens – peanuts, tree nuts, milk, egg, wheat, soy, finfish, and shellfish, according to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA).
Despite that, precautionary allergen labeling (PAL), such as “may contain” or “manufactured on shared equipment,” is voluntary. There’s no standard federal mandate that dictates how companies communicate the risk that accidental allergen risks. This inconsistency, the experts at FARE argue, leads to confused consumers.
“This new research shows the confusion around PAL and what the different labels represent, causing consumers with food allergies to make their own decisions about the safety of a product based on the wording in the label,” CFAAR Director Dr. Ruchi Gupta, the report’s lead author, wrote in a press release announcing the findings.
Researchers for the study asked consumers what future PAL declarations should include:
3% said, “not suitable for people with ___ allergy.”
1% said, “may contain [allergen].”
Nearly 40% of consumers also suggested PAL statements should be on the front of the package, just below the ingredient list.
“These PAL choices suggest consumers with food allergies would prefer clearer, more consistent labeling practices to enable more confident decision-making around PAL,” Dr. Lucy Bilaver, senior author, added. “Coming to consensus on a single PAL statement is a crucial next step to improve labeling policy for individuals and families with food allergy.”
Different Paths to Growth
McKinsey’s researchers suggest two potential paths for food and beverage companies that want to pursue allergen-averse consumers.
“As manufacturers look to appeal to consumers with food allergies (and those who shop for them), we believe that they should consider opportunities in two main categories of spending,” the McKinsey report reads. “The first is the $10 billion in incremental purchases of those who avoid entire categories of foods, such as bread, snacks, and frozen foods, that may contain allergens. The second is the $9 billion allergen-alternative market."
“Our research suggests that around 6% of ingredient-allergic and -intolerant households avoid entire categories. If they were to enter the category at the spend of average consumers, they would generate a total of around $10 billion in sales across a wide range of categories.”
There are several ways companies can help consumers, according to the experts at McKinsey, which include:
Better, standardized labeling.
Educate consumers about manufacturing safety practices.
Innovate with new allergen-free products.
All these strategies, however, rely not only on better consumer insights but on companies that have complete supply chain visibility. Manufacturers need to document carefully and follow strict operating procedures to ensure allergens are appropriately declared when a product leaves the facility.
There’s a lot more to FARE’s research, so TraceGains asked FARE CEO Lisa Gable to join us for a webinar to dive deeper into this data and discuss how manufacturers can raise the bar on their allergen programs. Viewers of the on-demand webinar will find out how they can be more proactive about allergen risks and learn which tools can help prevent mislabeling that can lead to recalls, sickness, or death. Watch it now here.