Food Allergies and How to Deal
When my middle sister was just a toddler, she was allergic to food, most food. My parents had to conduct a rather complicated rotational diet so that she could slowly but surely eat a greater variety of foods. She grew out of her allergies, and except for an occasional sensitivity to milk, eats just about everything, sometimes as quickly as when we were both teenagers playing soccer. Oddly though, her favorite food continues to be broccoli.
Unfortunately, many people do not grow out of food allergies, while others develop certain food sensitivities with age. Through close attention to the correlations between diet and health, many people avoid certain foods as migraine triggers, for example. Food allergies present a particular problem for home cooks, as many recipes do not indicate substitutes for the ingredients. With experience, improvisation becomes easier since cooking always presents an exciting range of options.
Here are some of the more common food allergies, some substitutes to get you started, and some allergen-free recipes to try out! Make sure you check the ingredients lists of any packaged foods, even when following “safe” recipes. Those without allergies can still peruse these substitutes for an idea of what items work together. Also, don’t forget to check out Emergency Substitutions for those times when you run out milk, eggs, or whatnot.
Now for the *necessary disclaimer*- When managing a severe food allergy, always be sure to check with your doctor regarding all food items to avoid and ALL substitutions in cooking. Certain kinds of food allergies, such as severe peanut allergies, can be very dangerous.
Most Common Food Allergies
People who are allergic to wheat do not necessarily have Celiac’s disease, which is specifically a reaction to the gluten protein found in wheat and rye and, to a lesser degree, a similar protein in oat and barley. People with Celiac’s disease must follow a strict, gluten-free diet. One of our favorite food bloggers, The Gluten-Free Girl, is a wonderful resource for gluten-free food and cooking.
Substitutes- Corn and rice are the staple cereals of a wheat-free/gluten-free diet. Amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat are gluten-free, wheat alternatives. They can be used to make quick breads and cookies. Potato starch and cornstarch can be used as thickening agents in sauces. Spelt flour is a good wheat alternative for baking, but has gluten. Soy flour is a good choice for batters and breadings, since it inhibits fat absorption.
An allergy to the proteins in cow’s milk is the most common type of milk allergy, and can affect a person’s ability to eat cheese, yogurt, ice cream, butter, and cream. Since milk provides important nutrients like vitamin D and calcium, people with milk allergies must find other sources, such as green vegetables for calcium and eggs for vitamin D. With reading ingredients, “casein” is a common milk protein.
Substitutes- Soy milk, rice milk, and almond milk are all fairly interchangeable, although rice milk tends to be a little sweeter than soy milk. For 1 cup buttermilk, substitute 1 Tbs. vinegar or lemon juice plus enough soy or other milk to make 1 cup total, or 1 cup plain yogurt.
Many egg substitutes on the market can be helpful in managing an egg allergy, but you must read the label. Some low-cholesterol egg substitutes still contain egg white. Eating egg-free also means avoiding foods like mayonnaise, marshmallows, doughnuts, cakes, and more. When reading ingredients, keep in mind the word “albumen” also means egg proteins.
Substitutes- In baking items calling for 2 or more eggs, substitute 1 Tbs. cornstarch or arrowroot powder and 3 Tbs. water for 1 egg. You can also substitute 1 Tbs. soy flour and 1 Tbs. water for 1 egg. As a binder in recipes with 1 egg, use applesauce, mashed bananas, or pureed apricots or prunes. Scrambled tofu has a similar texture to eggs. As a substitute for whipped eggs, as in meringue recipes, let 1/4 tsp. xanthan gum and 1/4 C. water stand until thickened and whip like egg whites.
Nuts (Peanuts and Tree Nuts)
Peanuts are legumes, meaning that they grow in the ground like beans, unlike tree nuts such as almonds and pecans. Despite being biologically unrelated, people with tree nut allergies are at an increased risk for peanut allergies. Walnuts and cashews generally cause the most severe tree nut allergies. Peanut and tree nuts allergies are the leading cause of fatal allergic reactions. Commercially prepared foods and candy can be cross contaminated when prepared in the same facility as peanuts (thus the labeling you see on these goods in the grocery store).
