As incidences of food allergies continue to rise, more options for allergen-free foods mean greater inclusion and better-tasting, safe foods for those with food allergies.

Necessity is usually the mother of invention, and the origin story of many allergen-free foods typically share a common thread. It’s a story that often begins with an unexplained illness, one that after much searching eventually leads to a diagnosis of food allergies and avoidance of the foods one used to enjoy. Finding free-from products lacking in one way or another, the allergy sufferer, family member or friend commits to creating a product that allows a loved one to enjoy a favorite food once again.

Top nine allergens

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Crustacean Shellfish
  • Tree Nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Wheat
  • Soybeans
  • Sesame

Refine the process

The creation of allergen-free foods is often a personal mission and a labor of love. Formulation requires tenacity because the ingredients rarely follow the usual baking rules. Ingredients that might or should work don’t always behave as expected, as anyone who has tried to create an allergen-free substitute well knows. This leads to a cycle of trial and error, driven by the desire to create a formula that’s both tasty and reproducible.

Products often go through multiple iterations where each batch is tested by family and friends who are excited to introduce these favorites back into the normal line-up. Eventually, successful products achieve notice through samplings and word-of-mouth from others with similar allergy issues. A successful product often receives a compliment along the lines of “you wouldn’t know what’s missing,” which signals things are on the right track. Then, when these small producers outgrow their quarters, it’s time to seek more investment and larger manufacturing facilities for production.

Dr. Schär USA, Swedesboro, N.J., a manufacturer of gluten-free products, already has a well-known European presence. In January, the company expanded its US manufacturing capacity and added new categories to its portfolio. The move increases availability of Schär products at a time when more consumers are looking for gluten-free items. Its core customers include individuals suffering from celiac disease, gluten intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome. In addition to being gluten-free, Schär products (bagels, baguettes, bread, rolls, seeded sourdough, buns, ciabatta, cookies and crackers) don’t include any artificial flavors, aromas, coloring or preservatives.

Because many allergen-free products are often created with a personal mission in mind, some manufacturers also look to incorporate social impact into their offerings. The Greater Knead, Bensalem, Pa., donates a portion of proceeds from sales of its gluten-free bagels, soft pretzels, bagel chips and flours directly to organizations that help those struggling with food insecurity and food allergies.

A National Institutes of Health study, Access to Healthcare and Food in Children with Food Allergy, found that 21% of children with food allergies experienced food insecurity. U LUV, Broomfield, Colo., a producer of allergen-free cookies, donates a portion of its sales to finding cures for food allergies.

Timely initiative

As incidences of food allergies continue to rise, there are more and more consumers looking to fill these gaps. Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) estimates 32 million Americans have food allergies, and 200,000 people require medical attention for allergic reactions to food every year.

The influential demographic of Millennials site their top health concerns as stress, lactose intolerance and celiac disease, making this a key audience for allergen-free foods, according to a May Table Stakes Trends report from Circana, Chicago.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found a 50% increase in food allergies among children between 1997-1999 and 2009-2011. A report from FARE found more than 40% of children with food allergies experienced a severe allergic reaction like anaphylaxis. Those with food allergies are also two times more likely to have asthma and three times  as likely to have respiratory allergies and/or eczema.

A food allergy is an adverse health effect resulting from a specific immune response that reproducibly occurs with exposure to a certain food, according to Allergic reactions occur when the immune system abnormally attacks food proteins. Anaphylaxis is a sudden and severe reaction to a food, drug, insect venom or environmental substance that can be life threatening. Death can result in mere minutes of the allergen’s onset if not treated promptly.

Navigating labeling

The 2014 Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act and the 2021 FASTER Act enforces labeling for the top nine allergens (milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans and sesame).

These nine allergens constitute 90% of the foods that cause an allergic reaction in US consumers. In contrast, the European Union identifies 14 top allergens, including cereals containing gluten, celery, mustard, mollusks, sulfur dioxide/sulfites and lupin, a legume used in flour form that can produce cross-reactivity and allergic reactions similar to peanuts. In the US, shellfish has the highest incidence of allergic reaction followed by milk, peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, fin fish, wheat, soy and sesame. But there are more than 170 foods reported to cause reactions in the US, according to FARE.

