I’ve been thinking a lot about oil lately. Cooking oils, baking oils, popcorn-spraying oils; it’s become a bit of an obsession for me in 2017.
Before heart surgery, I gave this part of my diet only a bit of thought. It wasn’t bad, wasn’t perfect. I aimed then, and still aim today, for everything in moderation. Even that chocolate, cream-filled donut.
My surgery was to replace a valve—faulty since day 1, not to clean out fat-clogged arteries from diet or genes. But, high cholesterol runs in my family and I’m feeling especially motivated to not have my chest cracked open again if diet changes can prevent it.
So, oils. If you’re dairy free, you probably already use plant sterols and liquid oils instead of butter, lard, or solid margarines. Pat yourself on the back for heart health there, too.
But there’s not just one oil replacement for butter. In fact, choosing oils to use in dairy-free, heart-healthy cooking leads you down a deep, deep rabbit hole. Let’s get a little sciencey and explore some oil options that offer function, taste, and food allergy/heart health.
First, heart health. All oils have some good, some less good types of fats. Our body needs good fats to protect nerves, strengthen eyes and bones, maintain clotting ability and brain power, and store energy. This lovely infographic sums up oil choices and explains why unsaturated oils, tablespoon for tablespoon, are artery savers.
Second, food allergy and overall food safety. Obviously, avoid any oils made from your allergens. Also consider how heavily the oil is processed. Some users may have strong preferences about seed oil extraction methods, for example. Watch carefully for actual ingredients in generically named vegetable oils, too. These products might have a good combination of unsaturated options, but they also could mix in saturated fats at unknown proportions.
Third, function: solid state, smoke point, and taste are big deciding factors here. Reserve semi-solid products, like tropical oils, for when they are most useful, like in a no-bake that would fall apart with a softer, liquid oil. As a general rule, liquid oils with high smoke points, like sesame or soybean oils, handle temperatures for stir fry and high-heat cooking better. Oils with strong tastes, like nutty avocado oil, might only be appropriate in some dishes.
And the biggest decider, at least in our house until this year: taste. We have, as a family, spent lunch times in olive oil tasting stores, and we all have our favorites. No sense using an oil for health if its taste makes you cringe. Lucky for us, all olive oils have the same fat content, regardless of taste.
Our all-around standards are olive oil for sauteing, for salads and popcorn, and for anything else savory; flavorless canola oil for most baking; coconut oil sparingly for no-bakes; partially hydrogenated solid plant sterols for solid creamed treats like frosting; and a surprise new winner to try, corn oil, which can be healthier than I ever imagined.
But we’re breaking out. Recently I tried expeller-free avocado oil on our baked tortilla and air-popped popcorn. It’s a start.
What are your favorites and why? Do you measure your fats or choose for taste alone?
Did you know that one of our most common pantry items today came about because of an allergy in the 1800s? (There goes the "nobody had allergies in my day" argument.)
Baking powder, an improvement on the baking soda of the day, was developed by British chemist Alfred Bird in 1843 so that his wife, who was allergic to eggs and yeast, could bake.
Have you heard of yeast allergies? An immune reaction to yeast is a real thing, although it's also true that people can be sensitive to live yeast for other reasons and still able to eat leavened baked goods.
Baking powder has a long, storied history of development across continents, and baking soda has been around in our foods since ancient times. But what are baking soda and baking powder, anyway, and why are they so useful? Do they have downsides? How do they work, and when should we use them?
I think that, with the movements toward whole foods and locally grown foods (both good ideas in their own rights), we sometimes overlook the importance of older food science discoveries, especially if they don't sound fresh or healthy. Like so many advances in health, and even in today's medicines, the root source of baking soda and powder comes straight from plants and the environment, though, usually as a result of a problem that needed solved. (Sounds less chemical-y and scary already, huh?)
In the cases of baking soda and powder, it just took a couple of curious scientists to take a single ingredient---sodium bicarbonate---and standardize it for posterity.
Both baking soda and baking powder are called chemical leaveners, not because they are originally from labs but because they add bubbles and air to baked goods by mixing acids with bases (a chemical reaction) to release carbon dioxide. This gives quite the same result as live yeast, which releases carbon dioxide when it "eats" sugar.
