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Is Your Brand Responding to Consumers’ Allergen Concerns?

A Little More Information Can Go a Long Way

Food allergies around the world have been steadily on the rise, a trend that is especially of concern with respect to children. Moreover, they disproportionately affect children who are from historically marginalized groups, including Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. The difficulty in avoiding the problem is that it is not always easy to know what foods create the risk, and the burden falls on those who are most vulnerable. Indeed, as one frustrated shopper stated: “In many ways, food allergy is an invisible disease. The burden of the disease, the activities and energy it takes to avoid allergens, are mostly invisible to those not impacted.”

Additionally, COVID-19 has brought about additional complications for those with food allergies, as the FDA allowed “‘flexibility’ in food labeling requirements to minimize supply chain disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, it is not surprising to learn that 65% of those surveyed indicated that they feel anxious when buying a new food product for the first time.”

As the global population becomes more allergic, consumers are growing increasingly concerned about having enough information to avoid problematic foods for themselves and other family members. Eager to remove the cloud of doubt or uncertainty that exists when they look at ingredient labels, they want greater transparency and accuracy. 

In response to consumer demands, proposed legislation known as The Food Labeling Modernization Act was recently introduced in Congress. If enacted, it would add new requirements for front-of-package food labels, mandate that ingredient lists on packaged foods be updated, and adopt labeling requirements that are more consumer-friendly. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, one of the sponsors of the bill, emphasized the importance of the legislation: “Americans ought to have clear information on what’s in their food . . . . This bill will grant people a much better understanding of their diet so they can make healthier decisions and avoid dangers like allergens.”

Approximately 90% of food allergy reactions in the United States are caused by one of eight common foods, the so-called “Big 8” (i.e., milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, crustacean shellfish, wheat and soy). These are required by the FDA to be disclosed to consumers FALCPA. Thus, it is not surprising that brands focus primarily on those food types when creating ingredient labels. But what about the other 10%? Should people who have less common allergies have less rights and go unprotected? Certainly that would not be consistent with our nation’s philosophy of helping to protect those who are not in a position to protect themselves. 

Food Data is Critical

Although allergens contained in food products are a significant source of concern for many consumers, ingredient labels and other information present on packaging do not always provide consumers with the information they need to identify the presence or absence of allergens that are outside of the Big 8. As a result, Foodspace has been examining data that goes well beyond the most common allergens. We found that, as compared to a trusted source, our data was largely but not completely accurate. After investigation, we ascertained that the ingredients that were inhibiting us from achieving full accuracy were primarily those whose sources are ambiguous. These include ingredients that could be derived from certain crops whose source is not required to be disclosed on the Nutrition Facts label. Although it would have been easier to present to clients that our allergens-related information is 93% accurate, we refused to do that because we believed that it would have been a disservice to those who live with food allergies. Indeed, it would have undermined the purchasing power of 29 million food allergy avoidant shoppers in the United States alone. Therefore, we conducted a study aimed at identifying consumers’ allergen-related needs and concerns when grocery shopping.  

One of the most significant findings from the study is that although allergens and the availability of information in this area are major concerns to consumers, they often do not have confidence in the brands to supply this information. Indeed, only 30% of those surveyed trust brands as a source of food allergen information relating to their packaged food products. This suggests that consumers want greater transparency and accuracy concerning the inclusion of allergen-related ingredients. It is insufficient from the consumer perspective to only include information about the Big 8 allergens because 59% of those surveyed with food allergies had one or more allergies outside of that group. Thus, it is vital that consumers are able to identify allergens present in products that go beyond the Big 8. Gaining consumer trust through increased transparency and accuracy is also critical to a segment of consumers who do not know where else to turn for allergen information, as 14.5% of those surveyed feel as though they do not have a trusted source of allergen information. 

When asked “Which of the following do you pay attention to when grocery shopping for yourself or others with food allergies?,” 100% of those surveyed pointed to ingredients. Despite this, however, ingredients do not always provide sufficient information about the inclusion of allergens. For example, if a product lists “natural flavors” as an ingredient, a consumer with a cinnamon allergy is unsure if they are able to consume the product. This is displayed in the results of our study, as 22% of those who provided a concern when answering: “are there ingredients that you are concerned with that aren’t clearly communicated in allergen statements on food labels?” specifically pointed to natural flavors as a concerning ingredient. Thus, the source that consumers rely on most for allergen information is not always meeting their needs.

Impact on the Digital Shelf

Online grocery shopping can be particularly difficult for those with allergies, as many individuals have reported product information as being inaccurate, incomplete, inaccessible, or illegible. In fact, in our survey, when consumers were asked “Do you have pain points for online food shopping?” 30% of those who reported a pain point alluded to the accuracy of available information as one of their concerns and 49% of those who reported a pain point alluded to having difficulty accessing the full ingredient list, nutrition information, or allergen information on online grocery websites. One discouraged consumer who was surveyed stated “‘ingredients aren’t often listed so I usually don’t buy new things, just stuff I have already bought in the past. Sometimes the images of the product are poor so it’s hard to look for logos or images identifying if it’s allergen free / vegan / etc.” The lack of detailed, accurate, and accessible allergen information is impairing consumer satisfaction, making discovery of products more difficult, and hindering product sales. 

Takeaway

The results of our studies suggest that brands and online grocers need to become proactive in listing allergen-related ingredients more completely, more accurately, and more clearly. 

This will not only help to satisfy consumer needs, but would also likely lead to increased trust in brands and enhanced customer loyalty that can help to increase product sales.  Importantly, brands that fail to act immediately in satisfying consumer demand for better data risk getting left behind because online consumers tend to form purchasing habits that are hard to break. 

Indeed, it has been suggested by e-commerce experts that “once shoppers start buying online, they often repurchase what they’ve bought previously, and often put items they need to replenish regularly on subscription. These online shopping dynamics make it incredibly challenging for brands that don’t win early in e-commerce to catch up.” 

Sam Gagliardi, Iri

Therefore the prudent thing to do is to act right now to enhance the quality and delivery of allergen-related data. Moreover, proactively addressing consumer demands for greater information can have other important ramifications. For example, it can facilitate brand advocacy because consumers who have been provided with rich product data (#JustGoodData) that is beneficial to them are just a few clicks away from sharing it across their social media platforms. For those who are saddled with having to hunt down information, a positive online grocery shopping experience might well in the long term help to build brand equity that is critical for thriving on the digital shelf. Robust product data permits consumers who have particular needs, such as medical, dietary, or lifestyle requirements, to make informed decisions that can be beneficial to them. It also enables brand teams to operate in sync and be in a position to respond collectively and systematically to consumer allergy-related concerns. Thus, a little more information can go a long way.

Foodspace Can Help
As demonstrated by the case study we did for Lovely Day Bars, Foodspace can help brands to provide complete, accurate and clear data sets that consumers are demanding Case Study with Lovely Day Bars. By providing more data for allergens-concerned consumers, brands can leverage product discoverability and create a better presence on the digital shelf. 

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