Tag Archives: Reading ingredients

Spreading Awareness about “Hidden” Ingredients

As those living with food allergies, many of us have spent years becoming expert-level ingredient checkers. We know our ‘allergen-safe’ brands, what to avoid, and have grown to incorporate our ingredient checking into every grocery shopping trip. I try to follow the general rule of checking three times: once at the store, once when I unpack the groceries at home, and finally, when I am about to cook with the item. The large majority of the time I catch any issues at the store, but there have been several times where I have caught something last minute – often when a brand I have used before has changed their ingredient list or added a ‘may contain’ statement. A couple of my last-minute catches include plain white rice with a ‘may contain peanuts’ label and sausages that were labelled ‘may contain tree nuts’.

Our experience and awareness of hidden ingredients in food, make us the most effective people to help teach those around us what to look for when preparing food that we can safely eat. If someone is inviting me over for a meal, they want to ensure it is a safe experience. I have found that I can often play an active role in that process.

I typically try to stick with meals consisting of mostly fresh food with few ingredients, as this reduces the risk of cross-contamination. For example, unseasoned meat and vegetables is a reliable go-to meal for me.  Pre-seasoned or packaged versions can sometimes have ingredients that you wouldn’t expect. When someone is making me a meal, I also find it helpful to give the person cooking some examples of where hidden ingredients or issues can be. For example, flour has many ingredients, and there are different varieties such as almond flour which would obviously be an issue for people allergic to tree nuts. I also remind everyone that I won’t eat ingredients bought in bulk since the risk of cross-contamination at the store is typically high. I find that people have a tendency to buy rarely-used spices or baking ingredients at bulk stores since they don’t need large quantities. Other items that non-allergic people may use without considering checking ingredient labels are condiments and sauces. As we know, even these can have unexpected ingredients. Finally, I also mention to a host that multi-use kitchen tools, such as cutting boards have the potential risk of cross-contamination if not properly cleaned.

Using my years of experience and first-hand knowledge to help others become aware of the different areas of risk that I face is important. The more they are aware, the more they will understand my processes and how they can help make sure the food is safe.

– Alison M.

Required Reading: Remembering to Read the Label, Even When You’re Comfortable…

Everyone always tells you, never visit the grocery store when you’re hungry. With a rumble in your stomach, everything on the shelves can start to look delicious. From chips, to cookies, to mashed potatoes, you’d buy just about anything to sate the hungry in your stomach. Satisfying your “hangrier” self can be a bit tricky when you have multiple food allergies. A grocery store can suddenly become a library of required reading with a hefty test at the end before you can go home and eat.

With so many labels to read and so much fine print to understand, it’s easy to get complacent and glance over ingredients with glazed eyes. Sometimes we can become too comfortable when it comes to brands or foods we’ve known and used for some time. My thought process in a store has bounced between, “it’s always been safe,” or “I’ve never had an issue with their other products,” and regrettably even, “this looks good I’ll read it later.” I’ve been guilty of making the mistake of throwing a commonly used brand product into my basket without reading the label, assuming it will be fine. However, a recent experience with a familiar brand taught me to take the few extra seconds no matter how busy I am, and always read the ingredients no matter what.

A crumbling experience: There is a brand of crackers I’ve trusted for as long as I can remember. Normally when I go grocery shopping I read every boxed or canned item I put in my basket. This routine started by my mom who would let me read ingredient labels after her and would quiz me about what’s safe, what isn’t and why. But that day, for a myriad of reasons and silly excuses I grabbed a box of crackers, a new flavour that looked good and put it in my basket. I went on my way busily preparing for a potluck the next day. For some reason, I didn’t even think twice about reading the ingredients for the crackers in my basket. I assumed, like all other flavours from the brand, that it was safe, and you know what they say when you assume… I got the other items to make a yummy dip to pair with my box of crackers and went on my way.

It wasn’t until the next day when I was plating the crackers, mere minutes before my guest arrived that I noticed something odd about these crackers. On the outside, they seemed fine but once cracked open there were seeds, sesame seeds to be exact, something I am allergic to and something that had never been on or in this brand of crackers before. I was dumbfounded and frankly disappointed with myself for not reading the ingredients list beforehand. After that night, and narrowly avoiding a reaction, I promised myself no matter how comfortable or familiar, I will always read every label and ingredient before I buy anything.

I was able to avoid a reaction that night but found myself wondering how many times I may have put myself at risk in the past because I forgot to read ingredients or was overly comfortable with a brand. As we get older, day-to-day errands can be overwhelming and sometimes reading every label in the grocery store can seem like a task you seriously just don’t want to do. When you’re stressed and hungry, you want to get in and out of the grocery store as quickly as possible. Even when we’re in a hurry though, it’s important to take an extra 10 seconds and read labels to ensure the foods you’re buying are safe. I always try and think of it along the same lines as the precautions I would take when dining out. I would personally never eat anywhere without researching, calling ahead and always ensuring the kitchen is aware and capable to handle cross-contamination. The same rules and precautions should be applied to our kitchens and shopping experiences.

