When you or a family member has a food allergy, you resign yourself to the realization that there is no cure. Though the solution seems simple -- eliminate the food that you are allergic to -- that's anything but simple in our fast-paced lives of eating packaged and restaurant foods. (When eating out, remember to ask specific questions about the ingredients and how each dish is prepared.)
For the 5% to 8% of children and 1% to 2% of adults who have a food allergy, reading labels has gotten easier, courtesy of The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004. Since 2006, companies have been required to clearly state on food labels whether the products contain the top eight food allergens: milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, and tree nuts.
In addition to being careful about what products you buy, cooking and baking more at home will help ensure that someone doesn't accidentally eat something that contains an allergen.
With cooking and baking at home as your goal, here are some practical tips on how to make the necessary substitutions in your family's favorite recipes for the three most difficult food allergies to cook with; wheat, milk and eggs. (And check out the allergen-free recipes at the end of this article!)
Wheat Allergy Tips
Wheat, the most common grain in America, contains several types of protein that can activate an immune response in people who have an allergy to it. It differs from having a gluten sensitivity, which includes wheat and other cereal grains with gluten protein (barley, rye, and small quantities in oats).
Even though a wheat allergy is different from having gluten sensitivity, Chelsea Lincoln, recipe specialist from Bob's Red Mill, suggests gravitating toward gluten-free products and recipes. "All gluten-free products are wheat-free," explains Lincoln.
Foods/products to avoid:
- Breads, crackers, and other baked goods that contain wheat (rye bread and cornbread typically contain some wheat)
- Most breakfast cereals
- All pasta and noodles made from wheat
- Any fried or baked meat or vegetable coated with flour or breadcrumbs, cracker crumbs, or panko crumbs
- Any meat dish or mixture or filling containing flour, bread crumbs, cracker crumbs, cereal, or other forms of wheat (includes most sausages, hot dogs and cold cuts).
- Sauces, soups, and gravies thickened with flour
- Salad dressing thickened with flour or other forms of wheat
- Pancakes, waffles, and fritters
- Imitation meat and seafood (imitation crabmeat) products that contain wheat flour
- Hot dogs (some brands contain wheat as an ingredient)
- Some ice creams (wheat is an ingredient in some brands of ice cream.)
Ingredients on label to watch for:
- Wheat (bran, germ, gluten, malt, sprouts)
- Flour (all types such as all-purpose, bread, cake, durum, graham, high gluten, pastry, stone ground, whole wheat, etc.)
- Wheat germ or wheat starch
- Wheat grass
- Whole-wheat berries
- Bread crumbs
- Club wheat
- Cracker meal
- Durum farina
- Einkorn, emmer, seitan, or kamut (mostly relatives to wheat)
- Modified food starch
- Graham flour
- Semolina (refined durum wheat)
- Matzoh and matzo meal
- Triticale (combination of wheat and rye)
- Vital gluten
- The following ingredients may contain wheat protein: flavoring, hydrolyzed protein, soy sauce, starch such as modified starch, vegetable starch, wheat starch, and surimi.
Substitutes for wheat in recipes:
- For breads, rolls, muffins, brownies, etc., substitute barley flour as long as your allergy is to wheat and not gluten. It performs the best of the alternative flours because it's one of the few grains, besides wheat, that contributes some gluten, notes Lincoln. Some stores also sell gluten-free baking flour, which can be used for making everything from cakes and cookies to breads and muffins.
- Substitute wheat-free pastas for noodles called for in recipes. Made from a variety of grains including quinoa, corn, potato, rice, and beans, wheat-free pastas are widely available in stores.
- Eliminate the breadcrumbs in recipes like casseroles, fried chicken, eggplant parmesan, or meat loaf and use shredded parmesan, crumbled wheat-free crackers, or cornmeal (depending on the recipe).
- For sauces and gravies, thicken the mixture with cornstarch, potato starch, or tapioca starch.
- For sauces, gravies, or creamy dressing, thicken and blend the mixture with pureed soft or silken tofu.
- For pancakes/waffles, use flour from other grains such as oat flour, rice flour, or barley flour.
