Category Archives: Allergies and Attitude

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

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.

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.

The Best and Worst of Food Service

Everyone with an allergy knows the feeling of uncertainty. You’re halfway through a big bite of your meal when you hear someone say, “are you sure…”

Even writing about it I feel that tightness in the pit of my stomach. The tell-tale calling card of anxiety. No matter how experienced I’ve become with managing my food allergies, I still make mistakes, and those mistakes are scary.

I always try to remember that I’m not perfect when someone else is the one making the mistake. I try not to blame servers at restaurants, they’re usually very helpful. I’ve noticed one single thing that I appreciate more than any other when it comes to servers. But first a quick story.

In the middle of a meal at a banquet the server abruptly took my plate away, without explanation.

My friends at the table were confused but I knew what was happening. I had just eaten peanuts. I’m allergic to peanuts and I’ve had anaphylactic reactions in the past. Just like that I’m starting to freak out.

The server returned a moment later looking flustered and politely asking me to come to the manager’s office.

“What’s going on?”

“Just come with me.”

I’m losing it. This is the end. I’m taking a mental inventory of my symptoms. Nothing yet, but how long will it take? When will it start?

I walk into the office and I’m shocked to find it full of people.

As I sit down I’m bombarded with questions from a red faced and angry manager:

“How do you feel?
Tell us if you’re feeling bad!
You can’t sue me, you have to tell me!
How do you feel?”

This interrogation lasted ten minutes. The only response I gave was a simple,

“What did I eat?”

She never answered. For ten minutes she lectured me about lawsuits but refused to tell me what, if anything, I had eaten.

Finally a server in the corner told me that they were worried about contamination of my meal by pine nuts. I’m not even allergic to pine nuts. But they never asked me and were reluctant to answer my questions. I was fine, but my night was ruined and I’ve never been back to that restaurant.

The one thing I appreciate most in servers is direct honesty. Tell me what I’m dealing with and let me make my own decision.

Whenever you hide something from me, we risk a very serious situation.

How about another story? This one is the best experience I’ve had at a restaurant.

A big group of us went out for lunch. In the restaurant I calmly explained my food allergy to the server. His response is among the best I’ve ever had. He suggested I look through the menu and see if anything caught my eye, in the meantime he would talk to the kitchen manager and ensure that he could tell me EXACTLY what I could and could not order.

When he returned he took my order and then said:

“Thank you for joining us today. Before I place your order with the kitchen I want to explain our process so that you know we have you covered and can eat your meal in peace. When I place this order, I will announce that this table has a peanut allergy. Every staff member in the kitchen will wash their hands and until your order leaves the kitchen everyone will remain at their stations to avoid any chance of cross contamination. Our manager has assigned one cook to your order. He is working at a clean station that hasn’t been used since it was last cleaned. He’s cleaning it again to be safe. He will clean all your food and re-wash your dishes. When he’s ready to send the meal I will wash my hands and he will hand me the food, it will not touch the service counter at all. Once I pick up your meal I will not touch anything until I place it in from of you. Someone will open the doors for me, everyone will stay out of the way. Nothing will come into contact with your meal AT ALL. If anyone touches it for any reason we’ll start all over again. Is that OK with you?”

I was floored. This server just spent five minutes with me and all I ordered was a $10 lunch special!

That is the ultimate experience for me. I had no doubts, no anxiety, and I would go back in a second.

What I need from the people around me is the truth. I’ll take care of the rest!

– Jason B.

“What’s in your food?” – Experiences with Food Labelling Abroad

When I was 19, I packed up myself, my peanut and soy allergies, and five EpiPen® auto-injectors, and moved to Finland. This was a goal I had set for myself when I was 12 and I barely slept from the day I received my university acceptance in January until I left in July. After 21 hours of travel, I ventured to the grocery store to find something – anything – to eat. My excitement was quickly squashed when I noticed the vague “may contain nuts” label present on so many foods. Did they mean peanuts? How was I supposed to eat with this vague labelling? Cookies, chocolates, breads, and even some pasta…and for some reason, things were labelled with “nuts and almonds.” Those are the same thing! Almonds are nuts! Not only was I dealing with reading in two new languages (Finnish and Swedish), but I was also dealing with new labelling laws in two new languages…and one wrong choice could have had drastic consequences. While I’m sure Finnish hospitals are wonderful, I didn’t particularly want to see the inside of one of them.
I lost 10 lbs in the first month, and anyone who knows me will tell you I didn’t have 10 lbs to lose. I quickly realized I needed to figure out these laws or let my allergies win and pack my bags to go back to Canada. I started contacting companies asking them to define what
nuts are included in their “may contain nuts” statement so I could better assess the risk for my allergies. Every company responded to me right away, and knew exactly what nuts were present in the facilities where their food was produced. Even a simple Facebook© message resulted in a straight-to-the-point answer where I clearly understood if the product was safe or not. With these quick responses, I soon started to question if I was better off in Finland than Canada.

From there, I explored restaurants. My Finnish friend insisted this bakery she loved would be allergen-safe. Bakeries are an automatic ‘no’ for me while I’m at home and I could feel my anxiety rising as I prepared myself to order a coffee with no cinnamon bun, as usual (perspective: that’s basically like ordering a poutine with no cheese in Canada). I nearly cried when, without missing a beat, the woman working behind the counter knew that the cocoa used in that cake *points to chocolate cake in the corner* had a “may contain nuts” warning on it, but that every other ingredient was safe and every piece of equipment was sanitized between making products. Yes, those traditional Christmas joulutorttu – puff pastries with prune jam, things I had eyed in the stores and accepted I would never get to try – were deemed safe.

The quality of service was not isolated to this small bakery. Every time I ate out I felt 100% safe and understood. All restaurants knew exactly what was in their food and what their food had come into contact with, whether it was a burger joint on the highway or a fancy restaurant in downtown Helsinki. The school cafeterias labelled allergens in all meals on large screens. Cafeteria food was labelled “contains a small amount of X” (aka, likely safe for intolerances) or “contains no X” (aka, likely safe for serious allergies). The cafeteria workers were incredibly precise with ensuring utensils only touched the food they were supposed to touch and that nothing dripped from one area to another. I skipped the days when peanut dishes were offered, but regularly ate the other cafeteria foods without any issues – and, most importantly, I felt safe whenever I chose to eat.

Originally, I wanted to write about the difficulties of food labelling abroad. Of course, I ran into issues in Estonia when I didn’t bother to learn any Estonian before my travels. I ran into problems in the arctic when a chef told me to just read the menu to see what was in the food (he thought I meant an intolerance). I also assumed that food in Denmark would be labelled in Swedish because food in Sweden was labeled in Danish. I quickly found myself buying a soda pop instead of a real meal to get me through my flight without a reaction because I couldn’t read any of the food ingredients. But through writing this blog post, I have come to realize that, for the most part, food allergies were incredibly well handled in Finland. Of course, you need to know the native words for your allergen. For example, I knew maapähkinä is peanut and soijaproteiini is soy protein before I even applied to move to Finland, and I knew how to pronounce them the best I could. Had I not learned those words, I would have had a significantly different experience. But other than the language barrier, no significant issues occurred. Travelling with allergies is possible, and sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what you find!

– Danielle B.