Food Allergies and Sensitivities: How to Shop

Food allergies and sensitivities are soaring to an epidemic proportion! Over 32 million Americans have a serious and potentially life-threatening food allergy. That number explodes to nearly 85 million people impacted when you include those with food sensitivities and intolerances.

May is Allergy Awareness Month and there is no better time to learn more about food allergies to help yourself and those you love.

My 2 children both have serious allergies to egg and peanuts since day one. It required lifelong learning for our family to manage their diet. I accepted the challenge of reading every food label in the grocery store, making all our meals from scratch, and baking every birthday cake . As a result, our kids grew up on minimal amount of processed food and mostly healthy home-made meals. There is a silver lining if you can look beyond the often cloudy picture of an allergen-free diet.

Food Allergies vs Food Sensitivities

Food allergies and sensitivities have a range of severity and mechanism. Food allergy is an immunologic response that shows immediate symptoms within minutes to several hours after consuming the allergen. In many cases, it can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention. On the other hand, food sensitivity is a non-immunologic response to food and the symptoms may appear over a period of days. The range of manifestations may include stomach pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, brain fog, headache, skin rash, muscle/join pain, fatigue and insomnia. For those of us who are affected, it can be very frustrating to pinpoint the foods that are causing the problem. Be sure to consult a qualified health practitioner to help you with diagnosis and treatment.

How to manage your diet

Whether you have food allergies, sensitivities or intolerances, it is necessary to avoid the problem foods to feel well. The first step is to determine what food ingredients you need to eliminate from your diet. This may be done by food allergy (IgE) or food sensitivity (IgG) testing by your doctor or the use of an elimination diet with the help of a Registered Dietitian. The next step is to learn to recognize what food is safe to eat by deciphering food labels and sourcing trusted food companies that make allergy-friendly food.

These eight foods account for 90 percent of all food allergy reactions:

Peanuts
Tree nuts (cashews, pecans, walnuts, etc.)
Milk
Egg
Wheat
Soy
Fish (halibut, salmon, etc.)
Shellfish (crab, lobster, shrimp, crayfish). Not including mollusks (oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, squid)

Avoiding these food allergens is not easy because they are often found in prepared dishes or hidden in processed and packaged foods in different forms. It is key to learn all you can about your problem food including its various names and derivatives, so you can detect them. Some examples of the not-so-common names are sodium caseinate (milk), semolina (wheat), albumin (egg), and lecithin (soy). You can learn more about these common allergens and how to avoid them at www. foodallergyawareness.org.

Sharpen your food shopping skills

According to FDA food labeling law, manufacturers must list all food ingredients in descending order of concentration. In addition, The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) requires these 8 most common allergens be declared on the food label. Under the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research (FASTER) Act of 2021, sesame is being added as the 9th major food allergen effective January 1, 2023. 

Although these labeling regulations are extremely helpful to consumers, they only cover a fraction of the 160+ foods identified to cause food allergies in sensitive individuals.

Best practices for buying allergen-free foods

  • Avoid highly processed foods. Less is more here – fewer the ingredients the better!
  • Never buy packaged food without an ingredient list.
  • Don’t buy any food with ingredients unknown to you.
  • Read food labels carefully, including foods you have purchased before. Food manufacturers may change their ingredients without warning.
  • Beware of general and non-specific ingredient terms, such as natural flavoring which may contain allergens unless you know the ingredient used in the flavoring.
  • Don’t just go with claims on the label. Phrases such as “peanut-free” and “egg-free” are not regulated by law. Be sure the allergen is not on the ingredient list.
  • Beware of cross-contamination. Allergen-free products could still be made in facilities where the allergens are present. Always check with the manufacturer if you are unsure.
  • Be careful with imported foods. They may not comply with domestic food labeling laws.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com


Vegan Food – Trick or Treat?

Plant-based diet is all the rage but is it healthier for you? There is no argument that eating less animal products is better for your body and for the planet. For years I have been advising the general public, eating a typical North American diet, to reduce meat intake and use meat as a condiment rather than the main focus of their meal. For some, my husband included, it is easier to go cold turkey and avoid meat altogether rather than tease the taste buds and be left feeling unsatisfied. The craving for the flavor of “meat” combined with the desire to go meatless has fueled the surging popularity of meat alternatives in grocery stores and restaurants, including fast food chains.

Trick

The plant-based food space grew 11% between 2018 and 2019 to $4.5 billion in the US which provided more options and also more confusion than ever for consumers. Have you noticed the growing number of plant-based milk, such as soy, almond, cashew, rice, and oat milks, on your grocery shelves? It can certainly be tricky to find vegan foods with the same nutritional profile as the animal products you are replacing. I recently replaced cow’s milk with almond milk and realized that I now only get 12.5% of my usual amount of protein (1 gram of protein in 1 cup of almond milk rather than 8 grams of protein in cow’s milk). That means I need to adjust my diet to eat other high protein foods to make up the deficit. Not easy to do without some nutrition knowledge and meal planning skills!

Plant-based foods designed to replace milk, cheese, and meat often have a lengthy list of ingredients and full of fillers. Have a look at the 18 ingredients in a Beyond Burger: water, pea protein isolate, expeller-pressed canola oil, refined coconut oil, rice protein, natural flavors, cocoa butter, mung bean protein, methylcellulose, potato starch, apple extract, salt, potassium chloride, vinegar, lemon juice concentrate, sunflower lecithin, pomegranate fruit powder, and beet juice extract (the beet juice give the burger its meat-like “blood”). Pretty scary! If you are interested in a complete nutritional comparison between a Beyond Burger and a regular burger, check out this article  in Good Housekeeping. It’s clear that plant-based foods can be highly processed and may not be the healthy alternative we think we are eating.

Treat

Eating a vegan or plant-based diet is not just about avoiding animal products or eating meat look-a-likes. It is about eating an abundance of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Now, that’s a treat for your health!!!

Plan the main event of your meal around “meaty” vegetables such as mushrooms, eggplant, and squash.  This will easily increase your daily vegetable servings. Consuming enough fruits and vegetables as part of an overall healthy diet reduces the risk of many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and obesity. The 20152020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that adults consume 1.5–2.0 cup equivalents of fruits and 2.0–3.0 cups of vegetables per day. These goals are much more attainable on a plant-based diet.

The best vegan food comes in its natural form. Nuts, seeds, and legumes are never processed and provide a signifiant source of protein and fiber. Many research studies have shown that the high fiber content in some nuts and legumes is good for your gut bacteria and provides protection to the gut lining and creates a healthier microbiome. The gut microbiome plays a vital role in helping with digestion and benefiting your immune system and many other aspects of health.

Another great source of plant-based protein is whole grains.  Whole grains have much more fiber, B vitamins, and iron than refined grains. Experiment cooking with some of the high protein grains such as quinoa, spelt, kamut, amaranth and millet, just to name a few. Their names may sound intimidating but they boil a lot like rice – just follow the cooking direction on the package and you can’t go wrong. To maximum your nutrition at each meal, learn to combine grains with legumes for complementary protein.

Meat is not necessary a villain. But in a culture where meat consumption is excessive and climate change is a concern, it is definitely a treat to have the food pendulum swing in favor of vegan food.


How to avoid GMOs

 

IMG_4606Food companies are labelling their food packaging with more health claims than ever before but do we really know what they mean? The “NON GMO Project VERIFIED” seal is one that has been attracting my attention lately. I am seeing it on a range of products from bread to won ton wrappers. According to data from The Non-GMO Project Verified organization, their seal is the fastest growing label in the natural product industry and represents over $26 billion in annual sales. There are more than 50,000 Verified products from over 3,000 brands available to consumers in the marketplace. With this growing trend, it is definitely worth learning more about what this claim means. I went to their website and this is what I extracted:

What is a GMO?
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are living organisms whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering. This creates combinations of plant, animal, bacteria, and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.

Most GMOs have been engineered to withstand the direct application of herbicide and/or to produce an insecticide. However, new technologies are now being used to artificially develop other traits in plants, such as a resistance to browning in apples, and to create new organisms using synthetic biology. Despite biotech industry promises, there is no evidence that any of the GMOs currently on the market offer increased yield, drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition, or any other consumer benefit.

Are GMOs safe?
In the absence of credible independent long-term feeding studies, the safety of GMOs is unknown. Increasingly, citizens are taking matters into their own hands and choosing to opt out of the GMO experiment.

Which foods might contain GMOs?
Most packaged foods contain ingredients derived from corn, soy, canola, and sugar beet — and the vast majority of those crops grown in North America are genetically modified. 

