Lisa Gable is CEO of Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE).
It’s no secret that all-natural diets are on the rise. The Plant Based Foods Association reported in a 2018 Nielsen study that plant-based food sales topped $3.3 billion last year. Specifically, sales of plant-based meat products have grown by 24%, which is notable since general retail food sales have only grown by 2% over the same time.
Plant-based foods not only have both environmental and health benefits, but these products represent a huge breakthrough in food innovation. Companies producing plant-based foods have met consumer needs for taste, value and convenience, which is monumental. However, it’s essential to recognize that there are unintended consequences for the food allergic community in consuming these foods.
FARE, as the world’s largest advocate for the food allergy community, would like to work alongside industry in food innovation to combat this issue during the product formulation process. We’re particularly excited about the potential of AI and gene editing to stop food allergies at the source, which could enable true hand-in-hand collaboration. This way, companies won’t automatically eliminate an entire population of potential customers.
Right now, though, while these solutions are still in progress, we need to focus on addressing proper plant-based food labeling and customer education.
The truth is that most plant-based foods are created from the eight most common allergens in America — milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans — and this is not always clearly articulated on product packaging. Only if consumers are reading the ultra-fine print will they see what is actually included in the food they’re eating.
For example, pea protein is a common substitute in plant-based meats. However, it has caused consumers with severe peanut and legume allergies to have life-threatening reactions. Take the investigative reporter in Utah who has lived with a severe peanut allergy for her entire life. She consumed a plant-based burger and immediately had a dangerous reaction, despite signage that indicated her burger “contains no peanuts.”
Looking ahead to the future of food innovation, it’s impossible to say what ingredient substitutes will be used next, so we must be prepared for everything.
For example, if the food industry begins exploring sesame as a suitable alternative ingredient in certain foods, we must make sure that it’s impossible to miss on the packaging because use of and allergies to this ingredient have risen in prominence over the past 10 years. Or perhaps innovators will turn to the popularity of grasshopper chips. Grasshoppers and other bugs are a potential cause of anaphylaxis for those who are allergic to crustaceans. Without proper labeling, we can only expect that anaphylactic reactions will continue to increase.
Consumers deserve clear and consistent labeling on all foods they consume. The status quo is unacceptable and dangerous for consumers.
As new products evolve, the consumer packaged goods industry must work with the food allergy community to provide comprehensive updates on product ingredients so that the more than 32 million Americans currently living with food allergies can make informed decisions and consume food safely. No ingredients should be buried in fine print.
In the short term, stakeholders should work with the food allergy community, including organizations like FARE, to execute a “smart labeling initiative” that provides comprehensive updates on ingredients for consumers. They should encourage transparent labeling and work to prevent life-threatening food allergy reactions. It is important for customers to have access to real time information that can guide their purchasing decisions in this fast-paced, innovative landscape. Consumers need to be able to stay on top of changes in the food they consume as they happen.
But it doesn’t stop there. It’s also critical that we work to find workable solutions to these challenges, but ultimately, the only lasting fix will be the discovery of a cure for food allergy.
While research into a cure is ongoing, we need to support and invest in new therapies that relieve the burden of the disease on food allergy patients and their families. It’s difficult to continue managing the disease through avoidance, especially if it’s not immediately clear which ingredients are being used in certain foods. Patients deserve more care options beyond simple avoidance or using epinephrine and a visit to the emergency room in the event of an accidental exposure.
Advancements in gene editing can also eventually help mitigate risks that are inherent in plant-based diets. Currently, it’s not well understood what causes a food allergy, but recent studies show that genes might play a role in the emergence of peanut allergies specifically. The food allergy community is hopeful that advances in gene editing and manipulation can soon help lead the way to a cure.
When we are fighting food labels, we have already lost the battle. Let’s work together to speed up innovation while providing protections for the here and now.