Cooking with Food Allergies: Simple Swaps

Three weeks ago, our own Chef Janie Serna participated in a Harvest Table Culinary Group recipe development session. Based on your feedback, our culinary team was hard at work identifying new products and creating new recipes to provide more inclusive dessert and baked good options.

Why do we do this? Not everyone can tolerate every kind of food, for one reason or another. Food allergies, for instance, are one of those reasons.

About 32 million Americans, or 1 in 10 adults, have been diagnosed with a food allergy, and unfortunately, food allergies are becoming increasingly common. People with food allergies have to completely avoid the food to which they are allergic. While any food protein can be an allergen, just eight major allergens account for about 90% of food allergies. That list: Wheat, Soy, Peanuts, Tree Nuts, Eggs, Milk, Fish, and Crustacean Shellfish.

Still Great Without the Top 8: Simple Swaps for Cooking with Food Allergies

Cooking without a particular allergen can sometimes feel limiting. Imagine trying to get a cake to hold together without eggs, or making a stir fry with the same savory flavor but without the soy sauce. However, with a little creativity and culinary engineering, even people with food allergies can prepare nutritious and delicious meals. 

Try these simple swaps to get cooking! 

(Note too that these are general recommendations and does not guarantee a specific product will work for your needs. If you have food allergies, read the label of all products before cooking with them, and be careful not to swap one allergen for another allergen!)

Swaps for Wheat/Gluten…

Wheat and wheat flour are found commonly in baked goods (think breads, cookies, cakes, pizza crust), sauces, pastas, and even soy sauce. “Gluten” is a group of proteins found in not only wheat, but barley and rye as well.

Baking Without Wheat/Gluten.

Look for alternative flours and starches. Rice, sorghum, almond, tapioca, cornmeal, or buckwheat (not related to wheat, botanically speaking) will all work. Alternative flours often behave very differently than wheat flour when baking, so it’s always a good idea to start by strictly following a tried and tested recipe until you get a feel for how each kind of flour works.

Be careful with flours. Some brands and products are processed on shared mills with wheat/gluten. Look for a certified “Gluten-Free” label!

Pasta Without Wheat/Gluten.

Try legume pasta, including chickpea or red lentil. Legume pastas are also an excellent source of plant-based protein.

Stir Fries Without Wheat/Gluten.

Try a GF Tamari Soy Sauce. The flavor is nearly identical and will replace standard soy sauce in a 1:1 ratio. (1)

Rice Noodle Bowl that is Allergen Friendly

Rice Noodles, like these found at copper Hood, can also be used for a non-wheat based option in soups and stir fries. 

Swaps for Soy…

Soybeans are a legume often eaten on their own as edamame or found as a foundational ingredient in foods such as tofu, tempeh, and soy milk. Avoiding soy can be tricky, as soy and its derivatives (such as soy lecithin) are found in a number of processed products as well, including soy sauce, miso, sauces and condiments, chocolate, or baked goods.

Replacing Edamame.

Try green peas, fava beans, or lima beans. You’ll keep the green color and the bean-y flavor of the soybean, without the soy allergen.

Stir Fries Without Soy.

Swap out the soy sauce for coconut aminos, a fermented dark-colored sauce similar in flavor to soy sauce. As an added bonus, many brands of coconut aminos tend to be lower in sodium than soy sauce.

Swaps for Egg…

In addition to the easily recognizable scrambled, fried, or omelet form, eggs are a common ingredient in baked goods, mayonnaise, and dressings and sauces.

Scrambled Without Eggs.

Try crumbling silken tofu in a skillet to replicate the fluffy texture of scrambled eggs. Add a pinch of turmeric to get a nice, yellow color as well. Use as you would scrambled eggs for breakfast, or try adding to a stir fry.

Baking Without Eggs.

You’ll need to replace the binding and structural properties that eggs add to baked goods, as well as the liquid. To replicate this, try making a flaxseed “egg” with ground flax and water. Let the flax and water rest for about 5 minutes until it forms a thicker, gel-like structure. You can also replace each egg in a baked good with ¼ cup mashed banana.

