- Food Allergies Trigger Multibillion-Dollar Specialty Market
By Annys Shin
Washington Post, June 8, 2008
Straight to the Source
Kari Keaton is the sort of customer most businesses used to hate. The Rockville mother lingers at the grocery store, poring over ingredient labels. She calls food manufacturers and interrogates their customer service representatives about what sorts of foods get processed in the same facility and probes them on the meaning of "natural flavoring." And after all that effort, she still may not buy their product.
The way Keaton sees it, she has little choice. Her two sons, 10 and 15, suffer from severe food allergies. Keeping them from accidentally eating something that could trigger a fatal reaction has become the former IBM field manager's full-time job.
But Keaton, 52, and consumers like her are increasingly coveted by corporations and entrepreneurs who see an economic opportunity in catering to the needs of people who have food allergies or celiac, a condition treated by avoiding gluten. Marketing to the food-sensitive has become so widespread that the Girl Scouts now sell three kinds of milk-free cookies, Anheuser-Busch has a gluten-free beer and Kellogg's makes Pop-Tarts in nut-free factories.
The market for food-allergy and intolerance products is projected to reach $3.9 billion this year, according to Packaged Facts, a New York research firm. And the market for gluten-free foods and drinks is expected to hit $1.3 billion by 2010, up from $700 million in 2006, according to research firm Mintel.
An estimated 12 million people in the United States have food allergies, and another 2 million have celiac disease, a disorder in which the body's immune system attacks itself when exposed to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Those figures are expected to rise. The number of children with peanut allergies alone has doubled in the past decade. Food-induced anaphylaxis, a potentially fatal allergic reaction, causes about 30,000 emergency room visits and 150 to 200 deaths annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Medical experts don't know why the number of people with food allergies is increasing. Theories include reduced contact with germs, exposure to certain environmental pollutants and, in the case of peanut allergies, the way peanuts are processed and when they are introduced into people's diet. None of the theories is backed by much research.