Be a Superhero! Cooking and Baking Without Allergens

Ever wanted to be a superhero? Recently, the heroes in my life include doctors, nurses, paramedics… and anyone willing to attempt to make food for me. It takes courage, contemplating cooking for someone with food allergies! First you have to clean EVERYTHING, and then you have to find the ingredients… and then you have to find a recipe. Usually, the recipe is where most people give up, and go and look for the store-bought replacement. Today, I wanted to give you a little inspiration in order to conquer allergens in recipes where you’re working from scratch. It’s usually cheaper, and gives you more flexibility. Be careful to stick to the trusted brands, though, and always double check food ingredients!

Step 1) Simplicity: Spices, herbs, flavourings, nuts, glazes and frostings are optional. If you can’t eat it, leave it out!

Step 2) Is the ingredient adding moisture to the recipe? Just substitute something wet… Depending on what you’re avoiding, eggs, fruit or vegetable purée, or sour cream can all add sticky moisture. Pure liquids like milk can be replaced with water, broth, or any of the dairy-free milks out there.

Step 3) Think about the chemistry! Is the recipe using an acid and a base to rise? If so, consider substituting either the acid or the base. You might have to adjust the amount of liquid to compensate. Baking powder is a combination of an acid and base, plus starch, but if you’re avoiding sulphites you may need to cut it out due to the cream of tartar.

Bases:

  • Baking Soda aka Sodium Bicarbonate
  • Baker’s Ammonia aka Ammonium Carbonate (smells bad in moisture-rich recipes, NOT to be confused with poisonous household ammonia!!!)
  • Pearl Ash aka Potassium Carbonate (very bitter, so use it only in spiced recipes like gingerbread)
  • Potassium Bicarbonate (1:1 for baking soda)

Acids: The amount of pH will affect how much you’ll need to react with your base.

  • Vinegar (White, Rice, Apple Cider, Wine, etc)
  • Citrus Juice, or Citric Acid
  • Buttermilk or Sour Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Molasses
  • Golden Syrup (aka Treacle)
  • Cream of Tartar

You could also add the leavening power of CO2 in other ways, too, including using yeast, carbonated water (or straight soda pop), whipped egg whites (if not allergic), whipped chickpea water (Take a can of chickpeas, remove chickpeas. Use like egg whites!), or chilled and whipped agar and water.

Step 4) What is making this recipe stick together? You might try using something else that’s sticky instead. Eggs can do this, but so can water + starch, pectin, gelatin, agar, ground flax, ground chia, puréed fruit or vegetables, rice, bread crumbs, or quick oats.

Step 5) Is there flour in the recipe? I used to use this recipe for all purpose GF flour: 1 cup corn starch, 1 cup potato starch, 1 cup rice flour, ½ cup tapioca starch, ½ cup corn flour, 4 tsp xantham gum (less if you’re making breads). You can usually play around with a mix of flours and starches to mimic the gluten found in wheat flour:

  • Rice (Very grainy texture. Use a blend of different types of rice, or soak it)
  • Oat
  • Quinoa
  • Almond, or other ground nut flours
  • Chickpea, or other bean flours
  • Seed flours, like ground chia or millet
  • Arrowroot
  • Corn
  • Potato
  • Soy
  • Coconut
  • Tapioca (starch)

Step 6) Is this recipe using an emulsifier? These blend things that would not normally mix, like oil and vinegar. Eggs do this, but so will some ground seeds like flax or chia!

Step 7) Is the ingredient being used for texture, taste, or colour? You might try substituting something else that has that texture or taste. Seeds work as replacements for peanuts or tree nuts. Sesame or peanut oil can be replaced with vegetable oil instead. Vegetables and fruits with similar textures can be substituted for each other- for example, carrot cake with sweet potato is pretty awesome! Soybeans can also be replaced with chickpeas or other beans. Cheese can be mimicked by adding nutritional yeast, or extra salt, or even the stickiness of starch. Shellfish could be replaced with finfish like salmon (if not allergic to finfish, course), or you could change the whole recipe and make it with poultry. For natural colours, Egg, Tumeric, Paprika, Mustard, and Saffron will make yellows or oranges. Red Cabbage, Beets, Hibiscus, and Blueberries will either make blue or green, and Yellow Onion Skins will make things orange/red, or brown. Experiment by using your favourite tea as a way to help colour your recipes.

