Today one in three Australians suffer from an allergic disease, something that was unheard of 30 years ago.
Australian Medical Association (AMA) president Steve Hambleton says, “Allergies are a significant and growing problem in Australia. Over the last 10 to 15 years we’ve actually seen a significant increase in the number of food allergies particularly in children.” The interesting change is that most of these children aren’t growing out of the intolerance – it carries into adult life.
These allergies are a result of either gluten intolerance, known as coeliac disease, or from a long list of food allergies with serious anaphylactic consequences.
Catering to such a growing percentage of the population is a sensitive issue and something that companies cannot take lightly. Claiming to be a gluten- or allergy-free food provider and delivering a safe product is a fine line.
Many products today can claim to be free from gluten and from multiple allergens, however, it is often the case that they are produced in factories where these allergens have also been used as ingredients for other mainstream products in the past. It only takes the smallest detection of a food allergen to trigger severe anaphylactic reactions in at-risk individuals.
The symptoms of coeliac disease are debilitating. According to the Coeliac Society of Australia, coeliac disease affects approximately 1 in 100 Australians, and 75 per cent currently remain undiagnosed. In people with coeliac disease, the surface area of the bowel available for nutrient absorption is markedly reduced which can lead to various gastrointestinal and malabsorptive symptoms. Unexplained and extreme fatigue, bloating or other gut symptoms, headaches, joint pains and a general lack of energy are all common symptoms of coeliac disease. Untreated, this condition can lead to chronic poor health, osteoporosis, infertility, miscarriage, depression and dental enamel defects. There is also a small, but real, increased risk of certain forms of cancer such as lymphoma of the small bowel.
Unlike coeliac disease, a food allergy is an immune system response to a food protein that the body mistakenly believes is harmful. When the individual eats food containing that protein, the immune system releases massive amounts of chemicals, triggering symptoms that can affect a person’s breathing, gastrointestinal tract, skin and/or heart. Symptoms of food allergy can include hives; swelling of the lips, face and eyes; swelling of the tongue; breathing difficulty; abdominal pain; vomiting; or a sudden drop in blood pressure. If left untreated, these symptoms can be fatal.
Anaphylaxis Australia estimates that up to 2 per cent of Australians, including one in 10 children, have a food allergy and some of them will experience a life-threatening allergic reaction (anaphylaxis). There are more than 170 foods known to trigger severe allergic reaction, the eight most common being gluten, egg, milk, peanuts, sesame seeds, soybeans, tree nuts, crustaceans and fish.
Because of the seriousness of coeliac disease and food allergies, companies providing gluten- and allergy-free foods need to have a new level of accountability. Specialised gluten-free production plants and stringent cleaning regimes are just part of ensuring these companies can honestly provide a safe gluten- and allergy-free product.
Companies can also take what they do seriously by developing strong industry relationships with prominent organisations that are dedicated to providing information and resources to people suffering food allergies, like The Australian Coeliac Society and Anaphylaxis Australia is. Both these organisations provide invaluable knowledge, research, and resources; have a team of medical advisors and operate mainly with the help of volunteers.
One company taking gluten and allergy free seriously is Well and Good – provider of gluten-free cake, muffin, bread and biscuit mixes. Sam Barak started Well and Good from his garage at home, and today his company has over 11 gluten-free and allergy-aware retail products, an extensive range of food service clients, and a unique, state-of-the-art allergy-aware manufacturing facility.
The answer to his success is his passion for providing people with a serious intolerance, with a luxury indulgence that never used to be available. Over the years he has developed many connections within the gluten- and allergy-free industry, including the Coeliac Society and Anaphylaxis Australia, and kept in close contact with his customers.
“If I’m going to know my customer, I need to know what they suffer. I have to learn about their sensitivity to foods and make sure that I am honest and cater safely to their very specific needs,” he says.
So the future of gluten-free and allergy aware is looking bright if companies take what they do so seriously; and this will be crucial considering the gluten- and allergy-free food market continues to be a growing industry on a global scale.