When Enjoy Life Foods was founded 17 years ago, their sweets and snack products — which are all free of the United States’ top eight allergens — were seen as niche items.
Today, Enjoy Life is completely mainstream. Consumers can find the Mondelez-owned company's cookies and bars in most regular stores. And it is certainly not alone in its segment. Several new and old CPG brands are jumping on the allergy-friendly foods train.
“Today, everyone thinks we were a genius. We weren’t,” Enjoy Life’s Chief Sales and Marketing Officer Joel Warady told Food Dive. “We saw the statistics and we just kept pushing the category. ...We’re happy there’s competition out there because for years, we were #1 in a category that didn’t exist.”
Part of the reason there is so much competition nowadays is the extreme prevalence of food allergies. A study released about a year ago in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that 4% of Americans suffer from some kind of food allergy. FAIR Health followed up with a study using insurance data that found the number of people who need emergency treatment for food allergies had increased 377% in the last decade.
Allergy friendly foods aren't just for people who suffer from allergies, either, Food Allergy Research & Education Senior Director of Advocacy Jen Jobrack pointed out.
“Today, everyone thinks we were a genius. We weren’t. We saw the statistics and we just kept pushing the category."
Enjoy Life Foods chief sales and marketing officer
“If you look collectively at food allergy prevalence and other medical dietary conditions, ... not only the families making grocery purchases, but schools and summer camps and daycare centers and other places are tasked with feeding people with food allergies,” Jobrack told Food Dive.
Following the 2004 passage of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, all U.S. food manufacturers are required to clearly label products with ingredients containing the most common eight foods that trigger allergies — dairy, soy, eggs, gluten, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. These are often called out in plain language underneath the product’s ingredient list. So even if soy lethicin is listed as an ingredient, the label will also read “CONTAINS SOY.”
While this is helpful for people shopping for allergen-free foods, it means that consumers need to look at labels and ingredients list to find out what's safe to eat. Enjoy Life was a pioneer in putting this information where the customer could find it more easily: On the front of the package and as a label claim.
Warady said that when the company got started, the only allergen-related claim that many retailers knew was gluten-free. He said Enjoy Life, which has spent a lot of time and effort advocating for food allergy awareness, tried from the beginning to convince retailers to carry their products with gluten-free items. From there, the allergen-free and allergy-friendly category evolved.
But the increase in people with food allergies only tells half of the story about the rise of allergy friendly foods on shelves. The second half has to do with additional food trends — like other specialized diets, clean eating and a preference for non-GMO food.
Allergy-friendly food for everyone
Across the grocery store, Katherine Allmandinger, manager of strategic insights for Nielsen's health and wellness practice, said growth has recently been flat for foods free of all of the top eight allergens. The general health and wellness trend, which allergy-friendly food fits into, has done more to help these items grow.
“Forty-six percent of people say that claims are influencing their purchase at shelf,” Allmandinger told Food Dive, citing Nielsen’s research numbers. “But you and I as consumers, we pick out products, we turn them over, we want to know more about them. Especially if it’s in something regards to an allergen or a diet steering us away from specific ingredients.”
Average consumers aren’t necessarily looking for allergy-friendly products, Warady said. Instead, they are looking for a product that meets their needs. Maybe they want to cut out dairy, or they have heard too much gluten is unhealthy.
Enjoy Life’s label claims are unique. There is a considerable amount of real estate dedicated to what the products don’t contain, but space is also given to showcase the ingredients and nutrients that the products do have.
“Forty-six percent of people say that claims are influencing their purchase at shelf. But you and I as consumers, we pick out products, we turn them over, we want to know more about them. Especially if it’s in something regards to an allergen or a diet steering us away from specific ingredients.”
Manager of strategic insights, Nielsen's health and wellness practice
The two types of claims also break down into what Warady defined as two general groups of people who buy Enjoy Life’s products: "worriers" and "wonderers." The worriers, he said, have no choice except to eat allergen-free foods. They care deeply about what isn’t in the ingredient list, and they pay close attention to things like the possibility of cross-contamination, where factories and equipment may also be used to process an allergen.
