When you have a serious food allergy, you might sometimes feel frustrated about your dietary options. Many condiments and prepared foods are off-limits, and it can be difficult finding recipes and ingredients that work with your diet.
Thankfully, there are an increasing number of alternatives that are delicious and healthy.
The Top 8 Food Allergies in the United States
In the United States, our top food allergies include:
- Tree Nuts
Combined, 90% of all food allergies involve these eight foods. For this reason, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires food manufacturers to post allergen notices for these foods on all processed food products.
Exposure to a food allergen can lead to a variety of symptoms. While many food allergies are relatively minor, causing hives, an upset stomach, or wheezing, others are life-threatening. For some people, any exposure to a food allergen can result in anaphylactic shock, a potentially fatal condition. For this reason, you should never ignore someone’s food allergies.
Learn How to Read Food Labels
Most food manufacturers must list all major food allergens on their labels. This can be done in several ways:
- Listing an ingredient by its common name (“shrimp”)
- Putting the allergen in parentheses (“whey (milk)”)
- Providing a “contains” statement next to the ingredient list (“This product contains tree nuts.”)
While many manufacturers issue advisory warnings about cross-contact (“This product might contain peanuts.”), they are not mandatory.
Peanuts and Tree Nuts Alternatives
Between 1997 and 2007, the number of children with peanut and tree nut allergies tripled in the United States. Peanuts and tree nuts are different substances. Peanuts are legumes, while tree nuts include almonds, walnuts, cashews, and pine nuts. However, peanut and tree nut allergies both can cause life-threatening anaphylaxis.
While some people are allergic to both peanuts and tree nuts, others only need to avoid one of these allergens. However, you should always look for risks of cross-contact. Many facilities process both peanuts and tree nuts. You should also avoid getting food from places with increased risks of cross-contact, such as bakeries, ice cream shops, buffets, salad bars, and bulk good stores.
If you’re allergic to both peanuts and tree nuts, you can still safely eat seeds and seed butter. Popular substitutes include pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, chickpeas, sunflower butter, and soy butter.
There are a wide variety of milk substitutes, including coconut, soy, almond, hemp, and rice milk. However, milk proteins are common ingredients in many foods. The following products frequently contain milk products:
- Processed meats, such as hot dogs, lunch meat, and breaded meats
- Muffins, cakes, cookies, pancakes, waffles, and other baked goods
- High-protein cereals
- Egg substitutes
- Salad dressing and mayonnaise
- Margarine and other butter substitutes
- Chocolate and caramel
When in doubt, look for kosher foods listed as “pareve” or “parve.” These should not contain milk products.
There are a lot of egg substitutes on the market, but some are best used for baking rather than making an omelet or a quiche. For baking, you can substitute the following for eggs:
- Commercial egg substitutes
- Ground flaxseed or chia seed
- A combination of baking powder, oil, and water
You’ll want to think about why you’re adding eggs to a recipe. People add eggs for flavor, leavening, binding, and other purposes. Depending on the purpose, you’ll want to use a different substitute.
For cooking, you can use silken tofu and chickpea flour for egg-free scrambles, omelets, and other dishes. For custards and puddings, consider replacing eggs with agar powder or coconut milk.
When you’re buying prepared foods, be particularly careful when you get baked goods, salad dressings, breaded meats, meatballs (many recipes use egg as a binder), pudding, custard, and ice cream.
Going Gluten- and Wheat-Free
Wheat-free and gluten-free diets are not the same. Gluten is a sticky protein that makes baked goods stretch and pull apart. Make sure you understand your exact sensitivity — if you’re only allergic to wheat, you might be able to eat rye and spelt. However, if you have celiac disease, a wheat-free product could still trigger your symptoms. Thankfully, there are many wheat-free and gluten-free options in your grocery store.
For home cooking, try alternative flours, such as tapioca, rice, oat, and almond. Pure cornmeal and potato starch are also wheat-free.
You might think that shellfish are relatively easy to avoid. However, many condiments and prepared foods contain shellfish-based ingredients. Don’t assume that “imitation crab,” sometimes called surimi, is shellfish-free. Instead, look at the product’s ingredients to determine whether the manufacturer uses shellfish in its recipe. You should also carefully check the ingredient list on fish sauces. Kosher foods should not contain shellfish.
You can always replace shellfish with other lean proteins or mushrooms (such as oyster or shitake mushrooms).
Americans eat a lot of soy, and a soy allergy requires a lot of diligence. Most prepared and process foods contain soy. Thankfully, most soy allergies are relatively mild. Depending on your purpose, your soybean alternatives might include:
- Coconut aminos, instead of soy sauce
- Chickpea or adzuki bean-based miso
- Lima or fava beans, rather than edamame
- Quinoa or coarse bulgur, instead of soy-based meat substitutes
While processed soy oils typically do not trigger an allergic reaction, it is possible.
Aim for a Nutritionally-Balanced Diet
The food substitutes listed above aren’t always nutritionally equivalent to the allergens they replace. For example, some milk alternatives contain large amounts of carbohydrates and less protein than cow milk. You should carefully look at your substitute’s nutritional labeling and adjust your diet to compensate for its levels of carbs, protein, and nutrients.
Try to aim for a well-balanced diet. If you’re concerned about your nutrition or need help creating a better dietary plan, ask your primary care provider for a referral to a registered dietician within Canopy Health’s alliance. (To find a primary care provider or immunologist, search our physician database.)
Food Allergy Research & Education. Facts and statistics. Foodallergy.org. Retrieved from https://www.foodallergy.org/life-with-food-allergies/food-allergy-101/facts-and-statistics