Food allergies and intolerances
Food intolerances and allergies are becoming much easier to detect these days. The basic differences between an allergy and an intolerance can be identified in the following ways:
- A food allergy happens when the body’s immune system reacts unusually to a specific food that it mistakenly believes is a threatening substance. The intensity of the reaction varies from person to person, but symptoms can range from mild swellings, rashes or vomiting to extremely serious reactions (such as anaphylaxis, which can be life-threatening). Research shows that food allergies are still pretty rare across the UK (with just 2% of the population being affected). The NHS choices: Food allergy page has some very helpful information.
- An intolerance is very different from an allergy, in that symptoms are rarely life-threatening and are far more likely to cause discomfort rather than serious harm. The NHS choices: Food intolerance page can provide more insight into intolerances.
In order to get the appropriate support, always seek advice from your doctor if you are unsure about your condition.
Substitutions and suggestions
Once you have an accurate idea of your specific dietary requirements, you can start to think about how to work around them.
Here are some common allergen culprits and smart substitutions.
Egg allergies or intolerances are tricky because eggs are a requirement in many recipes, particularly in baking. Eggs can also be found in certain pasta or noodle recipes, but it is not an essential ingredient. When out shopping, make sure to check if egg has been added, and look for other options. They shouldn't be too hard to find.
Thankfully, there are quite a few creative ways around this problem. For example, there are lots of recipes that can be adapted using the following alternatives:
- Banana can be mashed up and used in recipes such as fluffy pancakes or moist brownies. Usually it's safe to substitute one ripe banana for one egg (unless, of course, you have a banana allergy or intolerance too).
- Applesauce is a great replacement for eggs in cakes, muffins or biscuits. One tablespoon of applesauce per egg is recommended.
- Flaxseeds and chia seeds are from the plant which is also the source of linseed oil (one of the plant based oils popular for cooking). If you combine a tablespoon of flaxseeds or chia seeds with three tablespoons of water, you will get a thick, gelatinous mixture that can be used instead of egg in most baked goods.
- Tofu is an option if you love eggs for breakfast. Crumbled firm tofu, moistened with a little water and seasoned with delicious herbs and spices, can be a fantastic alternative to a traditional omelette or plate of scrambled eggs.
- Chickpea brine (or aquafaba) is a slightly unusual ingredient that actually works as a very effective egg replacer. Next time you drain a can of chickpeas, save the liquid they’re preserved in. Next, whip the liquid up until it forms a consistency that resembles egg whites. You can then add the whipped aquafaba to recipes for meringues, chocolate mousse, mayonnaise, cheesecake and much more. TIP: Generally, three tablespoons of unwhipped aquafaba is the equivalent of one whole egg (and two tablespoons of unwhipped aquafaba is the same as one egg white).
This is an allergy/intolerance that affects many people, particularly children. When buying products, you should be very careful to check the ingredients; be on the lookout for soy as a base. This is even the case with some dairy options, like yoghurts and spreads. Particularly watch for Asian recipes, as many items (particularly soups and dressings) will include soy too. However, there is now an increasing demand for alternative products, and in most large supermarkets you should find other options that use rice, almond, hemp or coconut.
Milk and dairy
Did you know that recent research has revealed three quarters of the Jewish population may be lactose intolerant? But don't despair if this is a problem for you.
- Milk replacements are available in several alternatives. Some of the most common are almond milk, oat milk, soya milk or rice milk. All of these are popular, and you may even find that you switch your milk alternatives based on how you are using it. For example, you may enjoy soya milk in your coffee, but prefer to make your morning oatmeal with almond milk.
- Butter can be substituted with non-dairy replacements such as margarine, which can be a perfect substitute for spreading on your toast or using in recipes. If you are frying food, then think about options such as olive oil, sunflower oil or other types of vegetable oil. TIP: Use oil as a base for salad dressings. Try mixing extra virgin olive oil with balsamic vinegar for a tangy salad topping, or perhaps make a classic vinaigrette (all you need is olive oil, vinegar and Dijon mustard).
- Cheese is a little trickier to substitute. If you are looking for something to melt on a pizza or stir through pasta, then there are some options you can buy. These dairy free choices usually have a cashew, soy or coconut base. Many people also enjoy the flavour and texture of an ingredient called nutritional yeast. It might not sound very appetising, but its flavour actually resembles that of parmesan, and it's especially good to sprinkle over your pasta or popcorn!
- Creamy sauces don’t have to be a thing of the past if you have a dairy intolerance. When you next make a pasta sauce, try some recipes using ingredients such as tahini paste, finely ground cashew nuts, cannellini beans or chickpeas. Even a bit of ripe avocado can add that velvety texture and creamy taste to your dish.
A gluten intolerance is one of the most common dietary complaints. It is triggered by wheat, rye, barley and several other grains, which means bread, pasta, cereal and even beer can be problematic if you are sensitive to gluten. But there are many alternative gluten-free products that are pretty easy to find these days. For example, try substituting more traditional options with some of the following:
- Pasta and noodles are now available in options made using rice, millet or corn.