So… Get into your kitchen! Substitute EVERYTHING! Fight the food allergies and become a cooking SUPERHERO!

– Janice

Cooking with Food Allergies

Creativity is my superpower. I grew up with an abundance of imagination, a keen desire for knowledge, and a deep seated love of all things colourful and bright. My passion for crafting occasionally borders on addiction… But cooking was my kryptonite. For many years I refused to deviate an inch from recipes. Adding recipes to my repertoire usually involved forgetting a key ingredient, mixing up the amounts, or burning those mini muffins until they resembled hockey pucks. Sigh……

It turns out the solution to unlocking my creative potential in the kitchen was developing a ridiculously long list of food allergies. The more I stayed with a few ingredients, the more I learned the basics, and the more I gained the confidence to make the attempt. Most of the time, those attempts worked. When they didn’t, they were usually still good enough to eat. Maybe I was just too stubborn and determined to waste the failures!

The first thing I learned about cooking was simplification. I’ve become addicted to 18th century cooking shows, and it has dawned on me that our ancestors ate a lot more simply than we do. With new undiagnosed allergies, the safest thing to eat involved the least number of ingredients. Did you know that you can just roast meat plain? It was really quite a shock for me to discover how many recipes actually fare pretty well without spices. Gingerbread without ginger, for example? It’s different, yes. But it’s still surprisingly close to the original, and makes a pretty good cookie!

Then I learned to plan ahead. I started cooking at night, after my housemates had gone to bed… cleaning thoroughly and then cooking a two week supply of meals and freezing them. For trips, I borrowed a dehydrator and made a whole bunch of shelf-stable meals. This summer I’ll be using my new pressure canner to free up my freezer space… It feels occasionally like planning for the zombie apocalypse. But it helps! The other day I had a 2 hour meeting that went 4 hours late… and I might have eaten my friends if I’d not had a quick and easy meal ready and waiting in my car!

Finally I learned to change it up. I may not be able to change my ingredients, but I can change the way I cook them! For example, I like to change the colour of my vegetables as often as possible. Did you know that carrots aren’t all orange, and that tomatoes aren’t all red? Most vegetables have a wide range of colours, and each colour tastes a bit different. My favourite is the purple sweet potato, though it does make an odd-looking soup! Next I like to change the shape of my food. Sometimes I’ll use cookie cutters, or cake pops… for shaping vegetables and meat. Maybe I’m a little crazy, but I like my “four-star” hamburgers! Then I’ll change the texture by varying whether things are raw, boiled, baked, fried, roasted or cooked sous-vide. Who knew raw beet greens are really good tasting? Roasted kiwi over a campfire? Almost better than marshmallows! Plus the longer you cook things, the better they taste. My brother swears by cooking sous-vide (vacuum sealed bag, boiled for over 24 hrs)… and I gotta say Easter dinner was pretty amazing as a result!

Do you have any other tips for cooking? I’d love to hear from you with a comment below!

Happy Cooking!

– Janice

Food Allergies in School

I went to school in a time when food allergies were quite mysterious and rare. The ‘80’s and ‘90’s just didn’t view food allergies as common place, the way that they are now.

While I grew up with a dairy allergy, a classmate had a peanut/nut allergy. We were definitely the only two in our class, and I can’t recall if there were other “allergy kids” in other grades.

It was not a nut-free school, and I don’t believe the school staff had any extra training. There were no labels at bake sales. There were no rules on not sharing snacks.

I actually had one very negative event on a class trip, when a teacher didn’t believe I couldn’t eat the lasagna that was provided. I was 13 at the time, and will never forget the rude comments.  It was a very frustrating experience, and I went to a McDonald’s® across the street because I knew I could at least get some fries there without judgement. (My mother was not impressed with the situation).

Other kids really didn’t understand either. There were often a lot of questions when I told someone that I couldn’t eat ice cream. I can remember explaining over and over again, that “no really, I can’t have ANY milk.” I’m sure my parents dealt with many of the same questions from other parents.

