Friday, November 22, 2013

Nut-Free Baking: Info You Need to Know

That delicious-looking dessert may not be safe for someone with severe food allergies.  
Holiday baking time is upon us once again and that's OK with me, for the most part. As readers of this blog know, I am no stranger to baking, so bring it on!

But first, let's talk about baking for food-allergic people when you are not dealing with food allergies in your home. As I always do at this time of year, I've received several questions from friends and relatives of allergic people who would like to make a safe and nut-free baked creation, or who have been called upon to do so for the purposes of a holiday meal.

Before I get into substitutions for peanuts/tree nuts in recipes or what brand of food coloring to use, this is the first suggestion I always have for anyone with this question:

Talk to the allergic person's family (or to them directly, if they are old enough). They may not feel comfortable serving any baked goods not produced in their own nut-free (or dairy-free, or egg-free, etc.) kitchen. So, please ask them. They'll be happy to talk to you and grateful for your interest, I can almost guarantee.

Cross-Contact of Foods -- The Raw Chicken Analogy

If you are a household who uses a lot of whatever the allergic person is allergic to, cross-contact, also known as cross-contamination, can occur.

I know -- cross-contamination. Gross. That term sounds like we think you don't have a clean kitchen. Rest assured, the problem is not cleanliness, but rather the entire process of baking to make something safe for allergies is completely different from what you are probably used to.

The kitchens of people dealing with life-threatening food allergies are often free from the allergen completely, and that's to avoid the possibility of a trace amount of this allergen getting into the food. If not free from the allergen, we are keeping everything separate and even using different utensils, pans, cleaning gear -- the list is nearly endless. This is something that may have taken us months or years to learn how to do properly so I for one don't expect others to "get" it immediately.

Sadly, cross-contact with allergens can happen easily--too easily. The environment in which food is prepared is just as important as ingredients. So is the placement of the items once baked. Take a "nut-free" cookie baked in a "nut-free" facility and then put it on a bakery display next to hazelnut cake and peanut butter cups. Now the "nut-free" cookie is unsafe due to possible cross-contact.

Bake a plain vanilla cake in a small kitchen that just produced a peanut butter cupcake. The plain vanilla cake may be harboring peanut matter and is not "safe" for those with a nut allergy.

Cross-contact is the reason for food labels that say "may contain peanuts." It’s the reason for companies choosing to create and label foods "made in a nut-free facility." Cross-contact presents a real risk and ought not to be downplayed.

I've heard Chef Ming Tsai talk about his food allergy-friendly restaurant
Blue Ginger and how he tells his chefs to treat any food allergens like they are "raw chicken." When dealing with raw chicken you change cutting boards and utensils and wash your hands frequently or risk salmonella. I think the Raw Chicken Analogy is as good as any I've ever heard. After all, everyone accepts that raw chicken can contaminate otherwise safe foods. The same goes for allergens--one slip up, the allergen is in the food and it is no longer safe for an allergic person to eat. And you -- or they -- might not even know it's in the food.

Can You Bake Safely for a Severely Allergic Person?

Obviously, this is a very individual answer and you will have to evaluate your personal situation. In general, though, this is not something you can do on the spur of the moment if you have a kitchen containing a lot of a particular food allergen. A "wash-down" may not do the trick.

It helps to think of food labels when you evaluate whether or not you want to take on "nut-free" baking in a kitchen that uses nut ingredients. You've probably seen a food label that says "processed on equipment that also manufacturers peanuts and tree nuts." People with severe nut allergies are advised by their doctors to avoid foods that are labeled this way, in order to avoid trace amounts of an allergen.

If you use peanut butter and other nut products like tree nuts, then your kitchen products would be labeled: "Processed on equipment that also processes peanuts and tree nuts." Companies label this way even if they do wash their equipment -- because human error is always a factor. Allergic people need to avoid these types of items from store bought foods, so of course the same holds true for homemade.

An exception would be that you are a close friend or family member of the allergic person, you are very used to dealing with it and your other family members are on board with keeping the kitchen area pristine during the process. This is not to say that you can't teach people how to bake and cook allergen-free, but it does take some planning, preparation and understanding of food allergens. If you want to do this and you are not that aware of how to go about it, I suggest talking to the person familiar with the allergy and going over the process with them, step by step. For example, I know that many of us have family who have learned to bake nut-free an cross-contact -free, so kudos to them.

Due to necessity, I trust very few individuals to produce nut-free food and that's not because I don't honor their good intentions, but rather, it's an issue of cross-contact risk.  If people refuse to eat something you've prepared for allergy reasons or to serve it to an allergic person, please don't take it personally. It's not about you, it's about health and staying out of harm's way. My e-book speaks to the issue of cross-contact and kitchen safety with regard to nut allergies, if you're interested in learning more.

If You Are the One with Allergies in the House

Maybe, to be able to guarantee your child a safe treat, you prefer to handle the baking. I've got several links for you to help you find some good ingredients and methods. Plus, check my Pinterest boards. I've been adding to the nut-free recipes under "Thanksgiving Foods", "Christmas Sweets (Nut-Free)" and "Holidays and Food Allergies." Plus, I just have a ton of recipes on my boards in general, so check them out. You can go directly to my Pinterest page by clicking on the "Pinterest button" to the right of this post. You can also find recipes on this blog by using the "search" tool in the upper right hand side of the blog. Use key word "recipe" to see what I've got posted here.

