Allergy-Free Meals Go To Work and School: How Food Allergies Are Changing What’s in Your Lunchbox
Peanut butter sandwiches in lunchboxes and “peanuts and Cracker Jacks” at the ball game are things of the past. Whether you’re avoiding allergenic foods to prevent a fatal allergic reaction, or to alleviate skin rashes, itchy throats or gastrointestinal upset, food allergies have a profound affect on the lives of both allergy sufferers and those around them.
As the number of food allergy sufferers increases, so too does the number of people facing the confusing and daunting task of cooking, eating, dining out and even packing an allergy-free lunch. Thus, the first obstacle – properly diagnosing a food allergy – is followed by another – how to avoid an allergic reaction while still enjoying the art of cooking and the pleasure of eating.
The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology reports that the prevalence of food allergy among children under the age of 18 has increased 18% from 1997 to 2007. Health Canada has identified the top ten food allergens as eggs, fish and other shellfish, dairy (from cows), mustard, peanuts, sesame seeds, soy, sulphites, tree nuts, wheat and other cereal grains. Keep in mind that many individuals who have an allergy or intolerance to one food often find themselves also reacting to many other foods.
Diagnosing Food Allergies and Intolerances
Why the sudden emergence of all of these food allergies? While it is difficult to know what all the reasons for this emergence may be, it is most likely a combination of many factors. There may be genetic factors (such as with Celiac disease), or conditions in the gastrointestinal tract which predispose individuals to developing distinct reactions. Whatever the case, a proper diagnosis is required to help make the correct dietary changes and prevent further injury to the allergy sufferer’s body. If you suspect that you may have a food allergy or intolerance, seek the advice of your family doctor or naturopathic doctor. They can use a variety of diagnostic tools such as elimination diets, or skin and blood tests, to help identify the offending food(s). The difference between food allergies and food intolerances, however, are significant when uncovering, diagnosing and treating.
A food allergy occurs when the body’s immune system reacts to specific proteins in a food. In this case, the body mistakenly sees a food protein as being foreign. As a result, the body’s immune system creates antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE). When the food is repeatedly ingested, IgE is released and the body creates a series of reactions. The severity of a reaction may vary from skin rashes to a serious anaphylactic response.
Food intolerance, on the other hand, may not be as easy to identify as a food allergy (which usually creates a more immediate response). A food intolerance reaction can be more subtle and symptoms may appear hours or even days after exposure. The most common symptom of food intolerance is the inability to properly digest certain foods because of disturbances in the gastrointestinal tract. Thus, food intolerance usually appears as constipation, diarrhea, bloating and flatulence. Other symptoms such as headaches or fatigue, however, may also be linked to food intolerance.
Since peanut butter sandwiches are no longer an automatic quick fix for the lunch box, allergy-sufferers or their “chefs” are now required to tap into their culinary creativity and relearn the art of cooking. While this may seem overwhelming, following a few rules on preparing your kitchen and substituting ingredients can help prevent an allergic reaction and a “not-so-successful” dish.
1) The First Step to Allergy-Free Cooking:
Most parents are concerned with their children suffering an allergic reaction at school or at their friend’s house. Studies show, however, that the majority of food-related fatalities occur within the allergy-sufferer’s own home. In fact, the most common cause of an allergic reaction is misreading of a label or failure to maintain an allergy-free kitchen. To eliminate this risk, it would be ideal to make your kitchen completely allergy-free. This, however, is unrealistic, especially if it is a guest and not a member of your household who has the allergy. The next best solution is to follow these tips from The Accommodating Kitchen when sharing a kitchen with any food allergen:
• Ensure that you do not use porous materials when cutting potentially allergenic food; wooden and plastic cutting boards, dishes, or utensils may absorb allergy-causing food particles. This tip is especially important if the allergy sufferer is anaphylactic.
• Although proper cleaning of non-porous utensils is usually enough, it is advisable to have two different pots and pasta servers in the kitchen if accommodating someone with a gluten allergy. This is because pasta residue is difficult to remove.
• Prepare non-allergenic foods first. This avoids cross-contamination.
• Clearly label non-allergenic food. For example, label the jam jar that has never been touched by a spoon using peanut butter.
• Do not double dip. Use a specific utensil for each food item.
• Wash your hands when moving from food for non-allergic people to food for allergic people.
2) Tips from The Accommodating Kitchen for Cooking Dairy-, Egg-, Gluten-, Peanut- or Yeast-Free:
Even if you do not have any allergies or food sensitivities yourself, at times you will likely prepare a meal for someone who does. Here are a few tips from The Accommodating Kitchen that will help you easily satisfy everyone. Have fun experimenting with new food substitutions, and most of all, share the joy of eating great food!