But, there were definitely some positives to my experience as an allergic youth. I learned pretty quickly that the only person that knew what was safe for me, was ultimately just me. I had no bubble of an allergen-friendly classroom. Growing up saying “no thank you” to treats and snacks just became normal for me. Although I am so thankful for the knowledge and safety provided in today’s schools, I think it’s important to teach my own son with allergies the skill to say no to risky foods and ultimately, learn to trust himself with food allergy safety.

– Morgan G.

My Surprising Dining Out Experience

Two years ago, I found out I am allergic to soy the hard way. My best friend, who has a peanut allergy, shared a pepperoni pizza with me at a restaurant we have always been comfortable with. Within an hour, I felt like I had been set on fire, my lips started to swell, and I started getting hives. By the time I got to the hospital, I was red from head to toe. My friend, on the other hand, was completely fine. Thankfully, my trusty EpiPen® auto-injector worked the way it was supposed to, and after my short hospital stay I was fine. Through allergy tests we determined that I am allergic to soy – but only to some soy. All three of my anaphylactic reactions have been to extremely high amounts of soy protein, but I am okay after consuming things with soy flour, like certain brands of bread, and things with soybean oil or lecithin.

So when I only react to some soy and restaurant allergy guides label for all soy, my job becomes a little more work. I have to explain to restaurant workers – who often understand that food allergies are severe, but don’t understand the mechanisms behind a reaction – that I only react to some soy and therefore need to see ingredients lists, not just an allergy chart. When I have to do this every time I go to a restaurant, eating out loses its excitement. Prior to my soy allergy, I just told the waitress “I’m allergic to peanuts” and everything proceeded without a problem – peanuts were recognized enough that most restaurants seemed to be comfortable serving me. However, a soy allergy diagnosis completely changed this experience for me. The manager of a large chain accused me of trying to steal recipes when I asked for information about soy ingredients because of my allergy, and refused to serve me. Some places just labelled soy in their ingredients, but not the actual form, which always resulted in me leaving without eating. Others said that they had ingredient lists and I arrived to see an allergen chart
labelling all soy clumped together in one term. I stopped eating out entirely, except at select fast food restaurants where I personally feel safe eating.

Last fall I joined a Facebook group for local people with allergies and noticed one mom posted that her child has a weird soy allergy like mine. I connected with her and she sent me a list of places she feels safe taking her son, reminding me to contact them on my own before going just to be safe. One of those places is right down the street from my apartment, so between classes my friend and I decided to check it out.

I have never had such amazing treatment. To call this a “surprising” experience significantly undermines how I felt. The restaurant is called Famoso® and they have a few locations spread throughout the country. I went to the Toronto location, so I can only speak to their allergy awareness. Their allergy chart* is the most detailed I have ever seen, and breaks down exactly what form of each allergen is present in each dish. The manager spoke to me about how they handle allergies, both on the phone before I arrived and once I arrived. A separate kitchen is dedicated to all allergy-related meals, and is completely cleaned when a new allergy-related meal is prepared. The chef works on the allergy-related meal until it is finished, to reduce cross contamination risks. They go as far as completely cleaning the oven before putting allergy-related food in it. Of course, there is always a risk when eating out. Famoso® does have a few dishes with peanuts and/or soy protein in them, and that alone shows there is a higher risk of causing a reaction compared to places without peanuts and soy protein present. However, I was pleasantly surprised with how safe I felt and the precautions put in place by the restaurant staff.

For me, this broke a trend of not trusting restaurants. I realized it is possible to eat out and feel safe. Prior to this, I felt like restaurants didn’t want to deal with people who have allergies to foods that aren’t frequently seen. I was surprised how educated the Famoso® staff were about all allergies, how they were willing to workDd with allergies outside the Top 10, and how confident they were in their service. Famoso® is now my go-to restaurant, thankfully having a location in Toronto and in my hometown (Kitchener-Waterloo).

– Danielle B.

*Here’s a link to Famoso’s allergy chart -> http://famoso.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Famoso-Allery-Chart-November-14-2016.pdf

In a Perfect Food Allergy World…

In a perfect world people that grow, harvest, package, process, and cook food would be completely open and honest about their ingredients. They would know which products were produced where, and with a touch of a button, people with food allergies would easily be able to look up which products were potentially cross-contaminated.