Wonderers, he said, have heard the hype about a diet that cuts out some allergens.
“They wonder, ‘Gee if I give up soy, will my hair be less brittle?’ “ Warady said. “They don’t have to give up soy. They’re just wondering, will life be better?”
Many of these people dabble in eating allergy friendly foods, boosting allergy-free companies' bottom lines. And, Allmandinger said, product growth is exploding along some of these pockets. About a third of all oils, butter and spreads are already allergen free, but the ones that are are growing at a rate of 1% — compared to the entire category, which is declining at a rate of 2%. Similarly, she said, allergy-friendly cookies and crackers only make up about 0.5% of the category, but they are growing at a rate of 9%.
“The category itself has a lot of influence in some cases,” she said.
Allergy-friendly by accident
Enjoy Life works hard to ensure that every product it makes is allergy friendly. Its factories are all dedicated only to allergy friendly foods, so there is no possibility of cross-contamination. Consumers can be sure as soon as they see the brand that they know what they are getting.
However, more and more products are allergen-free simply because of how they are made. This isn’t just a case of overzealous labeling, but instead products that aren’t necessarily trying to be allergy friendly, but are.
“A lot of it also ties back to genetically modified products, so the GMO-free products are seeing a lot of growth,” Allmandinger said.
According to a report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications referenced by USA Today, 94% of the soybeans used in food are genetically modified — meaning producers trying to keep non-GMO may choose canola oils or emulsifiers derived from sunflower instead.
When designing its pretzels, snack company Quinn was not necessarily shooting at the gluten-free market, Chris Murphy, the company’s vice president of marketing, told Food Dive. After the birth of her son, founder and CEO Kristy Lewis started the company with a mission of making snacks healthier. And when considering different grains for the snacks, Murphy said she decided on sorghum.
“We tested several ancient grains, and ultimately sorghum, from a taste standpoint, delivered from a crunch and a flavor standpoint exactly what we were looking for in a comparable pretzel to what is on the marketplace today,” Murphy said. “It was rooted in this idea of 'Can we find a healthier and more nutritious alternative?' ..Sorghum has a lot of benefits, one of which is being naturally gluten-free.”
Seeing the potential of fitting into the gluten-free market, Quinn pretzels launched with a gluten-free certification, Murphy said. While the company doesn’t overtly market their pretzels as gluten-free, Murphy said the company hears several stories from loyal consumers who cannot eat wheat.
“We get all these stories through our email, from Amazon, about, ‘Thank you so much for producing not only a pretzel that my son can eat now because he is celiac or gluten-free, but is a whole grain option, and I’m feeling good about what I’m feeding my kids now.’ ”
Vice president of marketing, Quinn
“We get all these stories through our email, from Amazon, about, ‘Thank you so much for producing not only a pretzel that my son can eat now because he is celiac or gluten-free, but is a whole grain option, and I’m feeling good about what I’m feeding my kids now,’ ” he said. “It’s a pervasive story that we hear over and over and over again.”
As food allergies continue to proliferate, the allergy friendly food trend is likely to continue. Jobrack, who has had to seek out allergen-free options for her children since 2006, said that today’s market is full of better and more flavorful products. At food industry shows, she said, she’s noticed more booths for allergen-free options. And she’s delighted that there are now truly allergen-free frozen desserts.
“I think the quality and flavors have improved,” she said. “People are not just omitting one ingredient and swapping in another, but they’re being very thoughtful about the flavor, the texture. There definitely are more options.”
Warady said that he sees this movement becoming more and more mainstream — both as more people continue to develop food allergies and more ingredients might start to cause problems for consumers. Labeling that points out the different items in products helps push that forward, he said.
“We’re really celebrating the fact that we’re able to find ingredients that taste great and that allow you to continuing to eat freely without worry,” he said.