Once upon a time many years ago, I was cadging a ride home from a friend after a week-long vacation with a number of mutual friends. It was a long drive, and the day was hot, so I thought to do something nice to sustain us on our journey and brought along some frozen chocolate bars to consume on the ride. When I indicated to my friend that I had brought these for us to share, he exclaimed, “Oh no, please don’t open that in here…!” Perplexed, I asked him why. “Because my daughter has a severe peanut allergy,” he replied (it was a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup). “If you open that up in my car, there’s a chance airborne particles could stay in my car, embedded in the upholstery, until the next time she rides with me, and she may die from anaphylactic shock…”
I had never heard of such a thing before! To be sickened to the point of death by the merest trace of an allergen was foreign to me, and quite disturbing to my young mind.
Needless to say, I put the chocolate bars away.
What exactly is an allergy, anyway?
As many of us know, an allergy to a food or scent is more than just a dislike, and it’s far more serious than an intolerance. According to a study released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food allergies among children increased approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011. Reports of allergic reactions by children to particular food substances appear to be on the rise these days. In fact, the CDC reported that food allergies result in more than 300,000 ambulatory-care visits a year among children under the age of 18. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (www.acaai.org), food allergy is the leading cause of anaphylaxis outside the hospital setting.
Allergic responses can range from mild (such as an itchy mouth or tongue) to moderate (such as mild swelling and intense itchiness of the extremities) to severe reactions (such as anaphylactic shock). Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening allergic reaction that can happen within moments of exposure to the allergen. During anaphylaxis the body releases histamine, which effects the body in a number of ways, most notably, a swelling of the airways. Other symptoms may include: difficulty breathing or swallowing, hives, colic, cramps, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and dizziness.
Some are lucky enough to have very minimal reactions. Others just try to minimize their exposure to the allergen, and don’t usually have to worry about cross-contamination. Some sufferers have to avoid the allergen altogether, and anything processed on shared equipment or in the same facility. And, finally, a select few with the most severe reactions can’t even be in the same environment as their allergen — as was the case with my friend’s daughter — without serious consequences.
As you can see, severe allergies are not something to be taken lightly. And when it comes to allergies to peanuts and tree nuts (peanuts are classified as a legume, which is why they are a separate class from tree nuts), it can be especially tricky, as nuts and their by-products are hidden in many foods and daily use items. For example, HERE is a list of several standard and non-standard sources of peanuts (©Dietitians of Canada).
Is there a cure?
Short answer: no, there isn’t. In fact, repeated exposures to the allergen will often cause faster and more serious reactions each time. The only “cure”, unfortunately, is strict avoidance of those foods that set off the allergic response, and being your own advocate for your health.
This means making a concerted effort, along with your family doctor, to recognize your triggers, and then a lifetime of allergic reaction management, from requesting ingredient lists of menu items from restaurant servers, to avoidance of places and people who are well-known “nut allergen disseminators” (think casual eating establishments with bags of peanuts at the front door *coughJACK ASTORScough*), and most importantly, carrying an epi-pen with you wherever you go — and ensuring you and your loved ones know what to do with it if the worst comes to pass and you are experiencing an anaphylactic reaction due to inadvertent exposure.
What can I use in place of nuts in recipes?
Happily, there are a bunch of yummy substitutions for nuts in recipes, both sweet and savoury! And who knows; you may find that you prefer the substitutions more than the original ingredients! Here are ten substitutions/replacements below; try them out and see what appeals most to you.
- Seeds – roasted and hulled pumpkin and sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, hemp hearts, and even chia seeds make a great replacement for nuts in granola bars and breads.
- Beans – roasted soy beans, peas or chickpeas (garbanzo beans) can be great substitutions. You can easily roast beans in your oven to make a crunchy, protein-filled snack. Roasted beans are also a nice replacement for nuts in salads. Spiced and roasted chickpeas are a great “nut bowl” snack.
- Pretzels – You can replace nuts with crushed pretzels in many different types of recipes, such as in pie crusts, on top of casseroles, and coatings for chicken or pork chops. You can also use them to make an economical “pecan-less” pie (click HERE for link to recipe).
- Bread – Instead of a using slivered almonds or another nut topping on a casserole, try using fresh bread cubes or dried bread crumbs, seasoned or unseasoned (depending on the recipe).
- Chips – casserole toppings are also awesome with crushed potato or tortilla chips, and even bbq fritos would be amazing! Just be sure to adjust any salt in the main dish to compensate for the extra salty layer on top. Crushed plain low-sodium potato chips would also be delicious on several desserts that could benefit from a slightly salty top crust, such as fruit pies with crumble toppings, embedded in chocolate bark, or as an ice cream topping (seriously, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!)
- Streusel – try a streusel topping instead of nuts on a dessert: Recipe from Food Allergy Feast HERE.
- Oatmeal – another delicious dessert topping is oatmeal crumble topping. Food Allergy Feast has a great and simple recipe you can view HERE.
- Dried Fruit and/or Chocolate Chips – Instead of using nuts as add-ins in cookie recipes, use white, milk, or dark chocolate chips, dried cranberries, raisins, or other dried fruit.
- Cereal – rice cereals (such as Rice Krispies) make an odd but pretty good substitution for nuts in many baking recipes, as do many other nut-free granolas or oat cereals (see recipe from Food.com HERE).
- Seed Butter – there are a fair number of commercially made seed butters these days, such as sunflower, pumpkin, flax, sesame (AKA tahini – see the recipe from The Kitchn HERE), and hemp seed butters. Try Sunbutter (sunflower seed butter) instead of peanut butter in a Thai recipe or in a dessert; Sunbutter is very similar to peanut butter in taste and texture, and it seems to work well in most cooking recipes.
- Other Spreads – there is a great peanut-free spread called WowButter that has great reviews, and several types of coconut butters (recipe from The Kitchn HERE). And then there is the awesomeness known as Biscoff spread, which is European cookie butter. Hey now, don’t judge…it may not be health food, but OMG just TRY THIS DELICIOUS STUFF!
Many thanks to the following websites and blogs: