The demand for bakery products free from common food allergens is on the rise, and statistics indicate the trend will only continue to grow. More than 12 million Americans, about one in 25, suffer from food allergies and/or intolerances, according to the Fairfax, Virginia-based Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that four out of every 100 children have a food allergy, and that number increased by 18 percent from 1997 to 2007 alone.
But allergies aren't the only food-related conditions afflicting Americans. The Cleveland Clinic says that lactose intolerance, the inability to digest one of the sugars found in milk, affects one in 10 people in the United States. One in 133 people suffers from celiac disease, which is triggered by the ingestion of gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye or barley, according to the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University in New York.
Reactions in sensitive individuals can range from mild — stomach aches or hives — to severe — respiratory and/or digestive system distress — to death in the most extreme cases. For some, even a trace amount of an allergen can set off a severe reaction.
According to the Food and Drug Association (FDA), eight foods account for 90 percent of food allergies. Of these, five — milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts and wheat — are key ingredients used in bakery products. As a result, businesses ranging from Betty Crocker to boutique bakeries are offering a wide range of “free-from” products to safely satisfy the cravings of allergic Americans.
During the first quarter of this year, the number of foods introduced in the United States with gluten-free claims rose by more than 13 percent, said Tom Vierhile, director of product launch analytics for international research firm Datamonitor. The increase of products introduced in this category was more than 10 percent for all of last year.
Cookies, breads and rolls are among the top 10 food categories that have experienced this growth spike.
“The numbers show that the gluten-free trend is in a class all by itself,” Vierhile says. “To be honest, I was kind of shocked to see the percentage of new food products launched thus far in 2010 that have made a no-gluten claim.”
When Patty Furey Crane, founder of Mariposa Baking Co., Oakland, Calif., began producing gluten-free biscotti and brownies out of her home for a handful of wholesale customers in 2004, “most people didn't know much about celiac disease or what gluten-free meant,” says Dana Neufeld, director of sales and marketing. That included most store buyers who saw no financial benefit in stocking the items when there was little or no shopper demand for them.
In 2006, Mariposa had grown large enough to move into a dedicated commercial facility and shifted its focus to retail. Today, bread and sweetgood sales from its Oakland production/retail site and San Francisco shop account for about two thirds of the company's revenues.
Celiac sufferer Pedro Arroba had not eaten bread in 20 years until he and partner, Bruce Bassman, developed a gluten-free formula after hearing a presentation by the chief dietitian of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. Six years later, their Everybody Eats Bakery, Brooklyn, N.Y., sells its breads, rolls, bagels, cakes and pastries wholesale to health food stores in about 10 East Coast states. It also retails via the company's website and pre-ordered pick-up at its production facility.
Because some gluten-free flours are gritty, crumbly and have a strange aftertaste, Arroba and Bassman mix their own flour blends from corn, tapioca, brown rice and other natural ingredients. They also have to boost their formulas with other ingredients, such as egg whites, non-fat dry milk and gelatin, to achieve the crust and crumb characteristic of breads made with protein- and fiber-rich gluten.
“As a result of our special ingredient needs and the fact that we make all of our products by hand, we have to price them higher than conventional versions,” Arroba says. “For instance, a conventional baguette can retail for as little as $1, while ours have to be priced at around $4.”
Mariposa, which goes organic whenever possible, faces similar ingredient sourcing and resulting product pricing challenges. Like Arroba, Crane mixes her own flour blends.
Dairy-free products also are on the rise. In the first quarter of this year, the introduction of new foods in the United States claiming to contain no dairy jumped by 4.5 percent compared with 3.1 percent for all of 2009, Vierhile says. Among the top 10 growth “no dairy” categories (excluding beverages) are cookies, breads and rolls, and cakes and pastries.
Everybody Eats offers five dairy-free items, including deli rolls and fudge brownies, which must be produced on specific, dedicated dairy-free days to prevent cross-contamination. Cake In the Box Bakery, Duluth, Ga., gives customers the option of ordering cupcakes without eggs, milk and/or gluten. At A & J Bakery, Cranston, R.I., egg- and dairy-free cakes, cookies and cupcakes are available upon customer request.