Baking soda (pure sodium bicarbonate) derives from natron (only 17% sodium bicarb), used by Egyptians and other civilizations to cook, clean, and deodorize. Identified by Nicolas LeBlanc during the start of the chemical industry era in the 1790s, baking soda was mixed with sour milk throughout the 1830s to bake breads and was standardized in 1846 by Arm and Hammer. By the 1970s, Arm and Hammer's baking soda was marketed as the eco-friendly cleaner to help kick off the first Earth Day celebration.
When baking powder came about in 1843, it was quickly sent overseas by the British War Department to help feed troops. Baking powder carried a crucial advantage over baking soda in one way: it contained an acid in the powder already, so it could be used in recipes without acidic ingredients like vinegar. In this way, baking powder guaranteed an even rise, too. In addition to sodium bicarbonate, baking powder has always contained a powdered acid like cream of tartar and a moisture absorber like cornstarch (to prevent a reaction until mixed into a recipe). After more than a century of experimentation, today's shelf-stable, double-acting baking powder adds carbon dioxide in the bowl and in the oven, often with calcium phosphate as the acid.
In our food allergy recipes, baking soda and powder are essential safe ingredients, not just for my daughter's egg-free benefit but also because I developed a reaction to live yeast (which I learned the hard way, during weekly bread-baking excursions). Now, even our sliced bread and pizza dough recipes rely on these "invented" pantry leaveners. I gave up making my Gram's thick-crust Hot-Roll-Mix pizza dough recipe when my youngest with a robust dairy allergy was born, and I never stopped missing it. I also never imagined that I'd be able to replace it without yeast.
I've always been a fan of quick breads, the kind made without yeast or rise times or kneading, and usually involving a sweet fruit or savory squash. My mom used to make batches of these breads by the dozens, and it was the go-to snack and holiday or just-because gift in my house growing up. But it stretched my mind to use anything but yeast for "real" bread (not counting thick, dense, and lovely Irish soda bread, here, because it's so distinct).
But biscuits and cobblers don't use yeast, and they are light and fluffy. And I missed making my own pizza and focaccia dough at home terribly. If baking powder could work for a baker in the 1800s, certainly I had to at least try.
I'm still experimenting with just the right quantities to get a non-biscuity, Southern-Italian--style pizza crust: thick like Chicago style but airy and not heavy. It's coming along...and my family is eating a lot of middling pizzas! So far, I've tried different types of baking powder, too, to see if the tastes differ.
Meanwhile, I've learned a thing or two more about leaveners.
What about downsides? While, sometimes leaveners are a bad idea. I got an awesome set of cookie stamps for my birthday and was finally able to try them out. I almost never have the patience to roll out cookie dough, collect the excess, roll again, repeat. But I tried a rollout Christmas cookie recipe without peppermints for Valentine's day. The cookies tasted great, held together, all good. Except that, as they baked, they rose and the imprint (Eat Me) erased, sometimes completely. Not an epic fail, but not worth all of that effort, either. I headed online for some research answers and found a duh-moment answer immediately: no baking powder. Naturally, ingredients to help a cookie rise aren't what I need here. So I'm heading back to the recipe grid drawing board with this one, too.
By Easter, maybe I'll have a cookie recipe and some pizza perfection, thanks to (or despite) my pantry leaveners.
Do you or your food-allergic kids have ingredients that you always avoided but that turned out to be safe after all---either because the allergy was "outgrown" or for another reason?
My oldest is allergic to pine nuts, which we suspected at age 2 and confirmed (accidentally!) at age 10. It's my youngest who is allergic to nearly the full gamut. We spent 8 years avoiding, among other things, all tree nuts, as did a few of her friends with food allergies. But, at her last skin-test check-up, the allergist tested tree nuts individually instead of as a group, and she had no allergic reaction to almonds or walnuts. Then, one of her friends who also had an almond allergy was declared safe for the same nuts, too!
I don't always love health coincidences, so I started wondering more about these individual almond allergy tests. It turns out that other food allergy families have gone through similar almond challenges...and that almonds aren't actually a tree nut after all. They're drupes.
I promise it's not a made-up word, it's a real fruit. Since I'm a word and plant-based medicinal chemistry geek, I do love the funny ways science distinguishes types of food. It's not really the same as regular ways, like how we eat the food or even what it looks like. In science terms, the almond is part of the plum family, just like apricots, peaches, and even cherries. Yes, almonds are hard and grow on trees; however, the almond is really the seed of a fleshy fruit---a drupe. Unlike peaches and those other examples, we eat the oily seed instead of the juicy fruit.
