Keith Nunes

The presence of undeclared allergens is a leading cause of food and beverage recalls, and new data indicate allergies to some foods among consumers may be on the rise. The two trends combine to pose a dilemma placing added pressure on food and beverage manufacturers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 15 million Americans have food allergies. The figure is continuing to rise, and there is no consensus within the scientific community as to why.

Making matters worse, the incidence of severe allergic reactions to food has increased at a dramatic rate, rising 377% between 2007 and 2016, according to a study of private insurance claims conducted by FAIR Health. FAIR Health is a non-profit organization that oversees the nation’s largest collection of health care claims data, including more than 23 billion billed medical and dental claims from more than 150 million privately insured individuals.

Food allergies
The perception that free-from products may be “cleaner” or healthier for all consumers is worrying.

In a recent analysis, FAIR Health found that peanuts were the most commonly identified food causing anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction, accounting for 26% of such claims between 2007 and 2016. Tree nuts and seeds were cited for 18% of anaphylactic food reactions, followed by eggs at 7%, crustaceans at 6%, milk products at 5%, fruits and vegetables at 2%, fish at 2% and food additives at 1%. A third of diagnoses were coded as “other specific foods,” which indicates the precise food that caused the anaphylactic food reaction was not known.

During the period, the number of diagnosed anaphylactic reactions to peanuts grew 445%, while cases of tree nut and seed reactions increased 603%. Meanwhile, claims associated with anaphylactic reactions to “other specific foods” only grew 71%, suggesting physicians are better able to determine the cause of such reactions.

About a third of claims occurred in individuals over the age of 18, countering a common belief that severe food allergies are overwhelmingly a childhood condition. Twenty-seven per cent of all claims with diagnoses of a history of food allergy were for patients between the ages 0-3. Preschool age children (4-5 years old) accounted for 8%, and those 6 to 18 years old comprised the remaining 31%.

Avoidance of allergens is the only way to prevent the reactions that follow consumption. Reactions may range from a mild rash or gastrointestinal distress to a life threatening anaphylactic shock.

Concern regarding allergens has led to increased demand among consumers for products free from ingredients that may cause adverse reactions in consumers, whether it is from the leading eight allergens, gluten or another ingredient. For consumers at risk of an allergic reaction, the development of free-from products is welcome and beneficial.

A side effect of the trend is consumers with no issues related to food allergies also may perceive free-from products as healthier. Data from the market research company Mintel show that 84 per cent of consumers who purchase free-from products are seeking more natural, less processed foods.

The perception such products may be “cleaner” or healthier for all consumers is worrying. A related chain of events led to the increased demand for gluten-free products, and a similar pattern appears to be emerging with free-from products. Whether the free-from trend gains the same kind of momentum as the gluten-free phenomenon may rest on the industry’s ability to limit the incidence and recalls of products with undeclared allergens.