Substitutes- Allergy testing (usually done through a skin test) can determine whether you can substitute peanuts for tree nuts, or vice-versa. Nuts are seldom an essential part of a recipe, so can easily be replaced. In baking, try seeds, dried fruit, or chocolate chips. For a similar texture in savory dishes, try crumbled croutons or tortilla chips.
Soybeans are a legume closely related to peanuts, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, and lentils, and licorice. People with legume allergies are often allergic to more than one kind. Although soy allergy is common in infants, most people outgrow this allergy by the age of 2, making it a rare allergy in adults. Soy products include tofu, tempeh, soy sauce, and miso. Many packed vegetables broths, cereals, and Worcestershire sauce also contain soy. Lecithin, mono-diglycerides, monosodium glutamate, and hydrolyzed vegetable protein can also contain soy products. Soy meal and oil are also used in many soaps and cosmetics.
Substitutes- Instead of using “vegetable oil,” use canola or safflower oil instead. Soy is much more common in processed foods.
People with citrus allergies often react to certain proteins in citrus fruit, while a more rare condition of “citrus acid intolerance” causes people to react to the citrus acid in a number of fruits, vegetables, and as a food additive. Citrus acid is almost as common as wheat in common food since it’s so often used as a food additive. People with citrus acid intolerance must often rely on cooking fresh food rather than buying convenience food such as canned sauce.
Substitutions- For those looking to avoid citrus fruits only, vinegar can be used as a replacement acid in cooking (champagne, apple cider, white balsamic, etc.). Verjus is a very sour grape juice that can also work as a substitute.
Through rare, sesame allergies seem to be on the rise in recent decades, and can cause serious reactions. Sesame seeds and sesame oil are popular in baked goods, but are also used in the cosmetics industry. People with sesame allergies should avoid sesame products like tahini, and may also be careful with poppy seeds, kiwi fruit, and hazelnuts.
Substitutions- Substitute peanut oil for sesame oil when stir-frying or in other cooking. When trying to replicate a sesame paste, try peanut butter and a little oil instead. When ordering sandwiches out, order only the bottom half of the bun, which generally does not have sesame seeds.
Shellfish allergies are more common than fish allergies, and most people are not usually allergic to both. People with shellfish allergies tend to be allergic to more than one kind of shellfish. Dishes that can contain fish or shellfish include paella, bouillabaisse, gumbo, de mer,and Caesar salad dressing (anchovies). Many Thai, Chinese, and other Asian dishes may contain fish sauce.
Substitute- Miso, vegetable stocks, seitan, tofu, and cheese are great vegetarian substitutes for fish or shellfish. Imitation crab or shrimp usually contain the processed fish Alaskan Pollack, rather than shellfish.
True corn and chocolate allergies are the rarest form of food allergy. Most often, people react to another ingredient in a corn or chocolate product, such as nuts or milk in a chocolate product or cross-contamination with soy in corn products. Higher quality chocolate generally contains fewer additives that may cause reactions. Also, people may react to caffeine or other chemicals in chocolate, rather than cocoa itself. People with true corn allergies have to avoid corn syrup, which is very common in processed foods such as breakfast cereal, most fast foods, and ice cream.
Substitute- For those with true chocolate allergies or those wishing to avoid chocolate, carob is a substitute. Carob chip cookies can even be given to dogs who take a particular liking to cookies. For those with severe corn allergies, selecting organic foods with clear ingredient lists may be safer. Replace 1 C. corn syrup with 2/3 C. sugar plus 1/3 C. hot water and cool to room temperature before using. Replace 1 Tbs. cornstarch with 2 Tbs. allergy-safe flour.