For those inexperienced to the world of food allergies, you might think we’ve already arrived in that perfect world. Here in Canada, labelling laws require that companies clearly indicate the presence of priority allergens in their ingredient list. In 2012, new laws came into effect to try and make those lists easier to read- for example, if a milk derivative such as casein was used in a product, the manufacturer had to start listing “milk” in their lists.

However, we still have a long way to go. For those at-risk for anaphylaxis, one of the most concerning loopholes is the lack of mandatory cross-contamination declarations. Most companies have some sort of protocols in place for thoroughly washing equipment between products, but it’s often automated and isn’t guaranteed. Some ingredients can easily spread through air, for example powders like wheat flours. Cooking oils can create fine mist, and sulphites can be added as a gas to help prevent spices from clumping. Once theses airborne particles settle, they could easily cross-contaminate other products made simultaneously in the same factory. This can happen in people’s homes, too, cross-contaminating a kitchen over time in the same way that dust leaves a fine powder on everything. Surprisingly, however, the requirement to declare possible sources of cross-contamination for priority allergens is completely optional for companies. This is one of the nightmares for those with severe allergies, since it means you have to call each company individually and find out if they have chosen to mention that they use your allergen in the same factory or not.

It gets harder if your allergen is not a “priority allergen.” Let’s not forget that people can be allergic to any food! In Canada, the priority allergens are determined by the top 10 most common food allergens. That said, just because other food allergies are rare doesn’t mean they can’t cause severe reactions. Let me be the example here: my most serious allergic reactions have been caused by cherries and black pepper! There are situations when companies aren’t required to list those as an ingredient, let alone mention the risk of cross-contamination. As a result, my absolute favourite products and companies are those that take the time to list every single ingredient on the label, instead of hiding ingredients in vague statements such as “flavours” or “spices.” Some statements are misleading, too- “artificial flavours” is listed when there is any combination of flavours where most of the flavours are synthetically derived. They can still mix in the natural extracts, however, which was a frequent source of hives for me before I realized what was happening. Now, as a rule I simply don’t buy or use anything pre-packaged unless I’ve contacted the company. Whether that’s food, toothpaste, or even shampoo- if there’s a chance I might swallow it by accident, I need to know that none of my many allergens are present!

So then how do we deal with making labels more helpful for consumers with food allergies, while not overwhelming the packaging with the text of the ingredients? Some products that handle labelling well use the following techniques:

  • Less text because of fewer ingredients. You also have the added advantage of higher quality products if there are fewer additives. Plus there’s the entertainment factor- I turn into a crazed fan girl screaming with delight when I find products with only one ingredient listed.
  • Folded lists of ingredients hidden behind stickers. These are very common in the hygiene industry, where there are simply too many ingredients to list them all in a readable sized font. At least they’re all attached to the product, though!
  • Complete ingredient lists in plain language. It’s like a breath of fresh air when companies actually list every ingredient. I recognize that companies may want to be able to keep certain things proprietary, but honestly- the competition could theoretically decode most of the ingredients with lab testing… and the average consumer is more interested in the convenience of not having to make it themselves!
  • Special Quick Response (QR) Codes with links to online ingredient information. This is usually in addition to the ingredient lists, but adds extra information vital to the allergic consumer like a detailed chart about cross-contamination risks.
  • Contact information on the package, and staff who know product ingredients. I am 100% more likely to buy a product on the spot if I can reach someone knowledgeable while I’m at the store. I am also highly appreciative of companies who respond to my emailed queries with thorough answers.

At the end of the day, we don’t live in a perfect world. There are no perfect companies nor process that can make guarantees for all allergens. Someday, ingredient labelling may become obsolete as new technologies are being developed for consumer food allergen detection tests. But until the day when we can all afford our newly invented hand-held tricorders, I’ll be relying on companies with honesty, integrity, and a deep sense of pride in sharing with the world the quality of what they make. Here’s to hoping those companies flourish and multiply!

– Janice H.

C is for Confidence: A Food Allergy Story

Something I know now to be the corner stone of my food allergy identity is confidence. Confidence taught, learned, and exercised at a young age is key to becoming an adult who speaks up about their food allergy in every situation. If your confidence is stolen or stifled, it can cause many kids to become ashamed of their food allergies. Then they may attempt to hide their allergy from others or dismiss the seriousness of it which makes the potential for a reaction so much larger. Instead of fighting for your child to have certain foods in a classroom, we should be explaining the severity and importance of awareness. Confidence can be a shield for ignorance and a tool to help change the perception many have about food allergies.