So what is a tree nut then? Cashews, pecans, acorns, and the like are true tree nuts. These foods have no flesh; they are hard-shell fruits, commonly called tree nuts. Their seeds are inside the shell, but that shell never opens to release them. Still yummy, but scientifically different from an almond for sure.
For my daughter, it turned out that walnuts don't cause her anaphylaxis, but they still aren't a safe food...that wasn't a fun challenge. Almonds, though---it's been so nice to add a bit of crunchy protein into our house again, for all of us. We don't even have a threshold; they're just safe. That's not the case for everyone who's cleared of a food allergy, and our doctors have suggested that it's wise to keep a somewhat steady exposure to almonds...just in case.
Almonds are so good for you in small quantities, too. They are high-fiber foods, and raw almonds have no sodium or cholesterol. Almonds are filled with calcium and iron that our bodies need. Even the fat (there's a good amount of that) is mostly the healthier monounsaturated kind.
But eating almonds regularly is not necessarily an easy thing to remember every week. They get a little boring all by themselves. There's also a healthy level of anxiety when we haven't had them on hand for awhile and it feels like we're trying a new food all over again. So I'm trying to get creative about putting almonds in things, from snack mixes to salads. So far, I have sugared them (so much for healthy?) successfully and am working on a couple of biscotti variations, coming soon I hope!
Our city paper has a weekly column that busts five common opinions about a topic in the news that week. Sometimes they are really out there, and sometimes they're just fun. The concept got me thinking about how much people don't know about allergies, too.
I get a lot of questions about the safety precautions we and our school follow to lower the risk of cross-contamination of foods in my daughter's world. I think these questions are about often-misunderstood concepts that, when explained well, can change a non-allergic person's perspective about food allergies pretty quickly. Sometimes, it's those "aha" moments that gain food allergy kids new advocates.
It's easy, as a protective parent or as a food-allergic school kid, to become wordy or sound defensive when people ask about allergy safety. This is especially true when the precautions have worked so well that almost no one remembers seeing a serious reaction.
I like to remind myself---a lot---that most people are asking about safety efforts because they want to help or understand it better, not because they are feeling put out. It's also good to remember that most people you meet don't have the same concerns, necessarily, but they make adjustments every day for something that is a basic part of their own lives---whether that is timing a commute to have family breakfast, working part-time because of a shoulder injury, or something else that is a normal part of their routine but that can seem foreign to you. As usual, kindness and information go a long way in keeping everyone happy and safe.
So, here are my five myths about food allergy reactions and precautions, in no particular order:
1. Hand sanitizer or water is enough to remove unseen allergens from skin.
This is a teeny peeve of mine, because my daughter has reacted violently to unseen dairy or peanut butter on lips, hands, tables, and more. The food particles remain behind even if hands look clean, and no amount of water alone will remove all of them. Likewise, the goal of sanitizer is to remove bacteria and other germs---not food particles or substantive stuff like dirt. Sanitizer is probably worse, in fact, because people don't wipe their hands on anything else afterward, so they really just rub any remaining food proteins into the hands all over again. Please use soap and water.
Research about food allergies has exploded recently, and it covers everything from prevention, treatment, and cures to where the risks lie. Dr. Wood, a noted allergist in Baltimore, conversed with the AAAAI about cleaning allergens off of hands after a study he conducted compared water, soap, sanitizer, and wipes. Only water and hand sanitizer were inadequate: allergen remained with either option. Wet Ones, baby wipes, and soap and water removed all detectable allergen. That seems pretty clear.
Short answer: Sanitizer and water might feel like good efforts, but they simply rub around particles on your hands. Research shows: hand wipes or soap actually dislodge and remove the proteins. Fewer germs, dirt, and allergens left behind.
2. Skin contact alone with a food allergen can lead to anaphylaxis.
You might wonder: Why bother with school protections to avoid skin contact with allergens? Skin contact doesn't affect breathing, right? Right. It makes sense that skin contact leads to hives and itchy skin, not shock.
A quick "what if?" is insightful here, though. What if that food-allergic kid rubs the skin that has the allergen, gets peanut butter protein on his fingers, and then wiggles a loose tooth? Now, skin contact has introduced an allergen into the child's saliva, GI tract, and blood system, and anaphylaxis is a serious possibility.
Anaphylaxis is a tricky concept to understand, especially for people who have not seen or experienced it (I wouldn't recommend either, by the way). It involves a multi-system over-reaction that, without emergency treatment, can quickly start shutting down organ systems. The lung, skin, stomach, and blood vessels overreact in a matter of minutes to stop breathing, swell up tissues, and cause vomiting. Confusion, dizziness, and weak pulse are symptoms of dangerous blood pressure changes.