Visit the What is GMO page for more information and a list of high-risk crops.

Animal products: The Non-GMO Project also considers livestock, apiculture, and aquaculture products at high risk because genetically engineered ingredients are common in animal feed. This impacts animal products such as: eggs, milk, meat, honey, and seafood.

Processed inputs, including those from synthetic biology: GMOs also sneak into food in the form of processed crop derivatives and inputs derived from other forms of genetic engineering, such as synthetic biology. Some examples include: hydrolyzed vegetable protein, corn syrup, molasses, sucrose, textured vegetable protein, flavorings, vitamins,  yeast products, microbes & enzymes, flavors, oils & fats, proteins, and sweeteners.

My Bottomline Recommendations:

1. Avoid processed foods. The less processed the food, the less chance of GMO ingredients sneaking into the manufacturing process.

2. Eat fresh food with a short ingredient list. Less is more when it comes to healthy food!

3. Buy organic products when possible because the use of genetically modified organisms are not permitted in products that are USDA organic certified.

4. Look for the Non GMO Project Verified seal on food products, especially with products containing the high risk corps such as Corn, soy, canola, and sugar beet. The Non-GMO Project Verified seal assures consumers that a product has completed a comprehensive third-party verification for compliance with the Non-GMO Project Standard.

 

 


The Secret to Southeast Asian Cooking

I love Southeast Asian food for its intense flavors! Fish sauce, made of anchovies and salt, is what creates that bold taste in Vietnamese, Thai and Cambodian cuisine. it is used in salads, soups, stir-fry and dipping sauces. Many chefs and home cooks have taken fish sauce beyond Asian dishes to deliver the umami flavor to some unexpected dishes. Try a few sprinkle on the ever so popular roasted Brussels sprouts and you’ll know what I mean!

With the increasing popularity of Southeast Asian food, fish sauce is much more available in the grocery store than ever before. If you don’t find it in your local grocery store, you can always have it delivered to your door by Amazon. Just don’t expect to get a good price on it – even on Amazon Prime Day!

I usually get my Red Boat Fish sauce at Trader Joe’s until they were unable to restock it from their supplier in the last several months.  When I saw Red Boat Fish sauce at Sur La Table selling for $8.95 (8.45 fl. oz.), it was all the motivation I needed to make a trip to the Asian market for the authentic stuff for cheap. Of course, when I got there I was confronted with an array of choices except the Red Boat brand I was looking for. How do I decide which one to buy? Not sure it matters if it’s from Thailand or Vietnam. Price is not the deciding factor since they are all inexpensive so it boils down to their ingredients. Surprisingly, some of them contain fillers other than anchovies and salt. For example, Three Crabs brand (popular with some chefs) contains anchovy extract, water, salt, fructose (a form of sugar) and hydrolysed vegetable protein (a form of MSG) and yet it makes the claim “no MSG added” on its label. Really! Imported foods don’t always meet the same regulation on label claims so read the ingredient list to verify their claims. My final choice was the “Top” brand containing anchovies fish extract, water and salt for $1.25 (23 fl. oz.).

Fish sauce is an extremely tasty fat-free condiment. It is very high in salt so you may need to adjust the amount of added salt in the dish when using fish sauce. Be adventurous and go beyond borders when cooking with it! If you are a novice, start with the dipping sauce below for salads, noodles and grilled meats. It is a family recipe from Mai Pham, author of “The Best of Vietnamese and Thai Cooking.” It has been my go-to for over 20 years.

Classic Vietnamese Dipping sauce (Nuoc Cham)

2 small garlic cloves, sliced

1-2 tsp. ground chile paste

1-2 Thai bird peppers, or any other chiles, chopped

1/4 cup good quality fish sauce

2//3 hot water

2 Tbsp. fresh lime juice with pulp

1/4 cup sugar

2 Tbsp. shredded carrots for garnish

Place the garlic, chile paste and fresh chiles in a mortar. With a pestle, pound into a paste. If you do not have a mortar and pestle, mince by hand.

Combine the garlic mixture with the remaining ingredients (except carrots) in a small mixing bowl. Stir until the sugar has dissolved. Ladle the sauce into small ramekins and float the carrot slivers on top. Makes 1 1/2 cups. Keeps in refrigerator for one month.