For some, Attack of the Killer Shrimp is not merely B-movie madness. Monsters in the form of gluten lurk in deceptively innocent loaves of bread. A decaf soy latte can be the agent of death. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches strike fear in the hearts of thousands of mothers. Death by pasta is not impossible. And a filet of flounder can be far more terrifying than the jaws of any great white shark. For millions of Americans with food allergies and intolerances, certain ingredients are genuinely terrifying.

As occurrences of and education about these allergies have increased over the past few years, the market for allergen-free foods has grown faster than the vegetable villains in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. A 2004 study by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology found that 11 million Americans have food allergies. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 30 million Americans have food intolerances. Researchers at Packaged Facts found that the U.S. market for allergen-free foods has nearly doubled since 1999, from $947 million in retail sales to more than $1.8 billion in 2003. They expect the market to reach $3.9 billion by 2008.

"The whole category of allergen-free food is exploding," said Jerry Colburn, marketing manager for Ener-G Foods, the Seattle-based company that pioneered gluten-free bread in the 1970s. Today, the company offers more than 250 gluten-free items, part of a massive U.S. pantry of allergen-free products that range from frozen Indian entrees to chocolate chip biscotti.

The big eight
For the one in 25 Americans who suffers from food allergies, reactions range from hives and abdominal pain to anaphylaxis, a potentially deadly condition where blood pressure drops, the tongue and throat swell and airways constrict. For those with the most serious allergies, merely touching an allergen, or inhaling one—such as when many people simultaneously open bags of peanuts on an airplane—can trigger anaphylaxis.

According to The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, eight foods cause 90 percent of allergic reactions. The "Big Eight" are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat. In addition, some people suffer from food sensitivity, or intolerance, which may cause discomfort and pain but does not stem from the immune system and generally does not pose the same lethal risk.

Packaged Facts estimates that more than 70 million Americans are lactose intolerant and more than 2 million are gluten intolerant, a condition whose severest form is celiac disease.

Studies have shown that the prevalence of food allergies is growing. Peanut allergies in children doubled between 1997 and 2002. Five years ago, health professionals estimated that as many as one in 1,000 people suffer from gluten intolerance. Today that estimate is one in 133.

Fad-free foods
The demand for allergen-free foods is not a fad like the recent low-carb craze, which is already beginning to fade. "Unlike diet-based food crazes, intolerance to things like gluten and dairy is a primary health issue," said Steve Wamert, director of sales and marketing at Amy's Kitchen, a Petaluma, Calif.-based manufacturer of gluten-free Italian, Indian and Mexican frozen entrees. "We have seen this segment escalate rapidly over the years, and there are no signs that it is slowing."

"These foods are the solutions to people's medical problems," said Matthew Koch, president of Morrisville, Vt.-based Road's End Organics, whose products include dairy-free and gluten-free macaroni and cheese. "More people are beginning to look to their diets as potential sources of their life-long health problems, as opposed to searching for a chemical answer in the form of a pill for the symptoms."

In the not-so-distant past, the quality of allergy-sensitive foods available left much to be desired, especially when it came to dessert products, said John Tucker, vice president and director of marketing for Turtle Mountain, the Eugene, Ore.-based makers of vegan frozen deserts. "People thought they were offensive," he said. The same was true for dry, crumbly gluten-free products. "There was just nothing out there that I'd actually want to eat," said celiac disease sufferer Cindy Kaplan, marketing director for Enjoy Life Foods in Chicago. "So I simply eliminated that whole category from my diet."

Things have changed. "Our products taste just as good as any other product on the shelf," Kaplan said of Enjoy Life, which offers a large range of gluten-free products. "People with allergies can finally eat a really great chocolate chip cookie."

Allergic parents and kids
The biggest factor driving increased sales of allergen-free foods is the rise in food allergies among children, according to Packaged Facts, which reports that more than 5 million children ages 9 and younger suffer from food allergies. Companies are creating more products geared toward children. "A big base of our customers is parents who call truly in despair, worried about what they can feed their allergic newborns and kids," said Koch.

Autistic children and adolescents are another growing population of allergen-free food consumers. According to a study for the U.S. Department of Education, the number of cases of autism grew 435 percent between 1992 and 2000. Science has yet to explain why, but eliminating gluten and casein from the diet seems to reduce the severity of autism symptoms. "We found that a surprising amount of our customers are parents buying for autistic children," said Kaplan, "and we've heard some pretty amazing success stories."

Although millions of people suffer from food allergies and intolerances, they're merely the tip of the iceberg of the actual market for products designed to accommodate them. Often, report food makers, entire families follow the same restrictive diets because it is easier than preparing separate meals for each family member and because of the risk of cross-contamination in a home kitchen.

Convenience and variety
Convenience-sized allergen-free products are transforming the market, reports Packaged Facts. Until recently, bulk goods and products designed to be eaten in the safe haven of home dominated the market. Now, products such as Ener-G's gluten-free pretzels, which immediately became the company's top sellers, are moving like (gluten-free) hotcakes.

As awareness and incidence of allergies and intolerances are rising, so is general knowledge about healthy eating. Consumers are beginning to demand products that are not only allergen-free but that also contain healthy ingredients, Kaplan said. "Many of our products are high in fiber and things like omega-3s," she said, "and other manufacturers are starting to step up to the plate as well."

Because of this, and because many of today's allergen-free products taste as good as "regular" foods, people who do not suffer from allergies but who are interested in eating a healthy diet are beginning to turn to allergen-free foods. The increasing competition in the allergen-free market raises the standards for manufacturers. People are demanding higher quality and greater flavor variety, added Annie Christopher, founder of North Calais, Vt.-based Annie's Naturals, makers of a variety of "free-from" foods, including salad dressings.

The recent passage of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2006, requires food manufacturers to clearly state on their labels if their products contain any of the "Big Eight" allergens. The act also calls for the Food and Drug Administration to issue a rule defining and permitting the use of the term "gluten-free" on labels by 2008. The law will not prompt much change in those companies that already take allergens seriously, said Tucker, but other companies that have not been following as scientifically stringent manufacturing protocols may simply drop out of the market. The law will help unmask many existing allergen evils, making the world a safer place for those with food allergies—and a killer shrimp attack easier to prevent.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 6/p. 43-44