Food retailers should consider the challenges of shopping for children with allergies when merchandising their food assortments, according to allergy experts.

Strategies could include segregation of allergy-friendly products, shelf labeling, and more specific training of dietitians to help consumers navigate ingredient labels. Such strategies have become increasingly important as the number of diagnosed cases of food allergies among children has continued to increase.

“We have seen a dramatic rise in the number of children with food allergies in recent years,” said Scott Riccio, senior VP of education and advocacy at Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), a group that seeks to improve the health and quality of life of people who suffer from food allergies.

The Center for Disease Control reported a 50% increase in the number of children with food allergies between 1997 and 2011, Riccio pointed out. Every three minutes, someone goes to a hospital emergency room because of an allergic reaction to food, according to FARE, resulting in more than 200,000 emergency-room visits per year.

“While there are several theories, scientists do not yet know why there has been such an increase in the number of people with food allergies in the United States,” he said. “There is some general agreement in the scientific community that the rise could be attributed to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.”

Whatever the cause of the increase, the fact is that consumers — especially parents of children with food allergies — often need help finding these products in the supermarket. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 requires that food products sold in the U.S. publish a warning on their label if one of the eight most common food allergens is an ingredient, even in small amounts. But experts say many consumers still have questions, especially when products contain warnings such as “may contain trace amounts” of specific allergens due to cross-contamination.

The increase in children diagnosed with food allergies comes amid rising interest overall in the availability of “Free-From” products on the supermarket shelf. Food sensitivities, including gluten intolerance, are estimated to impact 100 million consumers in the U.S., according to Natural Foods Merchandiser.

Health concerns

In a recent report on the growing consumer interest in Free-From foods, research firm Mintel found that health concerns, including allergies, were the top reason consumers chose to buy Free-From products. Forty-three percent of consumers surveyed by Mintel agreed that Free-From foods are healthier than those without such a claim, and 59% agreed that the fewer ingredients a product has, the healthier it is.

“Health issues appear to be top of mind among U.S. consumers when seeking products bearing a Free-From claim, including those related to heart health and allergies,” said Billy Roberts, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel.

In fact, Mintel’s research found that 18% of consumers said they would like a full list of allergens on packaging. This coincides with manufacturer product launches in recent years, according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database. In 2010, 11% of food product launches included claims of low, reduced, or no allergens, but that increased to 28% in 2014. It was the highest increase of any Free-From claim that year, Mintel found.

Lisa Musician, a dietitian who specializes in food allergies and the founder and president of Food Allergy Dietitian Inc., suggested that supermarkets consider creating distinct “allergy-friendly” sections within the store and publish lists of products containing allergens for customers.

“In addition to having labeled sections, a shelf tag system to help customers identify allergen-free products would increase customer confidence,” she said.

Supermarket dietitians can also play a bigger role in helping shoppers avoid allergens. Although these professionals already play an important role in helping people manage their diets, supermarket dietitians don’t necessarily have any expertise on food allergies unless they have been specifically trained, Musician explained.

 “Supermarkets can expand on their services by offering food allergy training to the dietitians, so when a customer has a question — about product substitutions, for example — the dietitian can feel confident in providing an answer,” she said.

Scott Owen, grocery merchandiser at PCC Natural Markets, Seattle, Wash., said the 10-store chain uses color-coded shelf tags for certain Free-From foods, including gluten-free, organic and Non-GMO Project Verified.

“Very few food manufacturers focus on Free-From allergen products,” he said, citing Enjoy Life Foods as a brand that stands out for emphasizing its allergy-friendly items, including its dairy-free, nut-free and soy-free baking chocolate, and its seed and fruit mixes.

PCC seeks to help customers with their allergy and food sensitivity concerns through publication of its Food Sensitivities and Allergies brochure, which is available in stores and online, and through articles on its website about allergies and food sensitivities.

He said he expects that the category of Free-From foods “will eventually eclipse gluten-free.”

“Allergies are getting more attention, and ‘Free-From’ is where gluten-free brands are likely to go next,” he said.