Food allergy---especially to peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, milk, and eggs---is the most common cause of anaphylaxis and is most often fatal from the breathing problems and the severe drop in blood pressure. Anaphylaxis can occur immediately, hours later, or both; teens and people with asthma have higher risks of death.
So, short answer: Skin contact alone does NOT lead to anaphylaxis...but it certainly increases the likelihood of allergens getting into the mouth, so many parents of kids with food allergies worry just as much about skin contact as they do about accident ingestion from shared food.
3. Time is enough to remove unseen allergen particles from desks, cafeteria tables, or shared school supplies.
With the rise of peanut allergy diagnoses in school-aged kids, it's no wonder that parents and teachers worry about the potential for unseen peanut butter on shared items and areas. In 2013, researchers took a clear look at how long unseen peanut allergen remained on tables without cleaning and with different cleaning methods. Like with hand washing, water alone removed little to no peanut allergen from the surface. Active cleaning (more than a quick swipe) with products like Lysol or Clorox, or even dish soap, effectively removed all peanut allergen.
Most surprising, though: When the surface was not cleaned at all, peanut residue remained at its original level for 110 days. One hundred ten. Remember your kid's 100th day of school party? Beyond that long.
Short answer: Allergens don't just disappear. Please clean, well, with cleaner or soap. It's healthier all around, anyway.
4. Only peanut allergy is deadly.
So many people we meet are protective of our daughter specifically about peanut exposure. And I am grateful, because it means that they are trying, they understand the seriousness, and they are just plain kind. It's harder for people to understand that all of the top 8 food allergens (and any food allergen, like sesame, even if it doesn't make this US-based list) have the potential to cause anaphylaxis. Our bigger concern, in fact, is dairy exposure, because milk products seem to be everywhere when you're surrounded by kids. Just like peanut dust in the air can trigger reactions in some kids, milk proteins from steam can enter the air.
Short answer: Any food allergen has the potential to trigger anaphylaxis. Allergists are the best guide for understanding individual risks and reactions, and supportive friends or colleagues should follow the allergic person's lead on how dangerous a particular food might be.
5. Constant exposure "reverses" allergies in kids.
Food allergies may be on the rise, but there's so much great research out there about reversing this trend. The LEAP and LEAP-ON studies, in particular, are trying to change attitudes about and better understand the timing of giving peanuts to babies and kids.
It's hard to understand why some kids develop allergies and others in the same family just don't, or have other ones. The immune response is such a complex mix of genetics, environment, and other health conditions. LEAP and LEAP-ON support the concept that exposure---regularly, and even noncontinuously---before an allergy develops can teach the body tolerance sometimes, and that is a huge step.
But kids who already have food allergies aren't in this group...at least not yet. Exposure won't "cure" my child's allergies, and no parent likes to go down the "what if" road when it comes to decision making about their kids. We didn't restrict peanuts or tree nuts for either of our children according to age; one refused to eat anything but PB&Js as a toddler and the other headed to the ER after her first try. Who knows how that really comes about.
Short answer: We still don't know exactly what turns on or off our immune systems to cause allergic reactions. We do know that allergy development is highly individualized and that exposure after an allergy develops is still considered unsafe outside of controlled settings like doctor's offices.
If you are new to living with food allergies, whether they are your own, your child's, or a friend's, these probably are only a few of the questions rolling around your head. Check out the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology's food allergy information page for some great starter resources and tools.
And remember, from both perspectives, that kindness goes a long way in living with allergies and with each other.
What does baking or cooking from scratch mean to you? In the 21st century, many people count premarinated meats to grill or boxes of mashed potato flakes as essential to scratch cooking. Most families are just too busy to spend all day in the kitchen, prepping dinner before the lunch plates are emptied. Today, very few families are even home in time for that kind of traditional family dinner.
Those modern conveniences of boxed or nearly ready ingredients---often organic or non-GMO versions of what our parents used---are essential to feeding our families quickly at home. Food allergy families, though, don't always have the luxury of a boxed cake mix for a birthday party or a pre-seasoned brisket for the slow cooker. Just one unsafe ingredient, or directions that rely on a key food allergen, turns that quick prep for dinner into a disaster.
