Food Allergies are Not the Next Gluten Free Fad

“Natural” may be an attractive buzzword to the health food sector but it shuts out part of the food allergy community.

What is it with food faddists glomming onto medically restricted diets? Celiac disease used to be an obscure immune condition. Friends who have it say options have become more abundant, yet pitfalls abound. A recent study found that ten percent of purportedly gluten free restaurant options in Melbourne contained gluten. Last year Papa John’s launched a gluten free pizza with a disclaimer that warned celiacs not to try it. Actual medical need took a back seat in the rush among marketers to meet a fashionable demand.

The ketogenic diet followed a similar pattern: originally developed in the 1920s to reduce epileptic seizures, it now has celebrity advocates as a weight loss plan. Although early research indicates keto might be helpful for certain other conditions, I wrote with dismay last spring about how books and other products are now getting marketed at people who have medical conditions where the best science indicates a ketogenic diet does active harm. Keto does nothing to help food allergies and may lead to nutritional deficiencies when people who are already on a medically restricted diet take on additional unnecessary restrictions.

So now an article in Crain’s Chicago Business asks “Could allergy-friendly be the next gluten-free? These food companies think so,” followed with “Food companies are betting on it, investing in the growing packaged-foods category.” Let me warn you that products are going to market with insufficient market research and that article went to print with insufficient fact checking.

There is indeed a demand for allergy friendly products. We’ll get to that in a minute.

A recent study found that food allergies affect one in thirteen US children. Among those children, nearly forty percent have at least one life threatening food allergy. A single mistake can cause the death of a three-year-old. Those deaths are rare but when they do occur they make news, and rightly so. Manik Suri authored an opinion piece for Food Safety News the other day that resonates on this topic:

I’m not sure food safety is a big enough priority inside the C-suite. CEOs and CFOs are understandably concerned about margin pressures, changing taste, staff turnover, and tremendous competition. But failing to prioritize food safety is short-sighted.

Although Suri writes about the restaurant business, the sentiment has broader applicability. Compare that to the words of Will Holsworth of Safe + Fair foods, which produces niche products for the allergy market: “If you have a peanut allergy, you want to eat as much gluten and dairy as you can — you have no empathy for the other allergies.”

The first half of Holsworth’s statement is totally understandable. In Sandra Beasley’s book Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life she writes about a phase of bewilderment and resentment toward a sibling who chooses to become vegetarian. Most people who endure a medically restricted diet are glad to eat whatever they can. Yet it’s disconcerting to see an industry executive claim they have no empathy for other allergies.

No empathy? Really?

Holsworth goes on to explain that the Safe + Fair products do contain several of the eight most common allergens not only because avoiding tree nuts and peanuts was a business priority, but also because, “He says people allergic to multiples of the 14 ingredients on Enjoy Life’s no-go list make up a tiny fraction of the already-small food allergy community...” OK stop right there.

Yesterday Food Allergy Buzz took Holsworth to task by pointing out how some studies have concluded that dairy is the most common pediatric food allergy. Safe + Fair products contain dairy. That three-year-old in New York who died from an allergic exposure in a day care center, he had a dairy allergy.

Peanut allergies get more press, and I am totally OK with targeting a product specific to peanut and tree nut allergic people. Yet let’s not overstate how safe or how free that is, especially with a product whose end consumer may be too young to recite the alphabet, let alone read a product disclaimer. Those kids depend on day care workers and teachers and babysitters to keep them safe, and those people are often underpaid and responsible for dozens of children. So when you imply that a product is safer than it is — even with legal disclaimers to protect against a civil suit — somebody is going to make a mistake and feed it to the wrong toddler.

That hot take about no empathy for the other allergies is going to make a hell of of a quote if a kid dies after eating his product.

Papa John’s “gluten-free pizza” had disclaimers. The firm’s CEO was a bit short on empathy. Do you really want to head down that path?

I’ll add another fact check to the Food Allergy Buzz callout: Safe + Fair does not have fourteen ingredients. It has an unknown number of ingredients. That cuts down the potential within the product line’s own target market. As I’ve written before, ten percent of potentially deadly food allergies result from unregulated food allergens. The phrase “natural flavors” on the Safe + Fair ingredient list is the barrier. The way to reach that part of the food allergy market is simple: list every minor ingredient by name.

What the Crain’s piece misses is that the business world is misclassifying food allergy consumers as a subset of the specialty health foods market. This is what leads to mistakes such as boasting “all natural” on the packaging coupled with caginess about disclosing specific ingredients. It’s natural is a health food buzzphrase that holds no attraction to people who manage specific life threatening immune conditions. Peanuts are natural; they’re also functionally poisonous to a segment of the population. Apples are natural; they’re also functionally poisonous to me. The same antibody, Immunoglobulin E, is responsible for both reactions. Nobody’s asking Holsworth to eliminate every rare allergen. Just disclose which ingredients are in a given product. Otherwise people like myself have to assume his brand is unsafe.

That’s a deal breaker. No combination of GMO free, trans-fat free, etc. is going to turn around that purchase decision. He isn’t selling to consumers who are looking for buzzwords or trying to buy wellness packaged in a pretty cardboard box. They aren’t shopping for woo. These consumers are seeking a disability accommodation. This isn’t going to be the next gluten free craze for various reasons ranging from the risk of pediatric fatality to the sheer variety of different allergens. Consumers within this niche are willing to pay a premium for the convenience of prepared foods and they are very loyal once they find a suitable product.

I wonder how much of Holsworth’s high costs could be cut if he hadn’t insisted on trying to appeal to nonexistent priorities. He says his company “will be cash-flow positive shortly.” I wish him well, but having a couple of kids with peanut allergies is not a substitute for market research.

Look, the health faddists who don’t have an allergy are not going to be convinced that peanut-free is the new way to lose weight. If you’re going after that crowd there are a thousand ways to sell to them without piggybacking onto an actual disability.