Monday, August 22, 2011

Mainstreaming Allergy-Friendly Foods at the Grocery Store

by Kelley Lindberg

Last week, the Smith’s Food and Drug store in Layton, Utah, had a grand re-opening. They’ve moved some aisles around, hung new signs, increased the variety of produce, and given the whole place a shiny new paint job. Nice, but pretty standard stuff for a grocery store remodel, really.

Except for this: Now there’s an entire aisle devoted to health food, organic food, gluten-free food, and allergen-free food.


Eleven years ago, when I found myself thrust reluctantly into the world of food allergy when my toddler turned red after eating a bite of a peanut butter sandwich, my resources were few. Grocery shopping was frustrating and tear-inducing. Ingredient labels were vague and confusing, with around 30 names for possible milk proteins alone. Avoiding an allergen was like walking through an unmarked minefield. And my husband suddenly found himself in a peanut-butter-free house, which he took awfully stoically, seeing as how peanut butter had been a major food group for him for decades.

As the years have gone by, the outside world has become more aware of allergies. We now have a law that food manufacturers must list the top eight allergens in their ingredients labels, and they have to use the word “milk” instead of just “casein,” “whey,” or other non-obvious words. Manufacturers are responding more and more to their allergic customers. For example, Chex cereals used to have barley malt in them, so those with gluten problems (or a barley allergy, like me), couldn’t eat them. Now Chex cereals are proudly advertised as “gluten-free” and they’ve become a staple for people avoiding gluten. (They’re great crushed and used as a breading for chicken!) Every year, companies are making more allergen-free foods like cookies, cake mixes, and bread mixes.

And the day I discovered Sunbutter was the day my husband did a happy dance.

But still, finding all those allergy-friendly foods was challenging. Health food stores and Whole Foods Market are the most reliable sources, but if you don’t live in a major metropolitan area that has those stores, your shopping trip might include a lot of driving or expensive online orders. So when regular grocery stores like Harmon’s, Albertson’s, or Dick’s Market began expanding their allergy sections, it was always a cause for celebration.

But a whole aisle? Wow! This is big news in Layton! Now people in this part of Davis County no longer have to drive to Salt Lake City to find products like Sunbutter, Tofutti soy sour cream and cream cheese, Silk Live yogurt, Earth Balance margarine, or Enjoy Life! Foods.

But this development at Smith’s isn’t just good because it makes my own life more convenient. (Although I’m very grateful, Smith’s!) It shows that food allergies are becoming mainstream, with an estimated 12 million Americans living with them every day. On the one hand, that’s a bummer, because we all wish food allergies would simply vanish (tomorrow, if possible!). But on the other hand, since food allergies ARE becoming mainstream, it’s great to see mainstream retailers and manufacturers accept that we’re a growing target customer base and begin to carry more of the items we need, crave, and thrive on.

Being mainstreamed into regular grocery stores means more convenience, more variety, and less expense. For those of us with restrictive diets, those are huge benefits.

If you have a grocery store near you that seems to be beefing up their allergen-free shelves, find the manager and say thank you, or drop a thank you note in the mail.

For those of us used to swimming around in those dark, scary backwaters, it’s good to find ourselves being welcomed into the mainstream for once.

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