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Allergen-friendly grocers becoming the norm 

Grocery shopping for North Raleigh families with food allergies got a lot easier last month when the new Whole Foods opened at Six Forks and Strickland roads (wholefoodsmarket.com).

It doesn't solve all of my shopping needs, but it's a big help. At 40,000 square feet, the store is 12,000 square feet larger than the Whole Foods on Wade Avenue in Raleigh and is the second-largest of five Whole Foods stores in the Triangle. (Chapel Hill's is the largest, but not by much.)

More space means the store can house a wider array of allergen-friendly foods. I've been to the store a handful of times since its opening, and I've been delighted to find products and innovative packaging that I haven't seen anywhere else in the area.

I almost broke into song when I found Tinkyáda's and DeBoles' brown rice spinach spaghetti (tinkyada.com; deboles.com) on the shelves. I've been searching for these gluten-free noodles since my 4-year-old daughter devoured them at a restaurant last spring. She is allergic to wheat, dairy, eggs and nuts.

I turned down another aisle and found an expansive array of allergen-free baking flours. And the frozen bread section boasts rows of gluten-free loaves, bagels and waffles to choose from.

The store's bulk spices section seals the spices in airtight containers. Simply tilt the container on its side to measure spices by as little as a teaspoon to as much as you want. The sealed containers cut down on cross-contamination concerns, a major issue for those with food allergies. Most grocers keep their spices in containers with lids that lift open, making it easier for contaminants to fall in.

The store bakery offers an assortment of vegan and gluten-free cakes, though there are no gluten-free vegan cakes. Yet! A girl can hope.

The eight-kettle hot soup bar includes one vegetarian and one vegan soup daily, both complete with an ingredients list. The store is the only Triangle location to employ a full-time nutrition specialist to help with specialized diets. Drop by, give her a list of your issues, and she'll come up with safe alternatives for your concerns. I've had similar luck with regular staffers at Earth Fare and Trader Joe's.

If there's one flaw in the design of the new North Raleigh Whole Foods store, it's that the allergen-free items are mixed in with the rest of the store's inventory. For example, egg-free cookies are found right beside cookies with egg in them; gluten-free pancake mix is shelved next to mixes with wheat. This means allergen-sensitive shoppers may have to spend a little more time searching for their favorites.

The best news is that the store is the latest in an ever-expanding list of grocers working to meet the allergen-specific needs of consumers in the Triangle. In the past six years, the Triangle has seen specialty stores such as Earth Fare in Raleigh (earthfare.com) and Trader Joe's in Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Cary (traderjoes.com) enter the market.

They've joined long-standing stores with expansive gluten-free sections and allergen-free fare, such as Weaver Street Market in Carrboro, Hillsborough and Chapel Hill (weaverstreetmarket.coop) and Harmony Farms in Raleigh (harmony-farms.net).

Area Kroger stores (kroger.com) and Kerr Drug stores (kerrdrug.com) now offer a selection of allergen-friendly goods. Many Kerr stores have a four-foot aisle dedicated to allergen-friendly goods, says Donald Bethel, an assistant manager at the Kerr on Six Forks and Strickland roads. His store offers a 20-foot section of allergen-friendly flours, crackers, gluten-free soups, cookies, granolas, pretzels, chocolates and more.

I hope the growing availability of gluten-free and allergen-friendly foods means that affordable options for families with needs like mine will eventually be the norm.

Joyce Clark Hicks can be reached at joyce4indy@gmail.com.

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