- Instead of beer in recipes, substitute apple juice or wine.
Lincoln warns that recipes made with the wheat-free and gluten-free flour tend to be a bit drier, not rise as much, and have a more crumbly texture. She recommends adding a little xanthan gum to these recipes to help the bread products rise and hold together better. Bob's Red Mill recommends the following amounts of xanthan gum for gluten-free baking:
- For cookies: add 1/4 teaspoon per cup of flour
- For cakes and pancakes: add 1/2 teaspoon per cup of flour
- For muffins and quick breads: add 3/4 teaspoon per cup of flour
- For breads: add 1 to 1-1/2 teaspoons per cup of flour
- Pizza dough: add 2 teaspoons per cup of flour
Milk Allergy Tips
Having a cow's milk allergy, which includes an immune system reaction to proteins in milk, casein, and whey, is different than being lactose intolerant (an inability to digest milk sugar or lactose). The milk allergy reaction can take place a few minutes or hours after eating or drinking a milk product. Keep in mind that between 13% and 20% of children who are allergic to milk are also allergic to beef.
Check the ingredients before you use a product, especially in processed or prepared foods, because manufacturers occasionally change the ingredients.
Foods/products to avoid:
- Milk of any type such as condensed, evaporated, dry or powdered milk, or cream. This also includes Lactaid and acidophilus milk.
- Goat's milk and milk from other animals. (Goat's milk protein is similar to cow's milk protein and may cause a reaction.)
- All types of cream and half-and-half
- Ice cream and ice milk
- Sherbet or frozen milk made with milk or milk-based ingredients
- Puddings and custards
- Cream-based sauces and soups, white sauces
- Butter, butter flavor, or non-vegan margarine, ghee, and everything made with them
- Cheese (all types), including cottage cheese and soy cheese
- Au gratin or creamed or scalloped recipe items
- All baked goods made with milk, including breads
- Mashed potatoes or other vegetable dishes made with milk, cheese, butter, margarine, or cream
- Casseroles or other meat entrees or side dishes made with milk, cheese, butter, margarine, or cream
- Instant cocoa, breakfast drink mixes, and cereals containing dried milk or any milk derivative
Ingredients on label to watch for:
- Milk or milk solids
- Casein, like casein hydrolysate (some brands of canned tuna contain casein)
- Lactalbumin, lactulose, and lactoferrin
- Caseinates (all forms) such as sodium caseinate, potassium caseinate, or calcium caseinate
- Butter (some restaurants add butter to their steaks after grilling, and there may be butter residue on the grill or cooking surface from foods prepared previously.)
- Butter "flavor"
- Lactic acid
- Natural or artificial flavoring
- Nondairy products (some products claim to be "nondairy" but actually contain milk derivatives that can cause problems)
Substitutes for milk in recipes:
- Rice milk
- Soy milk (check the label to be sure it doesn’t contain milk-based ingredients)
- Oat milk
- Almond milk
- Fruit juice can work (depending on the recipe, like in breads and muffins)
- Broth (vegetable, chicken, or beef), for recipes like casseroles or mashed potatoes
Substitutes for cheese in recipes:
Look for vegan cheese alternatives in your supermarket or natural foods store. Vegi-kaas and Soymage offer several options.
Substitutes for yogurt or sour cream in recipes:
- Soy-based yogurt. Check the label to be sure it doesn't contain milk-based ingredients (such as White Wave Silk soy yogurts.)
- Vegan sour cream substitutes, such as Yo-Soy and Tofutti Sour Supreme. The first four ingredients in Tofutti's Sour Supreme are partially hydrogenated soybean oil, isolated soy protein, maltodextrin, and tofu.
- Soft or silken tofu, beaten or pureed until smooth
Substitutes for cream sauces and white sauces in recipes:
- Wine or broth-based sauces
- Tomato sauces
- Pesto (olive oil and basil) without cheese
- Sundried tomato pesto without cheese
Substitutes for butter and margarine in recipes:
- There are several brands of vegan (dairy-free) margarines that you can use for recipes. Earth Balance has several options, such as their soy garden natural buttery spread and their vegan buttery sticks.