As an allergy community we’re always looking for new and safe brands to add to our pantries. If we take the time, do some research and find safe products, we’ll have a better, and safer cooking experience. Creating culinary treats can challenge us to experiment in the kitchen in the best ways, so don’t let a little label reading stop you from cooking up a delicious meal.

Bon appetit!

– Arianne K.

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

When a Boy with a Food Allergy Walked into my Life: Girlfriend Edition

Chocolate covered almonds, peanut butter sandwiches, and M & M’s are a few of my favourite things to eat! For me, going a day without peanuts, tree nuts, or almonds was as rare as a black swan. I have been very lucky in my life to have no food allergies. On top of that, my family and my closest friends are also allergy-free. Needless to say, you can imagine how much my life flipped the moment I found out my major crush (who is now my boyfriend) informed me of his life-threatening allergy to peanuts and tree nuts. This was also a relief for me, as I understood why we didn’t share a kiss after our first date.

The first time we kissed, and several times after, I noticed a trend. The question “have you consumed any nuts today?” along with an interrogation of my diet, was something I quickly got accustomed to. I’ve never been questioned before kissing someone, so that was a totally new experience for me. Talk about feeling pressured! This wasn’t a typical question that had a range of answers, it was either yes or no. I had to be 100% sure or else my boyfriend’s life was at stake. I became very well acquainted with ingredient labels on all products. This helped me to feel confident to ensure I was nut-free and kissable on days when I was visiting my boyfriend.

Woman trying to kiss a man and he is rejecting her outdoor in a park
Before kissing someone, ensure they have not eaten your allergen!

I began making a list of personal items that may contain peanuts and tree nuts, or could have been contaminated at some point (with the amount of peanuts and tree nuts in my life, you can imagine how long this list was). If there’s one thing my friends know about me, it’s that I love my chap stick. In all honesty, I use it hourly! So I chose to assume all previously used one were contaminated and bought new ones. I then marked the new ones with permanent marker to indicate that they were nut-free and safe from cross-contamination. As I used my old personal items that potentially came into contact with nuts, I eventually replaced them with nut-free products that would be safe around my boyfriend. After all, if things go well with this guy, my future will be surrounded by a nut-free environment so I might as well get used to that sooner rather than later.

I currently live at home and figured it would be important for my parents to be informed of my boyfriend’s food allergies. To help my parents have a better understanding, I named a couple of examples of tree nuts such as hazelnuts, walnuts, and almonds. It was a good thing I did, as my dad later questioned me about almonds. This gave me an opportunity to educate my parents further and since I had their attention, I brought up the topic of cross-contamination, such as clean nut-free counter tops when my boyfriend is visiting. My parents were put to the test over the holidays when they invited him over for Christmas dinner.

I made sure I went over the ingredients with my parents to certify everything was nut-free and I reminded my parents to stay away from items such as previously opened butters that could have been contaminated. I am happy to say that the dinner was delicious, and my boyfriend was able to enjoy an allergen-free turkey dinner.

Couple shopping in a supermarket

I thought the holidays was a big test, but that was nothing compared to the vegan pot luck get together my friends and I choose to organize. Vegan dinners tend to contain a lot of tree nuts due to their high protein content. As mentioned earlier, none of my close friends have any food allergies. During the planning phase, my friends and I went over who was making what dish. To tone down the anxiety my boyfriend may feel that night, I picked a main dish so the both of us could be confident knowing there is at least one thing we could eat, after all, kisses were on the line and going an entire day with my boyfriend and not being allowed to kiss him, seemed torturous! Next, I became the nut police, or at least that’s what my friends called me. I made sure each person was aware of the extent of my boyfriend’s allergy to peanuts and tree nuts. A couple days before the big day, I started giving some tips on reading labels, and foods/areas to avoid (such as pre-made salads) at the grocery store. I reminded my friends to pay close attention to their ingredients, and if they made a mistake, and accidentally contaminated their meal with nuts, to be aware of that so that I could inform my boyfriend of which foods to avoid. Not only was my boyfriend able to feel relaxed during our get together, but my friends also chose to support the new change in my life, and learned more about accommodating food allergies.

I had no idea the impact his food allergy would have on my life, but I found the transition to be much easier, especially when kisses are up for grabs.

