MCLEAN, VA. — One in four Americans don’t buy products containing the top nine food allergens, including milk, egg, wheat, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, soy and sesame, according to new research from Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE).

While 32 million consumers currently are living with food allergies, the halo effect extends to nearly triple that number, with more than 85 million Americans impacted by the disease. Those consumers spend more than $19 billion annually on specialty food to avoid allergic reactions or other health consequences, paying 5% more per month than the average consumer.

“Our research confirms the food allergy community is vast — extending beyond an individual to entire households, and they face unique and costly challenges as they take steps to protect the health and safety of their families,” said Lisa Gable, chief executive officer of FARE. “For all 85 million Americans this can be expensive, but especially for lower-income families with food allergies, allergen avoidance can be prohibitive and crippling.”

The findings are part of FARE’s Food Allergy Consumer Journey Study, a series of research projects on food allergy consumers and their shopping habits. The initiative includes three studies in partnership with McKinsey and Company, Global Strategy Group (GSG) and The Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

FARE worked with McKinsey and Co. to characterize the food allergy marketplace and its economic impacts and to provide recommendations for improving food allergen labeling practices. The partnership with GSG focused on measuring the impact of food allergies on socioeconomically disadvantaged families, while the partnership with Northwestern University assessed consumer preferences regarding precautionary allergen labeling used on packaged foods.

The key takeaway from all three projects was that a universal label is needed, FARE said.

Trust in allergy-friendly packaged products chart

The US Food and Drug Administration currently requires the disclosure of the top eight food allergens, and FARE currently is advocating that sesame be added as a ninth. New research suggests a need for a universal phrase or image to show that a product may unintentionally contain an allergen.

More than half of America’s food allergy consumers indicated current labels are problematic and interfere with their daily lives, and 71% said they spend 3 to 5 minutes on average reading labels of every food item they purchase.

The studies found food allergy consumers represent $19 billion in untapped potential sales.

Top nine allergen alternatives have grown 27% over the past four years, with growth primarily driven by smaller allergy-friendly brands. Food allergy consumers tend to trust smaller and allergen-friendly brands (68%) more than large brands (45%), and 60% said they repeatedly purchase the same foods to save time.

Larger brands may have an opportunity to benefit from this untapped market opportunity, according to FARE.

“Currently, precautionary labeling is voluntary and inconsistent, which is confusing for consumers and stressful for those with food allergies who rely on information about what is in their food, especially regarding allergens,” said Ruchi Gupta, MD, medical adviser for public health and education at FARE and professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “Taking time to fully understand the food allergy consumer has shown us that there is a simple and cost-effective solution: if companies create a standardized labeling structure for the top nine allergens, those with food allergies will be able to confidently choose more safe food options for their families.”