Food manufacturers must disclose the Top 9 allergens but there isn’t a requirement to warn about the possibility of cross contamination. Voluntary “contains” statements or precautionary allergen warnings such as “may contain” or “produced in a facility on shared equipment” are inconsistent and can create ambiguity for consumers with certain food allergies.

Such statements also do not consider that some ingredients may be allowed under broader categories of spices or natural flavorings. With no allergen-free certifications verified by third-party authorities and limited labeling guidelines, this leaves allergen vigilance largely up to the individual.

Not quite safe enough 

For parents of children with food allergies, this creates an ever-present fear that an allergen introduced in a classroom, cafeteria or school event could have life-threatening consequences. This is particularly important when you consider most children attend school for up to six hours a day, 5 days a week, for 8-9 months every year.

Also, schools are not required to have standard policies regarding the presence of food allergens and planning for food allergy situations is inconsistent. The CDC estimates that one in 13 children is estimated to have a food allergy, an average of two children in every classroom. CDC’s Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in School offers guidance for schools and early care and education organizations.

The desire to create a safer environment for children with food allergies has led to the creation of a number of ‘school safe’ products. The Stephano Group Ltd., Etobicoke, Ontario, Canada, defines ‘school safe’ as products that don’t contain peanuts, tree nuts, gluten, egg and dairy. The low-sugar, low-fat bars are also free of any artificial flavors or colors and contain essential vitamins and minerals.

Treasure Mills, Aurora, Ontario, Canada, creates ‘school safe’ brownie and muffin bars, cookies, cupcakes and snack cakes in a dairy-, nut- and peanut-free facility. The healthy snacks are made without artificial colors and flavors and are low in sugars, fats and sodium.

But despite the unofficial ‘school safe’ claim, it’s still difficult to have products that will be safe for everyone. Dave Bloom, founder and CEO of, Hillsdale, N.J., speaks from experience, having a daughter allergic to eggs, tree nuts and peanuts. Instead of the ‘school safe’ claim, Bloom suggests manufacturers choose labels that read ‘allergy friendly’ or ‘free from’ instead.

“There are no foods that are free of allergens because any protein can be allergenic to someone,” he said. “Allergen-free products may be suitable for many classrooms but that depends on the mix of the allergy restrictions of the students in that classroom.”

Bloom cautions that the ‘school safe’ label can also lull parents, caregivers and teachers into a false sense of security, when in fact, no food is safe for everyone.

Understanding this struggle firsthand, Bloom launched in 2011. The website tracks 11 allergens (peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, gluten, sesame and mustard) along with certifications for kosher, organic, non-GMO and gluten free. The site includes a frequently updated Safe Snack guide offering listings of qualifying allergen-free products.

Here, manufacturers can share details about how they process 11 specific allergens in their facilities in exchange for free listings on Manufacturers can also display a ‘Safe Snack’ badge on their company website.

“Increasing awareness and understanding of allergen-related issues can benefit individuals with allergies, their families and schools,” said Kalyna DeAngelo, social media and marketing coordinator, Abe’s Vegan Muffins, West Nyack, N.Y. “This can also play a huge role in more safety at schools while ensuring the well-being of students with allergies. By testing and using the proper ingredients, you can make the same delicious-tasting product without any allergens included.”

Abe’s Vegan Muffins is one of many allergen-free manufacturers featured on Founders Marty and Joseph Koffman created the allergen-free products for Joseph’s son, Abe, who was severely allergic to eggs, dairy, soy and seeds. Because these allergies isolated Abe from friends and classmates during celebrations, snacks and lunch time, the Koffman brothers sought to create a product free from dairy, eggs, nuts, soy, sesame and pea protein that everyone could enjoy.

The company continues to look for ways to prioritize industry awareness in encouraging manufacturers, food establishments and retailers to prioritize allergen control and a wider range of safe food options.

“Today, one in every four – 85 million Americans – avoid buying food products that contain one or more of the Top 9 food allergens,” Bloom concluded. “As the incidence of food allergies and celiac disease continues to skyrocket, more people will be diagnosed over time, leading to more people coping with dietary restrictions.”

For food manufacturers, this offers an incredible opportunity to offer products to these 85 million Americans who are in search of safe and delicious foods for themselves and their family and friends.

Food allergen resource sites