– Cindy B

Growing up and Growing out of a Food Allergy

 

Beautiful girl is looking at unhealthy donut with appetite. It is situated on a table. Isolated on a white background

I’ve always maintained that while food allergies are an important part of me, they are not something that defines me. That being said, when you grow up avoiding certain foods because of food allergies it is a pretty big moment when you find out that you are no longer allergic to a specific food. Not to mention the new doors that are opened in terms of experiencing new food options. Though I may be dating myself, I can still remember the first food allergen I ever grew out of. It was 17 years ago… and I was six years old. I had grown out of my milk allergy after doing a “challenge test” at my allergist’s clinic and I had just successfully drank an entire cup of milk. My mom then thought that the next step to celebrate this momentous occasion was to give me chocolate for the first time— after tasting, I proceeded to comment on how gross it tasted.

Luckily my taste buds for chocolate have changed. I would have to wait 16 years, but I have also been lucky enough to grow out of another food allergy. My entire life I have been allergic to peanuts as well as tree nuts, but after another visit to my allergist this past fall I was determined to not be allergic to any tree nuts! While my peanut allergy remains life-threatening, I found this to be an exciting change in what I am able to include in my diet.

The first couple of times that I included tree nuts in my diet, I always had a friend or family member with me and it felt very strange to be eating a food I spent my entire life avoiding at all costs. However, it didn’t take me long to discover Nutella and I almost finished an entire jar in one weekend (with help of course…). Over time, it felt less strange to include tree nuts in my diet, and it probably made my friends more uneasy to see me eat tree nuts than it did for me.  When I reached this point, it ended up being fun to discover all the different tree nuts that I could eat, how I could use them in recipes, and finding different menu items I could have that before I had to avoid. For example, I also have an egg and wheat allergy. A lot of vegan foods that I eat are egg-free and luckily, tend to be gluten-free as well. Vegan recipes, however, commonly use different tree nuts as a key ingredient, so I no longer had to be worried about missing an ingredient such as cashew butter, almond flour, or crushed walnuts! It also took me a while to get out of the habit when giving my “allergy speech” to waiters at restaurants to just say “wheat, eggs, and peanuts” instead of “all nuts” when I was stating my food allergies. But this, like with all things, practice definitely makes perfect!

Despite having a new world of foods to try with the elimination of my tree nut allergy, I still found my vigilance has to be up in terms of avoiding the risk of cross contamination with peanuts. Depending on what tree nuts and tree nut products I end up buying at the grocery store “may contain traces of peanuts” is often still included on the label— making strict ingredient label monitoring a must! As well, I have to make sure while talking to individuals about my food allergies, including waiters at restaurants, to stress that my allergy to peanuts is life-threatening and cross contamination is a big risk.

While I still have to be on my food allergy “A-game,” growing out of an allergy can involve a lot of excitement and new food discovery! Have you ever grown out of a food allergy?  If so, how was the transition of incorporating this food into your diet, and what things did you still have to be careful about?

– Caitlyn P.

Hello new Food Allergy, my old friend

Cropped image of woman comparing products in shop
Double checking ingredient listings for your new (and old) food allergen is very important!

As many people who are at-risk for anaphylaxis may know, food allergies are something that can be both grown into and grown out of. In the best of cases people are able to effectively “grow out” of their food allergies, allowing them to be able to live with fewer dietary restrictions. However, sometimes people can attain new allergies throughout their lifetime causing them to go through the learning process of adapting to and becoming more aware of a new allergen.

I have been lucky enough to grow out of a few food allergies such as egg, shellfish, and seafood. About 8 years ago, when I was 16 years old, I had a mild allergic reaction to a hot dog I ate at a restaurant. I developed hives around my mouth part way through my meal. Knowing that none of my other allergens (peanuts and tree nuts) were in the food I was confused as to why I was reacting this way. I made an appointment with my allergist and explained what had happened. After thinking about it further I could remember times growing up where I would eat meatballs or chicken fingers and complain about the food being spicy because I had a strange feeling in my throat. Looking back, it was probably a mild allergic reaction because right away my allergist knew what I reacted to: soy protein isolate. This is a man-made manipulation of soy that is used as a filler in many reformed and frozen meat products. My allergist had found that many of his young patients with peanut allergies also had an allergy to soy protein isolate. He performed the skin testing and the hive was about two times the size of the one for peanuts!

At that time, I had a lot of difficulties adapting to this new allergy since soy protein isolate was a newer and less well known ingredient in many foods. I found new products popping up all the time that contained it: salad dressings, cake mixes, fruit juices, and sauces. It is coming up in more and more places as it is a cheap way to boost the protein content and help bind products together. This was very challenging for me as I had to look for new words when reading labels on everything I ate. At 16 years old I had a good idea of what foods were safe in regards to my nut allergies but soy protein isolate is so unpredictable that to this day I double check ingredients constantly on new foods because I never know where I will find it!

Growing into an allergy can be quite difficult as it presents new challenges with finding safe foods, eating out, and all the other difficulties one at risk for anaphylaxis finds in life, at a time when you thought you had things under control. Although it can be tough, it has also helped me to become even more careful with the allergies I have had my entire life and make me that much safer when it comes to managing my allergies.

Lindsay S.