Afraid your food allergies will make plant-based eating impossible? Fear not! There are plenty of ways to enjoy this way of eating without wheat, gluten, soy or nuts.
Food allergies, intolerances and sensitivities may often feel pretty limiting. If you then decide to adopt a whole food plant-based diet - removing all animal products, oils and processed foods - it may seem as though there is very little left on offer! But don't let allergies deter you (or others) from following the path to good health. Fortunately for allergy sufferers, the plant-food kingdom is expansive and diverse. This means that you you can still enjoy a nutritious, varied diet even when avoiding wheat, gluten, soy or nuts.
Whether you have a food allergy yourself, or are preparing food for someone who does, it's important to understand which foods are and aren't suitable. Always check food labels for allergens on the ingredient list. Many common allergens - including dairy, eggs and shellfish - are already eliminated in a plant-based diet. However, if any of these allergies are a concern, you will still need to check product packaging for traces of the item(s), as even tiny amounts can trigger a reaction in someone with severe allergies. Within the plant-food realm, common allergens include wheat, gluten, soy and nuts. I'll discuss each of these in more detail below.
WHEAT AND GLUTEN
Wheat and gluten intolerances are characterised by digestive disturbances. These can range from mild discomfort and gassiness in those who are sensitive, to severe pain and gastrointestinal damage in those suffering from celiac disease. Those allergic to gluten need to avoid wheat, spelt, barley, rye, and often oats, and should also become avid label readers. Breads of all kinds, pastas, cereals and baked goods are obvious sources, but things like packaged soups and condiments (most notably soy sauce) frequently contain wheat or gluten as well. While most ingredients lists and labels clearly state whether the product contains wheat and / or gluten, it's generally a good idea to double check the ingredients list (or in the case of celiac disease, call the manufacturer to confirm). For a full list of gluten containing foods and ingredients, you can visit this web page.
While celiac disease is growing in prevalence, so too is the popularity of gluten-free diets, and trend of "self-diagnosed" gluten allergies. Many people remove gluten from their diets altogether, experience improved digestion and mental clarity, and as a result point to gluten as the culprit. While it may be the cause in some instances, what many people do not realise is that they have simply cut a significant proportion of the junk and processed foods from their diet, and are feeling better as a result. It's important to understand the difference! Wheat and gluten allergies are serious business, and you should undergo allergy testing if you believe you are suffering from either of these.
When following a whole foods plant-based diet, there are plenty of fantastic gluten-free options to choose from. Grains such as brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa, millet and cornmeal are all suitable, as well as all legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, tofu/tempeh, and most plant-based milks (almond, soy, rice, etc.) You can also use gluten-free whole grain flours when baking. Our recipe section contains plenty of gluten-free meals and snacks, which are clearly labeled so they're easy to find.
(When purchasing naturally gluten-free foods for highly sensitive individuals, always check packaging in case cross-contamination with wheat has occurred during processing.)
Visit the Gluten Free recipe section for meal ideas.
Those with soy allergies are often concerned they would be unable to follow a plant-based diet. Not so! A whole food plant-based diet tends to place less emphasis on soy and soy products, and more on obtaining protein from a variety of legumes, grains, and leafy green vegetables.
When it comes to soy allergies and plant-based eating, the main difficulty is not avoiding tofu and soy milk - it's avoiding foods that contain soy compounds and derivatives. The majority of packaged foods, including breads and condiments, contain some form of soy. Fortunately, most products that contain any amount of soy are clearly labeled as such. However, it's important to familiarise yourself with the names of all soy-derived ingredients, so that you can double check. Learn to read food labels, and avoid all products that contain soy in any of its various forms including flours, oils, concentrates and isolates, as well as hydrolyzed or textured vegetable proteins.
The key with soy allergies is to choose meals that are centered on whole legumes, grains, and starchy vegetables, with soy-free seasonings for flavour. When it comes to replacing common soy-based ingredients in your diet, there are several alternatives that you can try:
Soy Milk: Loads of dairy-free alternatives to soy milk are now available, including almond, rice, oat and hazelnut milks. Try different varieties and brands to see which ones you like best.
Tofu: For stir-fries and curries that have tofu added, you can simply choose to omit the tofu, or replace it with a legume such as chickpeas. While tofu scramble may be off the table, there are other faux-egg dishes you can try that are made using chickpea flour. These chickpea flour omelettes from Fat Free Vegan are a great place to start!
Silken Tofu: If a sauce or dessert recipe calls for silken tofu, you can (depending on the recipe) substitute creamed cashews. To make the equivalent of 1/2 a cup of silken tofu, soak 1/3 cup of raw cashews overnight. Drain and rinse the cashews, then place them in a blender with enough water to barely cover them. Blend until smooth, and use as required.
Soy Sauce: If you're looking for a soy-free alternative to regular soy sauce, you can try coconut aminos. It can be difficult to find in stores, but if you're in the US, you can order it online here. It definitely isn't as economical as regular soy sauce, but you may feel it's worth it for special occasions, such as making veggie sushi.
Miso Paste: If you're searching for a soy-free miso paste, The South River Miso Company make Organic Adzuki Bean and Organic Chickpea miso pastes. They are not a low-sodium option, however, so it's best to use them in small quantities.
Visit the Soy-Free recipe section for meal ideas.
Peanut and other nut allergies are incredibly serious, with many people suffering severe or life-threatening reactions after simply coming into contact with them. The good news is that it's fairly easy to follow a plant-based diet that doesn't include any nuts. Most of the recipes on PlantPlate do not use nuts, but when you're shopping for ingredients, always check product packaging for information regarding cross-contamination. Products manufactured in facilities that use nuts can contain trace amounts, which is enough to trigger a response in the majority of nut allergy sufferers.
When it comes to replacing nuts in recipes, seeds are a great option. Sunflower and pumpkin kernels work well in place of chopped almonds and hazelnuts, while toasted sesame seeds can be substituted for nuts in salads or stir-fries. Sunflower butter works excellently as a substitute for peanut butter, and can be used without significantly altering the flavour of a recipe.
If seed allergies are also an issue, you may have to simply omit nuts and seeds from recipes, or figure out a textural equivalent that will work for what you're making. Toasted oats, brown rice crispies, or freeze-dried fruits are all great options for baked goods. If a savoury recipe calls for a sprinkling of toasted nuts or seeds, try using crushed dry roasted soy nuts instead.
Article photo courtesy of Daniella Segura via Flickr