“What can I bake that will be allergy-free so everyone can enjoy it?”
Have you heard that question before? The person asking means well. Depending on the context, there may even be a legitimate answer that meets the needs of a very specific group of people. The problem comes when the question is asked in a more general context. Why? Because you’ll be hard pressed to find many foods that are truly and completely allergen free.
Let’s back up a moment and revisit a few basic food allergy facts.
Top 8 9 Allergens
In the United States, the majority of food-related allergic reactions are triggered by nine foods. Yes, you read that right. Nine foods. Historically we’ve talked about the “Top 8” or “Big 8” food allergens and those have remained consistent on the list: egg, milk, soy, peanut, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, and wheat. However, researchers have noted a significant increase in allergic reactions triggered by sesame, and as such, there’s been a movement in the allergy community advocating to have sesame added to the list of foods covered by FALCPA, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act. (Note: if you want to join in the efforts and advocate for this change, FARE is a good place to find more information on the subject.)
But Wait, There’s More!
Yes, most allergic reactions can be traced back to the nine foods listed above. However, according to research shared by FARE, more than 170 different foods have been reported as causing allergic reactions. Sunflower seed allergies may be more rare than peanut allergies, but there are reported reactions to sunflower. Apples may not be included in the list of top 9 allergens, but some folks are allergic to them.
And Here’s Why It Matters
It’s almost an understatement to say “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are a popular candy.” Many consider the combination of peanut butter and chocolate downright heavenly. It’s certainly not something individuals with a peanut allergy can attest to. However, some peanut allergic folks can enjoy a closely replicated experience with sunflower butter cups (store bought or homemade!). Unless, of course, they happen to be one of those folks that also has a sunflower seed allergy.
Likewise, applesauce is considered a reasonable substitute for egg when baking. It can give egg-allergic individuals the option to enjoy adapted recipes. Unless, of course, that person also happens to be allergic to apples.
When we make the assumption that avoiding the top 9 is enough to be “allergy-free” we exclude – or worse, put in danger – a host of individuals who have allergies outside the major allergens.
Allergy-Friendly, not Allergy-Free
Words matter. If you’ve avoided the top 9 in creating a special dish, and you took precautions to mitigate the risk of cross contamination in your kitchen, saying you’ve prepared an “allergy-friendly” dish is a reasonable statement. You put in effort to create something the majority of allergic folks can safely enjoy because you’ve avoided the foods responsible for triggering most of the reported reactions.
Hopefully it also means that you’re aware of more than simply avoiding a few prime ingredients to keep your guests safe. You washed your hands, your cooking tools, and your work surfaces before prepping the food to reduce the risk of incorporating trace bits of allergens from other dishes that may have been used before. You’re careful about storing and serving the food in a way that doesn’t put it in contact with other dishes that may contain allergens.
You’re educated enough to know that there could still be an ingredient that may not be safe for someone. You will, however, be able to share the list of ingredients with your guests so they can a make a decision on whether or not it’s safe for them.
Don’t Assume. Ask.
If you have food allergies or you care for someone that does, remember that not everyone is food-allergy-savvy enough to recognize the difference in terminology or the risk of cross contamination. Just because someone says a dish is “allergy-friendly,” doesn’t mean you should take their word for it. Ask questions. Ask if your specific allergies are included in the recipe, even if you’re just avoiding something in the top 9. Ask questions that help you discern if something may have come in contact with your allergens during the prep or storage process. For example, were those homemade French fries cooked in the same oil as the homemade cheese sticks? If so, it may not be safe for the milk-allergic folks in your life.
Allergy-friendly food is awesome. More important, however, are allergy-friendly people. Friends and family that are allergy-friendly won’t mind your list of questions. In fact, they’ll welcome those questions. They want to keep you and/or your allergic loved ones safe, and they recognize that your security includes the line of questioning.