- Cereal can be made with corn, oats or rice flakes. TIP: Oats contain a protein called avenin which is similar to gluten, but you may be able to tolerate it even if you have a gluten intolerance or allergy. Be cautious before trying oats as a substitute and seek advice from your doctor if you are unsure.
- Semolina is fairly easy to swap out with polenta, a corn-based grain that can be a great alternative to traditional breadcrumbs. It gets really crispy too!
- Couscous can just be substituted with quinoa instead.
- Bread can be avoided, but sometimes it's easier to just replace it. You can try wrapping sandwich ingredients in lettuce leaves to make a healthy wrap, or bulk out a salad with ingredients like lentils and chickpeas. Replace spaghetti with vegetables and have a go at making courgette spaghetti (you can buy a spiralising machine at quite reasonable prices to make your own vegetarian pasta at home).
- Flour comes in gluten-free varieties, but when baking, you can try substituting conventional flour with other ingredients like almond meal or rice flour.
Peanuts and tree nuts
Nuts can be replaced in a variety of ways. Lots of dishes and recipes suggest them as an ingredient, and depending on the flavours within the dish, there are several options available.
- Seeds, such as pumpkin or sunflower, can be used as a replacement for nuts in recipes for bread, granola bars, muffins or even as an alternative for making your own spreads (such as traditional peanut butter or other nut butters).
- Pretzels can be crushed up and used as a great topping on ice cream or as a replacement for chopped nuts in other recipes (like biscuits, pies or cheesecake bases). Be careful to check the ingredients if you have any other allergies or intolerances, since pretzels often contain ingredients such as gluten or sesame.
- If you’re looking for a replacement for a handful of nuts to be eaten as a snack, think about roasted chickpeas or edamame beans. Pistachios, cashews and walnuts are all great alternatives to peanuts, but take care to avoid any nuts that could trigger a reaction.
- Tahini is a great alternative to peanut butter on toast! Otherwise, try honey or even smashed avocado as a nutritious alternative.
- If you’re intolerant to coconut, you can replace coconut milk with alternatives such as almond or cashew milk. Try swapping coconut flakes for other dried fruits like raisins, dried apples or banana flakes.
- Water chestnuts or bamboo shoots can add a lovely crunchy texture to curries and stir fries.
People can be intolerant to alcohol itself, or otherwise it could be the food used to make the alcohol (for example, the grains used in making whisky). If a recipe asks for alcohol, you could try replacing it with stock (chicken, beef, fish or vegetable). Otherwise, in sweet dishes, milk (dairy or non-dairy) and sugar syrups can be used instead of wine.
If a recipe simply uses alcohol as an additional liquid, you can just replace it with water.
This type of allergy or intolerance includes a specific group of foods such as bell peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and aubergines.
Tomatoes can be a little tricky to avoid since they are used as a base in so many recipes (think of pasta sauces, pizza toppings and soups), but there are some nice alternatives you can try. For example, pesto is a great pasta sauce made with fresh herbs and olive oil. It makes a tasty replacement to traditional tomato based options and can also be used as a pizza base topping. Many restaurants offer pesto pizza or even a white béchamel-style sauce as an interesting swap to typical tomato topping.
If you want to keep chips on the menu, go for a sweet potato! Meaty mushrooms (like portobello or shitake) have a similar texture to aubergine chunks. If you want to find an alternative to a bell pepper with a similar crisp, fresh flavour, try celery or radishes.
Lots of people have an intolerance to sesame, which comes in the form of paste (tahini), oil or seeds (which are frequently sprinkled onto biscuits and other baked goods). In most cases, this ingredient is relatively easy to avoid; however, one staple dish which calls for tahini as a key ingredient is the very popular hummus. Don’t worry though, The Wholesome Dish has great information about how to make Simple Hummus Without Tahini.
Fortunately, there is good practical news for people with special dietary needs. Whether gluten-, nut- or dairy-free, tasty replacements are now plentiful and available. Most of the large supermarkets are even creating specific product lines for people with food sensitivities, so you won’t have to miss out on many of the things you love.
There will still be some challenges, but with a few adjustments and substitutions, you should be able to enjoy most of your favourite dishes.
Find out more
Many magazines and newspapers frequently offer articles with the latest information on food allergies and intolerances. You’ll be able to find some really interesting information taken from recent research into the subject, as well as lots of recipes and inspiration on alternative products to suit various dietary requirements. To get started, try this article from the Women's Health website: Understanding the 5 most common food allergies and intolerances.
- Allergy UK has its own YouTube page, offering short videos about cooking for specific dietary requirements and advice on how to diagnose allergies.
- The BBC Food website offers an extensive range of recipes for all kinds of specific diets. Everything from dairy-free, to vegan, nut-free and egg-free can be found on their pages. The BBC Good Food site focuses on food too, but it also has a helpful article that looks at the question, Do you have a food intolerance?
- The British Nutrition Foundation's Food allergy and intolerance site has helpful links about specific food-related conditions.
- The Food Standards Agency's Allergy and intolerance page offers great insight into your rights if you have food allergies.
- Peas & Figs is a lovely website with a large library of recipes catering to almost every dietary requirement imaginable. All you need to do is tick the boxes that apply to you, and a range of recipe options will be offered up.
Good luck, and bon appétit!