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Manufacturers Rush to Develop "Allergy-Free" Foods

September 16, 1997

Many parents and children are welcoming new nonallergenic foods. (Photo: Kyodo)

Japanese manufacturers are competing with one another to develop food products that contain no allergens (allergy-causing ingredients). Of late, food allergies have become an increasingly serious problem, not only among children but also among adults. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, about 10% of Japan's population suffers from food allergies of one kind or another. The food manufacturers' move to develop allergen-free products is raising hopes among allergy patients and their doctors, who are eager to see more food choices become available to allergy sufferers.

From Snacks to Meals
If a person gets asthma or a skin rash from eating a specific food, that person suffers from a food allergy. In the past, eggs, milk, and soybeans have been known as the "Big 3" culprits in food allergies among the Japanese. More recently, however, people have come to refer to the "Big 5" allergy causers--the "Big 3" plus wheat and rice. All of these foods contain proteins that are essential for human growth. They are also commonly used as ingredients in food products--for example, as binding agents. For these reasons, it is virtually impossible to exclude the "Big 5" from one's diet completely.

The plight of food allergy sufferers has spurred a race among food manufacturers to develop allergen-free products. Because children suffer from particularly serious food allergies, the companies have concentrated on developing products important to children's diets, such as powdered milk, cookies, rice, and breads. A parade of new products have come out this year.

One confectionery company has come out with cookies that consist mainly of mixed grains and contain no eggs, milk, or rice. Dairy companies have developed a type of powdered milk whose protein has been broken down by enzymes to minimize its antigenicity (thus minimizing the likelihood that it will cause a reaction). Meanwhile, a leading cosmetics manufacturer has used enzymatic action to break down and remove the proteins from rice. This allergen-free rice is now being sold to hospitals all over Japan.

Last March, an allergen-free curry stew packaged in a pouch went on the market. Designed for children, this product is made with organically cultivated vegetables and contains no eggs, soybeans, or other allergenic ingredients. Curry stew is one of Japanese children's favorite foods, and the manufacturer has received letters of thanks from the mothers of children who have allergies.

In June, a leading manufacturer of ham began selling sausage that is free of the wheat commonly used as a binder in meat products. A hospital that has been making its own sausages for patients is eager to try out the new product, and has put in an order.

Adults Suffer Too
Food allergies can make the body go into shock, and can even cause death. Young children have been known to suffer sudden respiratory difficulties after a single bite of a cookie or school lunch. Early this year, the Ministry of Health and Welfare conducted a survey of 1,348 nursery-school children in seven prefectures. The ministry found that 168 children, or 12.8% of the total number surveyed, have allergies of some kind. And 16 of those children suffer from severe allergies that have led to shock or respiratory difficulties.

But allergies are affecting an increasing number of adults as well as children. Many experts say that changes in living conditions are exacerbating allergy symptoms. As one example, more people these days are living in climate-controlled homes, and closed air systems promote the accumulation of allergy-causing mites and their detritus. Also, many young people nowadays have irregular eating habits, which can lead to or aggravate food allergies.

The list of food allergy culprits goes beyond the "Big 5"; fruits such as melons and apples often cause problems as well. The most important step in alleviating allergy symptoms is to refrain from eating foods that contain allergens. Food allergy sufferers must accept a variety of restrictions on what they can eat; there are many foods they have to do without. The increase in allergen-free foods widens the range of food choices available to allergy patients. Furthermore, some doctors are hoping the wider range of choices will have a positive psychological impact on children with allergies, since it will allow these children to eat more of the same foods their friends and classmates are eating.

A Growing Market
The new allergen-free foods are expensive. Although things like the increase in the incidence of allergies and the recent outbreak of the dangerous bacteria E. coli 0157:H7 have heightened public concern about food and health, many people are reluctant to pay the high prices manufacturers are currently asking, and are hoping prices will drop. The manufacturers, for their own part, point out that sales volumes for these products are low, making it difficult to turn a profit.

However, the market is growing. One leading manufacturer notes that sales of "safe" food products in Japan doubled from just over 15 billion yen (1.3 billion dollars at 120 yen to the dollar) in 1995 to 30 billion yen (2.5 billion dollars) in 1996. (Safe food products include health-food products in the broader sense of the word; for example, products that help the intestines function smoothly and products that prevent tooth decay.)

One think tank asserts that health-related concerns have created a high latent demand for safe food products, and predicts that this market will reach the same magnitude as the market for foods based on biotechnology. The research organization says that latent demand for allergen-free foods is especially high, and that prices for these products can be expected to go down.

Not only manufacturers, but other companies too, are getting into the business of offering non-allergy-causing foods. One department store has set up a restaurant that caters to infants who are making the transition from baby food to regular meals. This restaurant offers a special allergen-free course that has been warmly received. With parents having fewer children, and spending more money on the children they do have, it is widely expected that a growing number of companies will become involved in this business.

Many food manufacturers have adopted "health" as the theme for the research and development that will lead them into the twenty-first century. Although manufacturers of allergen-free foods have a lot of work ahead of them--the task of reducing costs, for one--these new products are attracting strong interest from many quarters.

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