Please note: for any ingredients mentioned here, please ALWAYS check the labels. This is what I do, and I do stay on top of this as best I can, but things can change. Always check the label and if you want more information, call the company. What you use should always be up to your specific allergies (I deal with peanut/tree nut only) and your own comfort level. Thanks!

Now for the baking links from this blog:

Info about Libby's canned pumpkin and Carnation Milk (two seasonal favorites).

The Nut-Free Home Baker (this article features some of my favorite baking resources).

Vanilla Extract Questions: Answered

Thank you to everyone who is concerned about baking nut-free for their family or friends! For all of us who are doing a lot of the baking on our own to ensure safety, remember:

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Thanksgiving and Food Allergies: Let's Dish

You know what I'm talkin' about....
Regular readers of this blog know that I choose a positive approach to managing life-threatening food allergies. Personally, I think it's the best way to manage life's challenges. We can only be upset about the changes and restrictions for so long before we have to move on and live. I have written several posts about managing life-threatening nut allergies at Thanksgiving (I'll list those in a minute) and I firmly believe that in most cases you can make this holiday safe and fun for all.

That being said: I don't know of any other holiday that strikes more fear into my heart when I'm not the one preparing the meal. You'd think I'd be used to it by now, but  Thanksgiving season is arguably the most "nutty" time of year and I don't mean the long lines at the grocery store and erratic drivers on the road.

No, I'm talking about tree nuts and peanuts being pretty much everywhere. Even if they are not an actual ingredient, so many of the seasonal packaged foods that come out this time of year have a cross-contact allergy warning on the label. Snacks, pretzels, stuffing, Williams-Sonoma gravy base (I LOVED that stuff, so that one still burns me), pumpkin bread mix, pies, candy, cookies, baking ingredients: the list is endless.

Then there are the bowls of mixed nuts that are a holiday tradition at so many homes. Hey, I get it. Before life with tree nut allergies, I would partake. But nowadays, seeing the anaphylaxis I've seen and knowing what a I know about cross-contact, I'd rather see a live snake on the snack table.

Special, chosen diets are another issue that is cropping up more in recent years. Many of us have family members or friends that have taken on a chosen diet (and please, I'm not talking about a medically-recommended one) that they approach with near-religious fervor. Trying to explain that you haven't chosen your allergy-restricted diet but, instead, it has chosen YOU, is an often headache-inducing discussion. Unfortunately, many of the new trendy diets these days are nut-centric, often prompting a discussion about whose dietary needs are more important or valid. Good times.

When It's Not About the Nuts

Every year around Thanksgiving I get blog comments and e-mails from family members of people with nut allergies or other allergies who want me to settle their family disputes. I'm flattered to be asked, but to paraphrase one of my favorite lines from a classic Thanksgiving movie: "How can I settle your family dispute? I can't even figure out how to use the can opener!"

Food is very emotional and traditional. My husband and I both come from a long line of people who love to cook, bake and eat and who have very strong food traditions. I understand that tradition is important but I also believe that you can maintain your traditions and still have a family meal together. How you work this out may be individual to your family.

One question I get a lot is: should every single thing on the table be "safe" for the allergic person? The answer is: it varies. I can't tell you that because I don't know your specific situation. But some questions to consider are: Is the child very young and doesn't know not to eat something? Is the parent of the allergic child able to provide some food to share (this is my favorite approach). Does eliminating this food throw off the meal completely for everyone else or can the menu be adapted with relative ease by the cook or cooks? Does the host/cook even know how to make an "allergy-safe" meal? As you can see, you have to consider what you're dealing with personally.

Even if you can get people to agree on not serving a certain food or using a certain ingredient you may be interpreted as someone who simply needs to be humored. That's frustrating because it's so not true.  I don't know many people who relish the role of being spokesperson for food allergies at every holiday meal, me included. It just goes with the territory and maybe if I'm lucky, someone will listen and think differently. Or maybe not. That I can't control.

We don't choose the food restrictions for our children. The medical condition -- that is, a life-threatening, diagnosed allergy -- dictates what is safe for a child to eat. I follow our doctor's orders. Here's my "choice:" avoid a food or traces of it, or wind up in the ER or worse. When thought of that way, it's a no-brainer that I'm going to have to try and figure out what's going into the food. If I can't determine it, we avoid it.

On the flipside, I know everybody looks forward to the traditional Thanksgiving feast. I do, too. Sometimes we have to work around things and sometimes people have to work around us. It can be done, provided you can talk about it.

Working It Out

Finding a solution is going to be different for everyone. Your child may be allergic to one thing; they may be allergic to 12 things. So obviously, that will dictate some of your approach.

Here are some past posts where I talk about solutions for dealing with food allergies at Thanksgiving.

Nut Allergies at Thanksgiving

Food Allergy and Family Meals

Food Allergies and America's Ultimate Food Fest

Since I've been hearing from many readers lately about family and food allergy strife with regard to the holidays, I felt the need to vent a bit. However, I've also been very encouraged by stories from readers as well as the people in my own life who do their best to help us out during a very stressful time of year for our family.

We're all doing our best, so let's remember that. Work together if at all possible and be thankful for the gift of food and the blessings of family.

For more on talking to family members about food allergies and dealing with life in general with regard to nut allergy management, check out my e-book, "The New Nut-Free Mom: A Crash Course in Caring for Your Nut-Allergic Child."

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