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The Milwaukee-based American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAI) reports that more than three million Americans are allergic to peanuts and tree nuts (e.g. walnuts, almonds and pecans), and the number of nut-allergic children doubled between 1997 and 2002. As a result of the prevalence of allergies among children, a growing number of schools allow only nut-free treats to be distributed to students.
Vierhile notes that the percentage of new foods in the United States claiming to be nut-free has increased steadily from 0.3 percent in 2005 to 0.9 percent in 2009 to 1.1 percent for the first quarter of 2010. Among the top 10 new nut-free foods are cookies and bread and rolls.
Although James Morse suffers from a severe nut allergy, he persevered through more than 12 years of producing his top-selling peanut butter pillow cookies and scones containing the allergen for his wholesale Little Rae's Bakery in Seattle. However, as customer requests for nut-free items increased, he decided in 2008 to eliminate peanuts and peanut products from his bakery completely.
Presently, the FDA does not have a certification program or set of standards to declare an establishment nut-free. But Morse developed a strict protocol of his own.
“We cleaned every nook and cranny in our facility from floor to ceiling, including swabbing every surface for nuts multiple times,” he says. “We also had to get rid of equipment and cookie sheets that could not pass our swab tests despite our attempts to adequately clean and sterilize them.
“When we first went totally nut-free, we took a voluntary 6 percent drop in sales because we would have to drop our peanut butter pillows and had to substitute toasted oats for nuts to maintain the textural appeal of our scones,” Morse adds. “But we're building up again as more schools and group gatherings go nut-free.”
He emphasizes to customers that the nut-free status applies only to Little Rae's packaged items because once bulk products leave the bakery they are subject to cross-contamination during handling and display at customer sites.
Chicago-based market research company Mintel reports a growing trend of foods that could be considered pan-allergenic, making it necessary for consumers to avoid more than one allergen.
Last September, A & J's owner Joe Hitzemann added a dedicated gluten-free component to his already 100 percent nut-free operation in response to customer requests. At first, he limited production to one night a week in his specially scrubbed-down facility, but the gluten-free items became so popular that Hitzemann erected a wall in the bakery to create separate nut- and gluten-free spaces with separate air systems.
“For us, gluten-free is growing faster than nut-free,” Hitzemann says.
Sheila Sollie opened her gluten-, nut- and dairy-free Liberty Bakery, Oviedo, Fla., in 2007, and sales of her cakes, cupcakes and cookies have been steadily building. She also is experiencing growing demand for vegan products. During the past two years, Sollie has seen this category grow by more than 60 percent among both her retail and wholesale customers, and as a result, she created a separate egg-free production space and converted more than half her products to vegan.
“Parents tend to buy vegan products because their children are allergic to eggs, but for adults, it is an increasingly popular lifestyle choice,” she explains.
Although ingredients, such as house-blended gluten-free flours, can cost 80 percent to 90 percent more than conventional ones, Sollie is able to maintain a profit margin of between 50 percent and 60 percent.
Cake In the Box Bakery is 100 percent nut-free and, although it cannot be classified as a 100 percent gluten-free facility, owner Trenice Grill does produce a selection of chocolate and vanilla gluten-free cupcakes and cookies. To prevent cross-contamination, the bakery uses three dedicated workstations, mixers (separate brands are used to eliminate the possibility of confusion) and color-coded utensils, she says.
“Customers don't come in for gluten-free products every day,” Grill explains. “Because my ingredient costs are so much higher, I have to add $10 to the cost of a cake if I make it gluten-free.”
Operators point out that it is not enough for bakeries offering “free-from” products to maintain stringent cross-contamination precautions in their own facilities. They have to track the way ingredients are stored and handled all the way down the line from manufacture through distribution, a process that can require a great deal of research time and effort from the operators.
But, says Grill, “it's worth it to be able to provide safe products for customers who wouldn't be able to enjoy the bakery products they love and, just as important, to provide a resource for pediatricians, schools and other health-related organizations that deal with food allergy- and intolerance-prone individuals.”
Sugar- and gluten-free top consumer concerns
(percentage of full-line retail operators offering items)
|Whole grain/whole wheat popularity||11%|
|Natural or organic products||8%|
|Trans-fatty acid bans||7%|
|Low-fat or low-cal concerns||2%|
|None of the above||37%|
Source: Modern Baking Full-line Retail Bakery Research, 2009