Whipped Whites Without Eggs.

You can, believe it or not, whip aquafaba, which is another name for the liquid from a can of chickpeas, in the exact same way as you would egg whites. Try whipped aquafaba to make meringues, in cookies to replace the egg, or in pancakes and waffles for an airier and more delicate texture. (1)

Each of these options can also turn some menu items into a vegan menu item too!

Swaps for Milk…

There is of course the obvious: milk allergens are found in… milk. You’ll also find milk in butter, sauces, cheese, cream, chocolate, yogurt, and baked goods.

Alternative Milks.

There is fortunately an abundance of options in the dairy aisle now. Soy milk is the alternative that most resembles cow’s milk from a nutritional standpoint, as it is a source of protein and is often fortified with calcium and vitamin D. You may also have seen alternatives such as *deep breath* rice milk, oat milk, almond milk, cashew milk, hemp milk, and coconut milk. 

Oat milk, cashew milk, and almond milk are typically the best substitutes for baking. Soy milk will work, though many people notice that the end result is a baked good that tastes of beans. Coconut milk (especially from a can) has more fat and less liquid than dairy milk, while rice milk is often thinner than cow’s milk, which will mean that recipes will require some tinkering when using these options. (2)

Also, please be mindful that many non-dairy milks often contain other top 8 allergens.

Cheese Flavor Without Milk.

Try nutritional yeast (a sort of flaky, deactivated yeast that can be sprinkled on foods) to replicate the savory flavor on popcorn, chips, or pasta dishes. To create a cheesy-flavored sauce, you can put boiled potatoes and carrots in a blender with nutritional yeast, adding either water or an alternative milk as needed to reach the right consistency. Use as you would any other cheesy sauce, such as poured over macaroni noodles and baked. (1)

Each of these options can also turn some menu items into a vegan menu item!

Allergen Friendly Mac & Cheese. Made without Gluten or Dairy

Even without milk, you can produce a savory creamy sauce for baked pasta dishes, such as this one produced by Chef Janie

Swaps for Peanuts…

The culinary applications of peanuts are not quite as diverse as those of, say, eggs, but because of the prevalence of peanut allergies, the availability of simple ingredient swaps are still incredibly important. Peanut allergies are the most common food allergy in children, and the second-most common food allergy in adults.

Replacing Peanut Butter.

Try swapping in sunflower seed butter, soy nut butter, or tahini (sesame seed butter). Sunflower seed butter is typically seen as the closest in flavor and texture to peanut butter, while tahini has a bit more of a bitter bite. Use as you would peanut butter, as a spread on whole-grain toast, as a dip for apple slices, or even in a homemade chocolate sunbutter cup.

Swaps for Tree Nuts…

Tree nuts are an excellent source of healthy unsaturated fats, fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Thankfully, there are options with a similar nutrient profile that offer the same pleasant snacky crunch.

Snacks and Crunchy Toppers Without Tree Nuts.

Try pumpkin seeds (also known as pepitas) or sunflower seeds. Both options offer a similar nutrient-dense package, but without the tree nut allergen. Try toasting or roasting in the oven for a boost of flavor, or mix with dried fruit and chocolate chips for a trail mix without nuts.

You could also add your seeds to a colorful charcuterie board packed with fruits and veggies for a balanced snack. 

Swaps for Fish & Shellfish…

First, note that fish and shellfish are different categories of allergen. People who are allergic to fin fish may not be allergic to shellfish and vice versa, though be aware that cross-contact can be common in processing and preparation since they both come from the sea. Second, know that there is no easy substitute necessarily for fish. 

Similar Nutrients Without the Seafood.

Look for other sources of nutrients you would find in fish and shellfish. Fatty fish such as salmon, for instance, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to reduced risk of heart disease and stroke. Non-fish sources of omega-3s include ground flax, walnuts, and canola oil. While non-marine sources of omega-3 fatty acids are not quite the same as the type found in fish, there is at least mixed evidence for positive health impact for plant-based omega-3s in the absence of marine omega-3s in the diet.