A growing intolerance to dietary marketing

The marketing of food for people with special dietary requirements is fast becoming a money-spinner, but is it a healthy one?

Marketers are cashing in on the variety of genuine, or supposed needs, of consumers with food intolerances.

More than ever there is high consumer interest, both in real and proven medical conditions such as wheat, dairy and nut allergies, and in more spurious fads like elimination diets – championed by high-profile celebrity slimmers such as Geri Halliwell.

There is no legislation governing the listing of possible allergens in food – although the European Union is discussing whether to make labelling mandatory – but for some time packaged foods have indicated whether they contain certain ingredients. However, last month Sainsbury’s went one step further, with the launch of its Free From range – targeted at people that follow wheat-free, nut-free and dairy-free diets.

The move follows Tesco’s launch last year of Free From sections in stores, which give space to brands catering for people with food intolerances. The supermarket says the move was prompted by a letter to chief executive Sir Terry Leahy from a frustrated mother fed up with searching for food for her son who has a number of intolerances.

But one range of special foods that may have had its day is so-called diabetic food. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Diabetes UK have teamed up to call for an end to the use of terms such as “diabetic” or “suitable for diabetics” on food labels (MW last week). But whether food manufacturers will take any notice of their demands is debatable. A spokeswoman for Boots, which makes reference to diabetes on its “no-added” sugar range, which includes biscuits, chocolates and sweets, says: “We know that people with diabetes should eat a healthy balanced diet, but for many a ‘no added sugar’ alternative provides them with a choice of an occasional treat.”

Royal College of General Practitioners spokeswoman Dr Catti Moss supports the move by the FSA and the charity, saying that these so-called diabetic products often contain the sweetener sorbitol – a substance that can cause diarrhoea. Moss says: “If it says ‘suitable for diabetics’ that doesn’t mean it is.”

But as one set of food products targeting people following special diets seems to be on the verge of collapse, another – non-dairy – seems to be all the rage.

Alpro, which specialises in food that doesn’t contain dairy products, claims that the non-dairy dessert sector, which is worth &£25m, will have doubled in value by 2007. The company, which this year launched a &£3m ad campaign featuring celebrities such as pop star Louise and Olympic gold medallist Linford Christie, says growth will come from mainstream consumers concerned about general health and wellbeing and not from those with genuine intolerances.

This prediction by Alpro hits upon the crux of the problem surrounding self-diagnosis and food intolerances. As consumers become more interested in health and wellbeing, their attempts to put what they think is right into practice is, according to one survey, misguided and even dangerous. The research, by the Grain Information Centre, polled 205 GPs on the subject of elimination diets. Some 90 per cent believed women were putting themselves at risk by adopting these eating patterns, because they can lead to osteoporosis and immune system problems. Four in ten GPs noticed an increased trend towards self-diagnosis of food allergies and intolerances among female patients over the past 12 months.

A survey by Datamonitor in March, which found that nearly one in three people think they have a food allergy, yet only two per cent actually do, also backs up the theory that self-diagnosis and having an allergy has become a popular, misguided practice.

Dr Wendy Doyle, the spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association, blames “media hype” and celebrity-backed diets for the rush to self-diagnose allergies.

She says: “It’s a shame that these celebrities put these ideas forward because they really aren’t helpful. For instance, 50 per cent of calcium comes from dairy foods, but people on non-dairy diets don’t always know how to replace it. There has been a rise in awareness about allergies, rather than an actual rise in incidence. I really think it’s just a fashionable thing – women’s magazines are always talking about allergies.”

She adds that the interest in allergies is more about people looking for a way to lose weight than improving their health. She also points a finger at the explosion of unregistered nutritionists who often conduct allergy tests for a handsome fee.

But the fickle nature of the medical profession does not help matters either and can cause confusion among consumers as it lurches from recommending to condemning ingredients and food types.

In the past, there was a trend towards products free from additive “E” numbers, though the hype around this seems to have died down. Finding a sugar replacement for “diet” or low-calorie drinks has seen the soft-drinks industry swing from one sweetener to another. Eventually it settled on aspartame, which goes by the trade name Nutrasweet, but even this is reputed in some cases to cause headaches, mood swings and anxiety, with some opponents alleging more serious side-effects such as multiple sclerosis.

Earlier this month, the medical profession appeared once again to perform a U-turn – this time on fat – the only food type that in the main has been roundly condemned. The Harvard School of Public Health’s research into fat, states that fatty food might not be behind obesity after all and says it is time to look at the effect of carbohydrates.

Consumers’ interest in health and wellbeing has offered increased opportunities for marketers. But those wishing to exploit this area must be cautious, because what may seem like a money-maker one minute could very soon fall out of fashion the next, as celebrities and the medical profession find a new flavour of the month.

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