16 Common Food Allergens & Their Substitutions
Substitutions for Common Food Allergens
Cooking without using such staples as milk, wheat and eggs can at first seem like an overwhelming task, especially if you or someone you prepare meals for has one or more food sensitivities. Questions circle, like: Do I find an alternative for each ingredient? Or, would it be easier to just scrap the recipe altogether and find a new one? Here's a list of 14 common food allergens and their substitutions that should make it a bit less stressful come mealtime (or at least offer some new ideas for playing with traditional recipes).
Substitute cow's milk and other dairy products with their plant-based counterparts, like almond, oat, hemp, rice, coconut, and cashew milk. But be aware of their individual flavor profiles when choosing which to use per recipe, since each milk alternative will brown differently with its own unique texture when used in hot applications. Due to the wide range of sugar levels, opt for unsweetened and unflavored varieties. Or, substitute sparkling water for milk in your favorite waffle recipe to make it dairy-free.
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To replace butter, simply find a dairy-free margarine that you like the taste of. When replacing butter in baked goods, try to find a stick of dairy-free margarine rather than a tub of margarine—the stick version usually contains less water and margarine with low water content and high fat content will result in a better bake.
Ready-made products like cashew or almond ricotta can be used instead of traditional ricotta cheese in Italian recipes, sweet or savory. Soy-based, coconut-based, and pea-based "yogurt," "sour cream," and "cream cheese" products are also available. The same goes for dairy-free cheese products: widely available, better quality than ever before.
Eggs and Egg Products
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Did you know that you can easily replace eggs when baking? To replace eggs for binding in sweet applications, try using bananas or applesauce. For savory recipes, you can use pumpkin, zucchini, or squash puree.
Flaxseed and chia seeds can also be used to substitute whole eggs. Simply combine 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed (or whole or ground chia seeds) with 3 tablespoons of water and let sit for 5 minutes. Use this 1:3 ratio for each egg called for in the recipe. To ensure a proper rise, double-check the amount of baking soda and baking powder.
The real kicker here is that you don't even need eggs to create fluffy, whipped "egg whites" for meringue. Ever heard of aquafaba? Well, it might just become your new best friend for all of its infinite baking applications whether you're avoiding eggs or not.
Wheat and Gluten
It's probably best to experiment with different flour substitutes to see what works best for you, since there are countless combinations for replacing wheat flour with other flours in recipes. Be aware, though, that other flours will yield a different texture and consistency than wheat flour so it's pretty much good ol' trial and error until you get it just right. Some possible single-ingredient substitutions for 1 cup of wheat flour:
7/8 cup rice flour
7/8 cup garbanzo bean (chick pea) flour
3/4 cup potato starch
1 1/3 cups ground rolled oats
1 cup tapioca flour
Also keep in mind that these suggestions are specific to wheat allergy—if you are avoiding gluten, steer clear of barley, rye and other gluten-containing grains, also known as “B.R.O.W.” (barley, rye, oats, and wheat). Oats can become contaminated with wheat during cultivation, so look for wheat-free oats as an alternative. But hidden sources of gluten and wheat can be the most worrisome (e.g. Worcestershire, soy sauce, salad dressings, sauces, gravies, thickeners, candy/gum, or chocolate).
Soy is a common ingredient typical in American foods and for that reason, soy allergies are among the most common. Luckily, soy can be easy to identify based on labeling (there's soya, soy protein, soy sauce, edamame, tamari, tempeh, tofu, and TVP). Other food items containing soy are less easy to spot, like miso, shoyu, vegetable gum, vegetable stock, and many salad dressings.
Replace edamame in recipes with beans, peas, and other legumes. Seitan is a decent replacement for tofu, though the flavor and texture are not that similar. And instead of soy sauce or tamari, use coconut aminos, a salty-sweet alternative that looks and tastes like soy sauce but is made from fermented coconut sap (coconut aminos or ume plum vinegar also work well in Asian-inspired salad dressings in place of soy sauce).
Peanuts and Tree Nuts
An even more common allergen is the seemingly innocuous peanut and more broadly, all tree nuts. So common, in fact, some restaurants have taken to omitting the ingredient completely in many dishes in order to avoid any trouble for customers.
There are, however, plenty of nut alternatives to choose from: use seeds, oven-roasted beans, or even crumbled pretzels to recreate the texture and flavor of peanuts or tree nuts in just about any recipe. Stick to omitting the nuts completely when making pesto, or get your nuttiness from pumpkin seeds instead. Or try toasted sunflower seeds in place of peanuts in kung pao.
Corn and Corn Products
Corn is one of the most common ingredients in foods, unfortunately, making it one of the hardest ingredients to avoid. Cassava root (pictured above) can be dried and ground to become tapioca starch, a simple corn starch replacer. Along with tapioca, you can also use potato or arrowroot starch to replace corn starch used as a thickener for sauces, gravies, etc.
As usual, there are going to be different applications more and less appropriate per ingredient substitute. For example, tapioca starch tends to work well in fillings that will be frozen since it doesn't break down like flour-based sauces do. But be aware that tapioca will get stringy if boiled. While arrowroot works better with cold acid fruits and does not need to boil to thicken, when used in sauces that are served hot, it doesn't keep very long or reheat well.
