By Shari Steinbach, MS RDN, RDBA Contributing Editor
According to a study released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies among children increased approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011. Researchers estimate that up to 15 million Americans have food allergies and many others are dealing with food intolerances such as sensitivities to lactose or gluten. While the average shopper spends $46 per basket, the average shopper looking for free-from foods spends $102 according to Joel Warady, chief sales and marketing officer at Enjoy Life Foods, which markets foods that are free of the eight major allergens. It’s therefore vital that retailers understand the needs of these customers and take steps to assist.
Kate Scarlata, RD, LDN is a Boston-based dietitian with over 25 years of experience dealing with digestive health nutrition specifically with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) patients. She states, “For individuals with food allergies or intolerances, grocery shopping can feel a bit overwhelming. Label reading and locating safe foods in a grocery store with thousands of products is a time-consuming process. Retailers can help consumers by having designated or clearly labeled areas of the store for specialty foods such as allergen free, gluten free, lactose-free or low FODMAP products. A low FODMAP diet helps manage symptoms for 3 out of 4 individuals with IBS, a condition that impacts up to 20 percent of Americans.”
Many supermarkets are in fact beginning to engage with the free-from shopper to provide guidance and reassurance. Some retailers are creating their own on-line shopping filters that allow visitors to designate which product ingredient attributes are necessary. Other retail chains have segregated sections for gluten free products or have implemented shelf tag programs to identify certain allergens.
Retail dietitians are a key asset to supermarkets wanting to meet the needs of shoppers dealing with food allergies or intolerances. By having a dietitian who specialized in food allergies, intolerances and emerging food products, stores will develop the reputation as a trusted source for information and resources. Dietitians can also create their own unique educational programs to help this customer base. From seasonal recipes, cooking classes, store tours, new product demos and departmental shopping lists to providing allergen free snack ideas for local classrooms.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach for retailers, having programs, processes and an educated staff that can accurately help shoppers make an informed decision about whether or not a food is safe for them is key.