A) Suitable Substitutes for Dairy
Substituting goat’s milk in place of cow’s milk is easy to do in baking recipes. This is because milk substitutions do not critically change the texture or taste of the baked good. The only exception is soymilk which does not alter the texture of the baked food, but leaves a subtle aftertaste. For this reason, use soymilk in recipes that have a strong flavour in order to mask the soymilk taste. (Other notable substitutes for cow’s milk are hemp, rice, and coconut milk; each one is suitable for different types of recipes.)
Replacing butter and cheese can be a bit trickier. So, try these simple substitution tips for a guaranteed culinary hit:
• Replacing butter in cakes and cookies with oil will make the baked goods less creamy. To avoid this outcome, it is best to combine oil with a solid fat, such as ground nuts, chocolate, eggs, or egg substitutes. The texture issue may be overcome by simply using vegan butter; but be sure to reduce the amount of salt in the recipe if the vegan butter already contains salt.
• Replacing cheese can be successful when it acts as a binder and not as an essential ingredient for flavour. While nutritional yeast flakes can be sprinkled on foods to add a cheesy-nutty flavour, it does not replicate the function and texture of cheese. There are few (if any) premade cheese substitutes that work well as replacements in a recipe. The good news is that cheese is usually a topping in recipes and can simply be omitted without significantly changing the texture and taste of the food. Also, removing cheese may shrink your waistline, as doing so cuts calories and fat!
B) Suitable Substitutes for Eggs
Of all the allergy-causing foods, eggs are the most versatile in cooking as they can be used to bind, “lift” or add moisture to the food. Accordingly, it is critical to pay attention to what the egg is intended to do in the recipe because the use of the egg affects the type of substitute. To help you substitute successfully, keep these hints in mind when replacing eggs:
• The egg is probably a “binder” if the recipe contains only one egg and a lot of baking powder or soda. In such recipes, the best substitutes are unflavoured gelatin or agar-agar powder mixed with 1 cup of boiling water. Use 3 tablespoons of this mixture in place of each egg called for in the recipe.
• The egg is most likely adding lift to the food if the recipe does not have any other leavening agents, such as baking soda. In such recipes, it is best to add an extra ½ teaspoon of baking powder per egg called for in the recipe, but not exceeding 1 teaspoon of baking powder per cup of flour, as doing so alters the flavour. In addition, add air to the recipe by creaming the fat and sweetener together with an electric mixer and then adding the dry ingredients.
• The egg is adding moisture to a recipe if there are leavening agents in the recipe, but not a lot of other liquids. In such recipes, replace the eggs with ¼ cup of pureed fruit per egg, and increase the baking time slightly, if necessary.
C) Suitable Substitutes for Gluten
The best tip for substituting gluten-free flour in place of wheat flour is to have a sense of humour, as gluten-free baking can be difficult to do. If this key ingredient is missing, however, substituting gluten can also be a success by keeping these hints in mind:
• Pre-made gluten-free mixes tend to be drier than their wheat-based counterparts. Thus, recipes calling for wet ingredients (e.g., sour cream cakes, banana bread, and carrot cake) work very well. Adding chopped fruits, nuts, coconut, and chocolate also improves flavour, and using brown sugar instead of white sugar increases moistness.
• Double the amount of vanilla in a recipe, because some gluten-free mixes have a strong taste.
• Gluten-free baked goods (and especially yeast-free breads) tend to have problems rising and maintaining their structure. To help the baked good rise, add about 25% more baking soda or powder than in the wheat version. To add more structure to the baked goods, reduce the liquid in the recipe. Alternatively, use recipes that call for cake flour since cake flour recipes don’t depend on gluten for structure.
D) Suitable Substitutes for Peanuts
Can’t figure out what to pack for lunch that is peanut-free? Try these sandwich ideas:
- Nut or seed butter with jam or honey (to reduce the amount of sugar in the sandwich, use sliced bananas with cinnamon instead of jam or honey)
- Full fat cream cheese and jam or sliced cucumbers
- Guacamole with tomatoes, cucumbers, and cheese
- Hummus, tomatoes, cucumbers, and cheese
- Cheese and any non-processed sliced meat
These sandwich substitutions work because they replace the texture of the peanut butter. This “texture rule” also applies to substituting for whole peanuts. For example, use finely cubed carrots to replace peanuts in a salad, and raisins or puffed cereal to replace peanuts in granola mixtures.