Fish and Fish Sauce
Although avoiding fish can seem simple (just order chicken, right?), there are a variety of cuisines that use sauces and marinades made with this common allergen. For example, most Caesar salad dressings and Worcestershire sauces list anchovies as an ingredient. In many Asian cuisines, fish sauce is a major component that adds saltiness and essential umami depth to a recipe.
To replace fish sauce, you could buy a ready-made vegan version available at your local health food market or just make your own with wakame (pictured above), garlic, peppercorns, soy sauce, and miso (replace the soy sauce and miso if avoiding soy).
This is another ingredient that loves to get hidden, so there can be a few places to look for hidden shellfish sources, like gelatin, salad dressings, sauces and fish stock. As you already know, if you happen to suffer from food allergies, it's essential to always triple-check labels and “may contain” claims, which are just as important.
To create dishes that mimic the rich flavor of shellfish, creativity and seasoning are key. Try using fish and vegetables that are similar in texture to some popular shellfish dishes such as hearts of palm for crab, mushroom sauce to replace oyster sauce, or medium-firm tofu for scallops.
Mollusks include mussels, whelks, oysters, snails and squid, and are generally easier to avoid than fish and the other more common shellfish allergen, crustaceans. Replace these ingredients in a similar way as you would fish and shellfish and, again, always read food labels.
Celery (Including Celeriac)
If a recipe calls for celery salt and you happen to be allergic or avoiding the stuff, try using dill seed instead of celery, which has a similar enough flavor profile to celery seed. Combine pre-ground dill seed powder with salt in the same ratio as in your usual celery salt blend of choice.
As for replacing actual celery in recipes, you can sub celery with cabbage, for instance, in soups or risotto. The chopped cabbage will give you that classic celery crunch. For variety's sake, here are seven other vegetables that can act as a decent celery substitute.
To replace yellow mustard in recipes, your best bet might be to add spices like turmeric to equal parts mayonnaise (for when you need to mimic the thickness and consistency of mustard). Turmeric will also increase the nutritional value of your dish on top of being a good substitute for dry mustard, especially for making dry rubs and seasoning soups. You can use the ratio of 1:1, i.e., substitute the same amount of turmeric for dry mustard called for in a recipe.
To mimic more of a brown or spicy Dijon mustard flavor, use wasabi or horseradish powder, both of which belong to the same family as mustard. Keep in mind, though, that wasabi and horseradish pack a lot of heat, so just a dab will do ya (definitely not a 1:1 ratio here, folks). They can also be used like mustard to punch up vinaigrettes and dips. And please be sure to check the label before buying wasabi since it's sometimes made with ground mustard.
If and when a recipe calls for sesame seeds: use sunflower seed kernels, poppy, or flax seeds, all of which have similar mild, nutty flavors and provide a satisfying crunchy texture to dishes like sesame seeds. You can use sunflower, poppy, or flax seeds as a 1:1 replacement for sesame seeds in most recipes—add to pastries, breads, cakes, candies and other baked goods as you would sesame seeds. Please note, though, that flax seeds are more difficult to digest whole and should be ground. Honorable mention: hemp seeds, which can also be used in almost all dishes and baked goods that require sesame seeds.
There are a few sesame oil substitutes to choose from that can be used to mimic that distinct nutty taste and/or provide comparable health benefits. Here's a shortlist: peanut oil, olive oil, perilla oil, walnut oil, avocado oil, canola oil, and roasted peanuts are all suitable sesame oil alternatives.
Sulfites can be used as a preservative in dried fruit and as antioxidants in wine to keep unwanted bacteria at bay. They also occur naturally in foods. The vast majority of people don't have to even think about sulfites, but that's not the case for about one in every 100 people who are sensitive or allergic to them. If you have asthma, for example, your chances are much higher for sulfite sensitivity: about one in 10.
Opt for organic and biodynamic wines that are often lower in sulfites, or at least without any added sulfites. But keep in mind that wine is a natural source of sulfites and may not be tolerated at all by some. You can replace wine when cooking with a number of alternatives, including pomegranate juice, red or white wine vinegar, ginger ale, chicken or beef stock, and the list goes on. The bottomline: keep your desired flavor profile in mind when replacing wine in recipes.
White grape juice adds sweetness, for example, and will deglaze the pan. Or, try mixing a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice per cup of grape juice for something punchier. Chicken or vegetable stock works well in place of wine when you want to add depth.
If you're like, what the heck is lupin? Chances are you don't have to worry about this ingredient that includes lupin seeds and flour found in certain types of bread, pastries, and pasta. What sucks for allergy sufferers is the fact that lupin flour is so good for health—it's high in protein, essential amino acids and fiber, easily digestible, low GI, cholesterol free, an appetite suppressant, oh, and wheat/gluten free. Wow. Who knew?
Lupin flour is oft used in gluten-free baking, and like most gluten-free flour alternatives, is often blended with other flours. The allergy caution comes into play because lupin is from the same legume family as peanuts and soybeans. Ah. So, replace lupin flour in recipes in a similar way you would wheat flour (potato, chickpea flour).
The FDA made it official and issued an allergy warning about lupin flour for people with peanut, soy or legume allergies. Fun factoid: The European white lupin was used and eaten by humans dating all the way back to ancient Egyptians!
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