- Use canola oil when possible. (If the recipes calls for beating the butter or margarine with sugar until fluffy, a straight substitute with oil won't obtain this texture result.)
The biggest difference using these substitutes will be flavor, as the natural flavor of butter, sour cream, and cheese are difficult to reproduce. The vegan cheeses will melt differently than dairy cheese.
Egg Allergy Tips
If you are allergic to eggs, you have to avoid all egg-based foods and dishes in addition to less obvious products and foods that surprisingly contain them. People may be allergic to the egg white, yolk, or both.
Foods/products to avoid:
- Baked goods like cakes, muffins, and cookies (unless homemade with egg-free recipes using commercially available egg replacements or ingredient substitutions.)
- Cake and brownie mixes
- Pancake and waffle complete mixes
- Custards, puddings, Bavarian creams, cream puffs
- Ice cream, filling for cream pies, and lemon and pumpkin pies
- Eggnog and egg creams
- Quiche, souffles, French toast, fritters, omelets, and other egg dishes
- Pancakes and waffles
- Breads that typically contain egg (such as muffins, rolls, bagels, doughnuts)
- Meat & vegetable dishes that use egg as a coating or as part of a mixture (like meat loaf)
- Some ethnic side dishes and entrees that feature pieces of egg, such as fried rice, chiles relleno, and egg rolls
- Meringues and meringue powder
- Some frostings
- Anything made with egg substitutes (which are generally made with egg whites)
- Sauces and dressings that contain eggs (hollandaise sauce, Caesar salad dressing, mayonnaise-based dressing)
- Chocolates, marshmallows, and fondants
- Soups containing egg noodles or any other soup or dish made with egg noodles
Ingredients on label to watch for:
- Egg (dried, powdered, egg solids, egg white, egg yolk, and whole egg)
- Albumin, apovitellin, and silici albuminate
- Lecithin, lysozyme, and livetin
- Egg wash
- Meringue, meringue powder
- Ovalbumin, ovoglobulin, and ovomucin
- Ovomucoid, ovotransferrin, ovovitelia, ovovitellin, vitellin, simplesse, and silici albuminate
- Simplesse, a commercially produced fat substitute derived from protein.
- The following ingredient terms may indicate that egg protein is present: artificial and natural flavoring, lecithin, macaroni, marzipan, marshmallows, nougat, and pasta.
Substitute for eggs in recipes:
In baking recipes and sauces, the yolk is the emulsifier that helps blend different ingredients together while the egg white provides structure due to the high protein content and its ability to be whipped.
- Commercial egg replacers are available that are made from potato starch and tapioca, such as Energ-G Foods Egg Replacer. Be sure to follow the manufacturer's directions for whichever egg replacer you try.
- Applesauce works well as a substitute for egg yolk since it also has natural emulsifying abilities. 1/4 cup of applesauce can replace one egg in most recipes.
Other substitutes for 1 egg:
- 2 tablespoons water or milk + potato starch or tapioca starch + 1 teaspoon canola oil + 3/4 teaspoon baking powder + 1 tablespoon unflavored gelatin dissolved in 1 tablespoon cold water, then stir in 2 tablespoons boiling water and beat until the mixture is foamy
- 1/4 cup mashed potatoes, canned pumpkin or squash, or tomato sauce
- 1/4 cup pureed prunes or mashed bananas
- 2 tablespoons water + 1 tablespoon oil + 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 tablespoon ground flax seed simmered in 3 tablespoons water for 1 minute, then let sit 5 minutes to gel
- 1/4 cup soft or silken tofu (pureed in a food processor or electric mixer)
- 1 egg white = 1 tablespoon plain agar powder dissolved in 1 tablespoon lukewarm water, whipped, chilled, and whipped again
Very few foods can whip up and incorporate air as well as egg whites, so using some of these egg substitutes may not produce foods that are as light and fluffy in texture.
3 Allergen-Free Recipes to Get You Started
Cocoa Coconut Cookies (Wheat-Free, Egg-Free)
1/3 cup less-fat margarine (a vegan margarine like Earth Balance Organic Buttery Spread can be used)
2/3 cup dark brown sugar, packed
2/3 cup low-fat milk (soy milk or rice milk can be substituted)
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups barley flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup pecan pieces (optional)
1/3 cup coconut, shredded or flaked
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat cookie sheet with canola cooking spray or parchment paper.