Confidence is the most important skill you can craft when it comes to having a food allergy and it’s something that I think needs to be instilled at a young age. We as a food allergy community need to be building each other up, and helping to educate those around us so no one feels bad or ashamed on a daily basis. If we understand at a young age that we are all unique and beautiful, then the classroom and world will be a far more accepting place.

There is a saying: It takes a village to raise a child. As a community, we should be working together to help those with food allergies gain a voice that is proud of their food allergy. Confidence in myself and my fellow classmates would have made a world of difference between eating alone and helping everyone understand food allergies at my school. It seems like a small skill, but those little seeds tended to over years in school and into adulthood will create an aware, powerful counterpart in the food allergy community. A community that is dedicated to educating others, but more importantly, confident and proud in themselves.

– Arianne K.

Note to Self: Trust Yourself More. Note to Everyone Else: Trust Me Less!

Trust isn’t something that comes easily for those of us with food allergies. Once diagnosed with a severe food allergy, you learn to avoid your allergens at all costs. Ideally, we live with a certain amount of healthy paranoia- because if we’re not paying attention to what we’re eating and what else it has touched… then it’s possible we might accidentally ingest what we don’t intend. Sometimes at parties I feel like Gollum, hovering over the place setting that I just painstakingly re-washed and set with my food… Mine… My precioussssss!

The problem is that while I need that self-doubt around my food… I don’t need it when I’m actually having a serious reaction. One would expect that, having had well over a dozen serious allergic reactions in my adult life thus far, I’d be completely comfortable and confident in knowing what exactly is going on. Yet half the time, I doubt myself. I ignore my symptoms and pretend like nothing’s wrong in spite of feeling absolutely horrid.

I think that tendency to want to ignore my body might very well be encoded into my DNA… My paternal grandmother wrote in her diary that on a day she felt sick, she *only* made three shirts before breakfast. My mom realized a few years back that she was able to ignore her pain so well that it caused nausea. After I broke my back, I started to notice that my colleagues who knew me well would ask me if I was feeling alright about 30 minutes before I noticed the agony I was in. I suppose that has translated into my food allergies as well- I’ll notice that I’m itchy and hot, of course, but I make any excuse to classify that symptom as something normal. I don’t want to admit a reaction to myself until I can’t stop itching, or I start having difficulty breathing, or I find myself camped out in the bathroom. I NEED to learn to trust myself more. I know the signs and symptoms of a reaction. I just need to learn to touch base with myself and have the courage to admit (and accept) what’s going on!

On the flip side… I need you to trust me less. During most of my severe allergic reactions, I’ve been a complete and total idiot. I think it’s actually part of the reaction, but I just stop thinking rationally. This can look like strange behaviours on my part, like not calling for help on the work two-way radio after an asthma attack had me collapsing on the floor… or ignoring the EpiPen® in my waist belt to go and find a different one upstairs before actually following medical advice to administer it. It’s like I’m watching from far away. I know it’s illogical and dangerous behaviour, but I’m not usually able to counteract it.

So when I DO come to you and admit I’m having a reaction, or when you notice I’m behaving very oddly… I need you to doubt me. If I’m curled up in a ball, refusing to answer questions, or just saying “I don’t know” repeatedly when you ask if I’m alright? Those are REALLY good clues that I need your help. Ask clear, yes or no questions, and point out my symptoms to me. If I finally admit in a quiet voice that yes, I think I need to be checked out? That’s your cue to call 9-1-1 and get me checked out! It’s never a convenient time to go to the hospital, so you can expect that I will be hesitant. I might be trying to talk myself out of it even as I struggle to breathe, so take a deep breath. Be courageous. Be ready to help me give myself the auto-injector if I need it. Honestly, it doesn’t hurt and it really does make me feel better almost instantly!

Then again, if I’m rationally able to articulate why I don’t think this is a serious reaction, I’m probably fine, and you won’t need to chase me down the street with an auto-injector! (That’s my brother-in-law’s standard question to help figure out if my reaction is mild or not: “Should I chase you with your EpiPen®?” LOL yikes.)

– Janice H.

By Food Allergy Canada