Whether it’s foods that are gluten-free, lactose-free, sugar-free or meat-free, customers want to know where to find products to ensure the items in them are safe to eat. How you merchandise your store can help.

“It pays to double-merchandise,” recommends Daniel Lohman, organic and CPG industry strategic advisor, particularly in the area of gluten-free, which is continuing to expand over time. “I always believe you should integrate the products in the section they belong. If you have gluten-free chips, they should be with the gluten-free chips but for this section in particular you need to have a ‘gluten-free’ or ‘allergy-free’ or ‘free-of’ section.”

While this may seem to be an overuse of space, it’s actually not, Lohman adds, if you consider the cost-effectiveness of those products.

“If you can bring those consumers into your store and give them a place to shop, those consumers spend more because gluten-free items usually cost more,” says Lohman. “The ring to the retailers will be higher because everything in the basket will be higher priced.” By putting these products in line with the others in the category, it gives consumers who want to experiment “an opportunity to learn about it, explore it and try it. They want to see how it impacts their diet,” he adds.

Shopping for compliant food items can be one of the most challenging aspects of following any diet or nutrition program. According to Nielsen, nearly two-thirds of its worldwide panel (64%) follow a diet that limits or prohibits consumption of some foods or ingredients. Diets that limit the amount of fat (31%) or sugar (26%) are the most commonly cited restrictions.

The category has also gone well beyond “health foods” and into all realms — including pleasurable desserts. Nancy Kalish, founder of Rule Breaker Snacks, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., says Whole Foods Market merchandises her gluten-free chick-pea-based brownies and blondies in the bakery next to its own goods, at the coffee bar, and often as an impulse item at checkout. Rule Breaker Snacks contain none of the top eight allergens, she says, and a new recipe using a chick pea flour makes them shelf stable for up to a year, adding appeal to retailers.

Jaqui Karr, CGP, CSN, CVD and WholeFoodsMagazine.com columnist, says retailers can take a step further by merchandising products in three stages: 1) Detox, 2) Rebuild, and 3) Maintenance.

“We need tens of thousands of health professionals to understand this topic at hyper-detail level,” says Karr. “I wish supplement store employees understood what a critical role they can play. Most people don’t hire consultants or nutritionists. They go to the supplement store and assume that person knows everything.

“The incomparable way of marketing,” she adds, “is to have the superior product and practices, then hire someone to explain the difference to the consumer. That doesn’t just create brand loyalty, it creates a devoted cult following.”

How Labels Factor InGrouping products together with clear signage is one step, but consumers with sensitivities know to read their labels. Here’s how you can help.

“Reading package labeling carefully is essential, but in some cases there can be confusion that arises due to seemingly contradictory information that may be contained on those labels,” says Laura Allred, regulatory and standards manager for the non-profit Gluten Intolerance Group, based in Auburn, WA. Retailers can expect consumers to ask questions when they are confused by product packaging labels and should be prepared to offer helpful and accurate guidance.

Savvy retailers are helping to address limited details on product packaging by helping shoppers identify diet compliance attributes in products. For example, independent grocery chain Raley’s created its Raley’s Shelf Guide program to arm shoppers with more details about the food and personal care products beyond the information gleaned from the product label. Using custom attributes such as Minimally Processed and Nutrient Dense, customers can filter products in Raley’s eCart to quickly find the products that meet their health-and-wellness needs.

“More expressive label claims help shoppers more easily identify which products to purchase,” says Kira Karapetian, VP of marketing for Label Insight. “Research has shown that consumers are willing to switch brands if another brand shared more detailed product information that they could understand. There is a significant opportunity for savvy brands to meet growing demands for greater product and label transparency.”

How Consumers Get Confused“One of the most common sources of confusion for gluten-free consumers has to do with allergen advisory statements placed on a package by the food manufacturer,” says Allred. “For example, a package may contain a gluten-free certification logo but also include the statement ‘may contain wheat.’ Since wheat is a common source of gluten, some consumers may find a package labeled in this way confusing.

