Some UK supermarkets have recently introduced product lines specifically catering for those with food allergies or intolerances. An increasing number of us are choosing to eliminate certain products from our diet, creating a growing market full of potential, as Hugh Westbrook finds out.

Food allergies and intolerances are in the public consciousness as never before. There is little doubt that allergies can cause serious health problems, and while intolerances have been dismissed by some as a fad, there is still a growing body of evidence to support the problems caused by certain foods.

But regardless of the heath arguments, there is an increasing percentage of the population internationally who are choosing to cut out certain foods. Dairy, gluten and nuts are three of the major constituents avoided. Until recently, it has been difficult for allergy and intolerance sufferers to find the products that they need. The UK is leading the way in changing the situation, and companies across the world would do well to follow its example.

New ranges cater for food allergy sufferers

The UK's major supermarket groups have started to produce lines aimed specifically at those with allergy problems. Sainsbury's Freefrom range was launched in May 2002. The gluten/wheat/dairy-free products are regarded as more interesting and better priced than equivalent products in health food stores.

Sainsbury's reasons for launching the range sum up the rationale behind such a line. Dietician Kate Arthur tried following a typical diet from existing items on the market and said she was "shocked to find just how hard it was," adding that "many of the foods available were very dull and tasteless." This sums up the need for this kind of range - consumers with food allergies need to be able to find all their produce in one place, and they deserve a higher quality product than what they have been used to. Sainsbury's Freefrom line is stocked together in one place in stores to make it easier to locate.

Tesco has been marketing its free from range more heavily of late, while Asda is about to make an aggressive move into the market. The number of branded products for sufferers is to be massively increased in February, while plans are well under way for an own label range later in the year.

A spokesperson for Asda told just-food.com that prices would be significantly lower than elsewhere, and that there would be a dedicated space for products for allergy sufferers. "We work very closely with organisations and we have a dedicated nutritionist," she said. "Information shows that the number of allergy sufferers is rising. It is good business sense - we must provide what people need and what our focus groups show people are asking for."

The UK leads the way

Charity group Allergy UK is delighted about the developments in the market. Chief executive Muriel Simmons has long lobbied for products to be available for allergy sufferers, first bringing the problem to supermarkets' attention five years ago. She is delighted that the major groups are now bringing products together in one place. "Supermarkets are seen as responsible, caring and responding to the needs of their customers," she told just-food.com.

Simmons added that supermarkets were not really taking custom away from health food shops, as what they are producing is superior. "In health food shops the special food is not marketed well enough, it looks drab, and the space it has is not big enough. The shops have great staff but they are let down by the food."

She added that the UK is leading the way in products for allergy sufferers. "In other countries, people understand more about what allergies mean. Some European countries are ahead in other services and diagnostics, but the UK supermarkets are ahead in what they stock. In the US we would expect to see similar products, but we don't."

This last view is endorsed by the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. Founder and CEO Anne Munoz-Furlong has seen awareness of allergy problems increase in the 11 years she has run the organisation, but allergy sufferers rely on mail order and health food stores for the limited supply of produce available. Munoz-Furlong told just-food.com that she had no convincing explanation for why supermarkets were not stocking products, but suggested that the logistics of distributing niche products across a large country might not make the process economically viable.

The situation in the US is not as developed as in the UK, and Munoz-Furlong said her main goal was not to lobby for specialist products but rather to ensure that voluntary labelling of allergens in existing products is "clear, consistent and reliable. There are different standards and warnings." She added that one of the biggest problems faced by members of her organisation is their inability to find all the produce they need in one place, especially if only one member of the family has an allergy problem.

A growing market

The UK is not the only country where it has become comparatively easy for allergy sufferers to find products which are suitable for them. In Japan, many products have been developed for those with such problems. Carol Burke, the editor of Japanscan, which provides regular reports on product development in Japan, told just-food.com that "lots of foods have been developed to deal with this by large and medium-sized companies and more products are coming out. For example, Lotte has been producing dairy-free ice cream products for many years."

Burke said that many facets of Japanese society explained the number of products on the market. "People are heavily into self-medication, so they look for the products. Also in Japan, product life is very short so there is always a need for novelty in product development. In addition, people shop every day because they have limited storage room, and they shop more at smaller stores, which also have limited space, so they only stock products which will sell quickly. Consequently there is a need for new and unusual items." Produce for allergy sufferers fits the bill very well.

It is clear that there is a growing demand from allergy and intolerance sufferers for products that they can eat. Such consumers want to be able to buy everything they need from one place, and also want to eat well. The UK is leading the way, and we can expect to see the main groups continue to develop their ranges.

One allergy sufferer commented to just-food.com that the creation of ready meals would be a very worthwhile future direction. Outside the UK, major groups need to realise that this may be a niche market, but it is growing and represents a sizable proportion of their customers which they could serve very well with a dedicated range. It is not only an opportunity to benefit health; there are also significant benefits to the groups that develop the ranges. Supermarket groups around the world should certainly consider this in the future.