E) Yeast Substitutions
Yeast-free diets can be difficult to accommodate, as they significantly limit the varieties of food you can eat. However, since cheese, most dairy products, and flours are prohibited in yeast-free diets, vegan or gluten-free recipes may be helpful. The recipes and cooking tips for dairy-, egg- and gluten-free cooking are also appropriate for a yeast-free diet.
Remember, accommodating substitutions in any recipe is a learning experience that only gets easier through practice. To help you along this learning curve, you can find more quick dishes and substitution tips in The Accommodating Kitchen. For more information about food allergies, food allergy support networks, traveling with food allergies and allergy-free products, restaurants or cafés, visit https://www.theaccommodatingkitchen.com.
About the Book
Co-authored by a foodie restricted by her allergies, and a naturopath, The Accommodating Kitchen offers more than just how to modify any recipe. It also concisely answers all of your questions, ranging from food allergy causes and symptoms to how to make your kitchen allergy safe. The authors seek to help allergy sufferers by teaching them how to embrace eating without fear, experiment with recipes and, above all, have fun in the kitchen.
The book is available from Amazon, or at the following stores:
Absolute Wellness, Hamilton, ON https://www.drbarryyoung.com
Aspire Health, Toronto, ON https://www.aspire-health.ca
Chapters Toronto, ON https://www.chapters.indigo.ca
Holistix Naturopathic Clinic, Mississauga, https://www.holistixclinic.com
Life With Baby, London, ON https://www.lifewithbaby.ca
Noah’s Natural Foods, Vaughan, ON https://www.noahsnaturalfoods.ca
The Book Mark, Etobicoke, ON (416) 233-2191
The Cookbook Store, ON https://www.cook-book.com
The Health Shoppe, Toronto, ON https://www.healthshoppe.net
Zawada Health, Mississauga, ON https://www.zawadahealth.com
Nutty Nut-free Quinoa Salad
Nut-, egg-, dairy-, gluten-free
Yields 6 servings
- ¼ cup white wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar, or less to taste
- ¼ cup maple syrup
- ¼ cup tamari sauce or gluten-free soy sauce
- ¼ cup freshly squeezed orange juice
- 2 Tbsp sesame, hemp, or virgin olive oil
- 1 Tbsp minced ginger
- 2 cups quinoa
- 4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
- 1½ pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
- 2 Tbsp virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- ¼ cup sunflower seeds or sesame seeds, toasted or finely diced carrots
- ½ bunch spinach, rinsed and chopped
- 3 green onions, sliced diagonally
1) To make the dressing, combine the vinegar, maple syrup, tamari, orange juice, sesame oil, and ginger in a small bowl. Mix well and set aside in the refrigerator.
2) To make the salad, rinse the quinoa in a fine sieve until the water runs clear. Drain well to remove the excess water and then toast in a large dry skillet over high heat for about 30 seconds (this gives quinoa a nutty flavour). Transfer the quinoa to a bowl to prevent it from toasting further.
3) Pour the stock into a large saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat, and then add the toasted quinoa. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 15 minutes, or until the quinoa is cooked and the stock almost all absorbed. Drain the quinoa and set aside to cool, and then transfer to large bowl.
4) Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C).
5) Put the sweet potatoes in a small bowl and toss with the olive oil and salt and pepper. Spread sweet potatoes on a baking sheet and bake in the oven for 20 minutes, or until tender. Remove from oven and set aside to cool. Do not turn off the oven.
6) Spread the seeds on a baking sheet and lightly toast them in oven for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside to cool. Add the sweet potatoes, spinach, and green onions to quinoa and mix thoroughly.
7) Toss the dressing with the quinoa mixture, sprinkle seeds over top, and refrigerate for 2 hours before serving.
About the Authors
Natalka Falcomer, Hon. BA, JD, is a recent member of the Law Society of Upper Canada and a self-proclaimed foodie. Before attending law school, she studied at Wilfrid Laurier University, where she developed her love of cooking, as she was forced to navigate university cafeterias that were hostile to those who suffer from food allergies. Natalka co-authored The Accommodating Kitchen out of a desire to re-unite the allergy outsider with the joys of cooking and eating by arming them or their “chefs” with all they need to know about substituting various ingredients, making their kitchen allergy safe and detecting the symptoms of a food allergy. She currently writes for SweetFit.ca as a pre-made allergy-free food reviewer.
Odessa Gill, BSc, ND, is the founder of the Aspire Health Wellness Clinic (https://www.aspire-health.ca) and practices as a Naturopathic doctor in Toronto. Odessa co-authored this book to help people discover allergy-free recipes and to help raise awareness about the most common food allergies.