From what I've seen, that's when food allergy families try some different paths: relying on specialty convenience products, like the Cherrybrook Kitchen line of nut-free baking mixes, can be a good solution sometimes, for some families. Making one meal for the family without allergies and a separate meal using safe ingredients like powdered egg replacers can work for other families, especially if they're avoiding only one type of food. Our family has tried, and sometimes still falls back on, both of these options to get us through a busy day or a special event.
Most of the time, though, we try to make one meal or treat for our entire family, and we try not to bust our budget or our free time looking for an allergy-safe convenience option. We did find ourselves wasting time and money in the years just after diagnosis, and we were making an important family member feel second best at mealtimes. That's when we decided that recipes from scratch just couldn't be as scary as they seemed. First, we could pronounce all of the ingredients we put in. Second, we could lower the sugar or salt for family members who have other health problems when they visited us. Third, we could share a good laugh (or cry) when our first attempts were soggy messes that needed spoons instead of forks or that headed straight for the trash. This food allergy journey can have a bonding moment or two in a from-scratch kitchen.
Scratch ingredients can be surprisingly reassuring and easy to use. Here, some fresh apples, flour, and oats make up the main ingredients in a safe copycat of my mom's apple crisp.
With the help of some key food allergy resources, books like Cybele Pascal's The Allergen-Free Baker's Handbook, and a decent dose of inspiration from my own family's old recipes, we designed easy, fast, and affordable remakes that we'd like to share especially with new food allergy families. Using today's most common pantry ingredients and nothing more complicated than a wooden spoon and a bowl, we've found a way to bring the fun (and the mess) back into cooking and baking together, even within our typical busy-family schedule.
For example, making my grandmother's homemade cookies together was something that I never thought we'd do when my daughter was diagnosed with multiple severe food allergies. Seven years and one healthy, well-nourished child later, we've made those and so much more without any professional training or special tools. We'd love to help others reinvent their own family favorites so that they can have some fun in the kitchen again, even for just a few minutes each day.
If you're ready to try some quick scratch baking, check out our family favorite, Sweet Pumpkin Scones, on ETSY. Do you have a favorite family or convenience-food recipe that you'd like to remake without eggs, dairy, or other top allergens? Get in touch or leave a comment, and let the kitchen science experiments begin!
Eliminating eggs---while still trying to make homemade baked goods---might be our biggest food allergy kitchen challenge. We could certainly just buy allergy-safe specialty products, and we do that sometimes. We could buy vegan options at grocery stores and restaurants, and we do that sometimes too. But there is nothing like heating up the kitchen on a wintry day with cookies baking in your own oven!
A lot of web sites and cookbooks are available for people who don't or can't eat eggs, whether from allergies, an ethical stance, or another type of health problem, like high cholesterol. Egg replacement recommendations from these sources include boxed specialty powders, mashed up raw fruits, and an amazing array of suggestions in between. I love it when a fruit like pineapple or a vegetable like pumpkin adds enough moisture and bulk to make a favorite recipe by just eliminating the eggs.
Usually, though---especially when eggs are used to leaven, or rise, the cookie or bread---we have to get creative with the recipe, and that's where kitchen science comes in. Combining an acidic ingredient with a base, like baking soda, adds those crucial bubbles to the dough before and during baking. This works like those volcano experiments in science class and adds air into the treat so the bread doesn't come out like a brick or the cookie doesn't flatten across the baking sheet. The acidity can come from a fruit, like pineapple, or from just a teaspoon of added lemon juice or vinegar---not enough to affect the taste, but enough to start that kitchen science reaction. Cooks in the Depression era relied on this trick for all sorts of adapted recipes, in fact!
Hi, I'm Nicole.
ABOUT THE BLOG
An apothecary is a person or a place. Either one implies healing and relates to pharmacy in its truest sense, as a source of treatment and advice.
This blog is my way of uniting my pharmacy training with my efforts to provide a healthy and safe lifestyle for my family. In true apothecary form, I research and prescribe alternative ingredients that work just right in each specific recipe, and I would like to share the results with anyone who needs help making their own family’s kitchen allergy safe and heart healthy.
Nicole Van Hoey's books on Goodreads
Bakery Bites: Breads and Treats Without Dairy, Eggs, Nuts, Seeds, or Soy
ratings: 1 (avg rating 5.00)
Kitchen Adventures With Multiple Food Allergies: A Recipe Collection for Celebrations Without Dairy, Eggs, Peanuts, Tree Nuts, Seeds, or Soy