Don't fear — a few simple substitutions can transform a recipe into one that will meet your needs for good taste without the negative consequences. Let's focus on common culprits: dairy, lactose, gluten, wheat, onion, and garlic.
Note: For all allergies, intolerances, or specialized meal plans, speak to your health care provider if you have specific questions about what you can include in a restricted diet.
Dairy and lactose
Lactose intolerance, milk allergy, or a vegan eating plan may make you steer clear of dairy-containing recipes. Fortunately, many tasty alternatives are available.
Lactose intolerance is caused by a lack of lactase, the enzyme that digests milk sugar, or lactose. When lactose is not broken down properly, the bacteria in your gut will happily feed off it, producing gas and diarrhea. Tolerance to lactose tends to be dose-related, meaning some people do fine with a splash of milk but are miserable with a full serving of ice cream.
Hard cheeses such as cheddar, colby, and Parmesan have virtually no lactose. Soft cheeses such as ricotta and cottage cheese are higher in lactose and may need to be limited. Substitutions include lactose-free versions or nondairy choices such as crumbled tofu. Can't resist? Take a lactase enzyme to help break down the lactose.
Butter is virtually lactose-free and can be included in a lactose-free diet.
Cow's milk allergy is an immune response to milk protein, requiring total avoidance of milk ingredients. This is the most common allergy in infants and children, although it is often outgrown. Proteins from other animal milks (such as goat's milk) are similar to cow's milk proteins; check with your doctor before using these as a substitute for cow's milk.
As a top allergen, milk-based ingredients must be clearly listed on ingredient labels. Check out label reading tips for milk allergy here.
For lactose intolerance, milk allergy, or a vegan diet, recipes made with cow's milk or yogurt can easily be made by substituting with nondairy "milks" and yogurts. Almond, rice, soy, coconut, and even hemp- or pea-based dairy substitutes are found in many grocery stores.
The taste of cheese can be difficult to mimic, though more dairy-free cheese substitutes are becoming available. Try topping a salad with toasted almonds or sprinkle nutritional yeast flakes on pasta to add a flavor and nutritional boost to dairy-free recipes.
Gluten and wheat
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that makes sources of gluten (wheat, barley, and rye) strictly off-limits. People may also avoid gluten due to gluten intolerance. These people do not test positive for celiac disease but may experience symptoms, such as bloating, after consuming gluten.
Hidden sources of gluten include soy sauce (often made with wheat) or seasoning blends (with wheat-based ingredients as a filler). Look for gluten-free soy sauce and check seasoning blends carefully. Cross-contamination in meal preparation is another source of hidden gluten. Use separate cutting and cooking surfaces to avoid contaminating gluten-free meals.
As with celiac disease, wheat allergy means consuming no wheat products, but barley and rye are allowed. As a top allergen, wheat-based ingredients must be clearly listed on ingredient labels. Check out label reading tips for wheat allergy.
Fortunately, there are many alternatives to gluten-containing ingredients. Rice, quinoa, or buckwheat pastas readily fill in for wheat-based pasta, and gluten-free baking mixes are easy measure-for-measure substitutes for wheat versions. Pure spices (without any additives) are okay for people with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, or wheat allergy.
A quick search of recipes shows garlic is a featured ingredient in 200 recipes in Food for health. However, garlic is a common culprit in irritable bowel syndrome symptoms such as gas and bloating — an unpleasant trade-off for a tasty meal. Fructans, the hard-to-digest carbohydrates in garlic, are not oil-soluble. Luckily, garlic-infused olive oil can add a wonderful garlic flavor to your recipe while avoiding the side effects. Garlic-infused olive oil can be purchased at the grocery store, or you can make your own.
Love onions, but the after-effects make you want to cry? While the flavor of onion cannot be replicated, there are other ways to add flavor to your cooking. Use chives or the tops of green onions (also known as scallions). Or try asafoetida, an Indian spice known for imparting a savory flavor.
As with garlic, the fructans in onions are not oil-soluble. Try sautéing chunks of onion with oil, removing the onion chunks, and using the flavored oil for cooking.
Contributor: Sue Heikkinen, RD