“Understanding the differences between regulations concerning gluten-free labeling and regulations pertaining to allergens will help clear up potential confusion for products sold in the U.S.,” she adds. “The FDA governs gluten-free labeling for approximately 80% of the U.S. food supply and has issued a regulation that products with a gluten-free claim must contain no more than 20 ppm of gluten. The USDA governs the rest of the food supply other than alcohol (meat, poultry, frozen foods, etc.), and the vast majority of those products follow the FDA regulation.”

On the other hand, allergen labeling is governed by the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA). FALCPA applies to wheat as an allergen, not as a source of gluten, and requires its disclosure. FALCPA calls for highlighting hazards in the ingredient list, whereas the FDA’s focus is on indicating safety with gluten-free labeling.

“Under the FDA gluten-free labeling regulations, ingredients that are derived from a gluten containing grain that have been sufficiently processed to remove gluten can be labeled gluten-free, such as wheat starch,” says Allred. “But under FALCPA, wheat starch needs to be disclosed on labeling, either in the ingredient list or in a separate ‘contains wheat’ statement. As a result, a product may in some instances be properly labeled gluten-free but also have an indication on the package that it contains wheat.”

Deciphering Product LabelsAllred offers a few common labeling possibilities that may be on food packages in your store and how gluten-free consumers should interpret them:

• Any product that is labeled “gluten free” must meet standards set forth by FDA regulations. Either the product or the food manufacturer’s processes or both have been certified to meet the FDA’s 20 ppm standard or one that is even more stringent. If the label contains a “gluten-free” claim, including “no gluten,” “free of gluten” or “without gluten,” the product is subject to the FDA definition of gluten-free and should be safe to consume. • Some prefer third party certifications. In the case of certification by the Gluten Intolerance Group’s Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), both the product and the process are certified to meet the more stringent 10 ppm gluten standard. Those living gluten-free can consume certified products with confidence. • Products with a gluten-free claim or certification may also have a statement “may contain wheat” or “processed on shared equipment with wheat.” In a GFCO-certified product, these statements are not an indication of cross-contamination and the products are safe for gluten-free consumers. In these cases, the warnings are intended for persons with wheat allergies, who might react to a gluten-free ingredient like wheat starch. • A “contains wheat” statement may be present on gluten-free food if a wheat ingredient has been processed in a manner that meets the gluten-free definition of the FDA or a more stringent certification standard, as may be the case with wheat starch. In such cases, an explanatory statement is also required on the package.

When and How to Look at Product IngredientsIf the product packaging does not contain a certification label or logo or a gluten-free claim, the gluten-free consumer will need to read the ingredient list. Basic ingredients to avoid include wheat (including spelt, einkorn and couscous), rye, barley, oats (unless certified gluten-free), malt and brewer’s yeast.

Additionally, the following products may be derived from wheat and their gluten-free status needs to be determined by the consumer: starch, food starch, modified food starch, dextrin and vinegar (which may be safe if distilled vinegar or unsafe if malt vinegar).

Due to the risk of cross-contamination, gluten-free consumers should only choose products that include oats or lentils if those ingredients are certified gluten-free. The same applies to milled products from grains, beans, seeds or legumes, Allred says.

Not All Safe Products Contain a Gluten-Free Claim“It is also important to keep in mind that labeling a product as gluten-free is voluntary, so the lack of a gluten-free claim does not necessarily indicate the presence of gluten,” says Allred. As a result, naturally gluten-free products such as frozen fruits, vegetables and plain dairy products should be safe to consume even if they are not labeled gluten-free.

“Understanding the differences between gluten-free and allergen labeling will help consumers living gluten-free avoid confusion and make safe product choices while, at the same time, not unnecessarily limit safe choices as a result of allergen statements concerning wheat,” she says.

“There’s a gap between legally gluten-free and actually gluten-free, so the person purchasing ingredients needs to understand gluten at medical/scientific grade to ensure they’re buying naturally gluten-free products,” Karr adds.

Food manufacturers can be of significant help to the gluten-free community by ensuring their package labeling is clear and transparent. Your knowledge as a retailer about product labels is another important resource the gluten-free community will appreciate when they have questions in your store.

Jaqui Karr offers an in-depth science based online course for retailers who want to dive deeper. (SeeJaquiKarr.com/gluten.) WF

Published in WholeFoods Magazine March 2018