- In large mixing bowl, cream together margarine and brown sugar. Slowly pour in the milk and vanilla and beat until blended.
- In medium bowl, combine barley flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and baking soda with whisk. Beat into margarine mixture on low speed, blending just until combined. Stir in pecans (if desired) and coconut.
- Using a cookie scoop, place balls of dough on prepared baking sheet. Bake for about 8 minutes.
Yield: Makes 18 cookies.
Nutrition Information: Per serving: 120 calories, 2 g protein, 20 g carbohydrate, 3.7 g fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, 0.5 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber, 92 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 28%.
Rice Flour & Whatever Muffins (Wheat-Free and Potentially Milk-Free and Egg-Free)
1 large egg (or use an egg replacement such as 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed simmered in 3 tablespoons water for 1 minute, then let sit 5 minutes to gel)
1/2 cup liquid of choice (fruit juice, low-fat milk, soy milk, coffee, etc.)
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 cup brown rice flour (white rice flour can be substituted)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons chopped nuts (optional)
3/4 cup fresh or frozen fruit (blueberries or raspberries, finely chopped apples or peaches, etc.)
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line six muffin cups with foil or paper liners, or coat the cups with canola cooking spray.
- In large mixing bowl, combine egg or egg replacement, liquid of choice, sugar, and canola oil, beating on low until smooth.
- In medium bowl, combine brown rice flour, baking powder, and salt. Add all at once to egg mixture and beat on low just until combined. Stir in nuts (if desired) and fruit of choice.
- Divide batter among the prepared muffin cups and bake for 15 minutes or until toothpick or fork inserted in the center of largest muffin comes out reasonably clean.
Yield: Makes 6 muffins
Nutrition Information: Per serving (using a large egg and 3/4 cup blueberries): 187 calories, 4 g protein, 28 g carbohydrate, 6.5 g fat, 0.8 g saturated fat, 37 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber, 304 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 31%.
Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes (Milk-Free)
I love plain homemade mashed potatoes, but I think I love this variation even more. The roasted garlic flavor is subtle throughout, with roasted garlic cloves sprinkled in. You can do steps 2 and 3 simultaneously to save time. You can also make this a day ahead of when you need it; keep it chilled in the refrigerator, and it can be kept warm in a slow cooker during a holiday meal or warmed up in the microwave.
2 large heads garlic
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 1/2 cup soy milk (check the label to be sure it doesn’t contain milk-based ingredients), rice milk, oat milk, almond milk, or vegetable or chicken broth
4 pounds potatoes, peeled or unpeeled (as desired) and quartered
Freshly ground black pepper
Salt to taste (optional)
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Slice about 1/4-inch off the top of the garlic heads, throw the tops away, and place heads on a piece of foil. Drizzle olive oil over the top of the garlic heads and wrap them well in the foil. Bake until tender and golden, (about 35-45 minutes). Remove from oven and let stand until cool enough to handle. Peel the skin away from the garlic cloves.
- Add the garlic cloves to a small nonstick saucepan along with the soy milk or broth. Start simmering the mixture over medium heat until soy milk or broth is hot. Reduce heat to simmer, cover the pan, and continue to simmer for a few more minutes. Turn the heat off and lift out the garlic cloves with a slotted spoon, place in custard cup, and set aside. Leave the saucepan with soy milk or broth on the stove until needed.
- Place quartered potatoes in a large stockpot, cover with cold salted water, and bring to a boil. Cook until very tender, about 12 minutes. Drain potato pieces in a colander.
- Add hot, steaming, and drained potato pieces directly to a large mixing bowl and beat on low while you slowly pour in the soy milk or broth. Season with salt and pepper if desired and gently stir in the roasted garlic cloves.
Yield: Makes 10 servings
Nutritional Information: Per serving: 202 Calories, 5 g protein, 42 g carbohydrate, 1.3 g fat, 0.2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 3 g fiber, 29 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 6%.