Monday, March 29, 2010

Is Xanthan Gum Getting a Bad Reputation?

If you’ve tried to make any kind of wheat-free or gluten-free baked goods using flours based on rice or other non-gluten grains, you know what happens – the finished ingredient literally crumbles in your hands (or your mouth). Unless of course you add that magical ingredient, xanthan gum.

Food Rules: An Eater's ManualI recently picked up Michael Pollan’s new book, Food Rules: An Eater's Manual. This tiny little book, which can be read cover to cover in less than an hour, is terrific except for one tiny detail. Food rule number three says that we should “Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry,” and the third ingredient listed is – you guessed it – xantham gum.

So I suppose that means I am not an ordinary human.

All kidding aside, Pollan’s food philosophy is very much like mine – he advocates eating organic whole foods whenever possible. So I decided to take a closer look at xanthan gum to see what the fuss is about. We all know that xanthan gum has thickening and binding properties, and that just a little bit (¼ tsp to ¾ tsp) is needed to replace the gluten in baked goods.

But what is xanthan gum really?

According to Wise Geek it’s a polysaccharide (a chain of three different forms of sugar) created by combining Xanthomonas campestris bacteria with corn sugar. That sounds kind of yucky, so let’s look closer. It’s a carbohydrate. It’s made from all natural (occurring in nature) ingredients, and it’s similar to more familiar polysaccharides including corn syrup. Are you distressed that xantham gum is made from bacteria? Consider that yogurt is made from combining bacteria with milk. Similarly, adding lactic acid bacteria to milk makes buttermilk. They are all fermentation processes.

Is xanthan gum a whole food? No. Xanthan gum is a created food.

Is it bad for us?

My verdict is no. Those with corn allergies may need to avoid xanthan gum, but for all others who need to eat wheat-free or gluten-free, I think xanthan gum is a fabulous breakthrough that we should feel comfortable using in small quantities.

I hope to learn more at a gluten-free baking class I'll be taking on April 10th at the Culinary Institute of America. I can't wait to come back and tell you what I've learned!

What do you think? Do you use xanthan gum?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Chocolate Chunk Cookie Mix

I am always on the lookout for great new treats to try – especially when chocolate is involved. This Chocolate Chunk Cookie Mix from Authentic Foods definitely makes my list of favorites!

The gluten-free mix is based on rice flour. The dark chocolate chunks are indeed chunky – enough to satisfy this chocolate lover! The mix itself starts out wheat-free, dairy-free, and egg-free. It does contain soy lecithin, but no soy protein.

To make this allergen-free I replaced the 2 large eggs with ½ cup of unsweetened applesauce. I find that applesauce usually works better as a substitute for eggs in most brownie or cookie mixes. I left them in the oven a bit longer than the package suggests – eighteen minutes was just about right.

These disappeared really fast. I will need to make them again very soon!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Progress in EE Research – There is Hope

One of the lesser-known causes of food allergies is eosinophilic esophagitis (EE), the most prevalent of the eosinophilc gastro-intestinal disorders (EGID).

My son was diagnosed with EE nine years ago when there was little to no information available on the disease. It’s an allergic reaction to the proteins in certain foods that triggers his EE. And when he has a reaction his esophagus becomes inflamed. I think of it like a rash inside his esophagus, similar to skin that gets inflamed with dermatitis. His esophagus closes up causing him to vomit, and his throat closes up so he can no longer swallow. Okay, enough description. The only solution is to completely avoid the foods he is allergic to.

But there’s good news:

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital teamed together on a research project and have recently reported some very positive news; they have identified a gene that they believe is linked to EE.

Breakthroughs like this one give me and other EE families hope. It’s organizations like the American Partnership for Eosinophilic Disorders (APFED) that help fund this research. And it’s appropriate that APFED’s current campaign for funds is called HOPE on the Horizon. Donations to HOPE on the Horizon are applied 100% to eosinophil related research. APFED’s goal is to double the HOPE Research Fund in 2010.

Are there others out there suffering from EE? Share your stories here.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Allergen-Free Pizza - What’s Your Topping?

What? Pizza made without wheat, cheese, eggs or soy? Really?

This past weekend I embarked on what might seem to be an exercise in futility – making an allergen-free pizza. And I am happy to say that I not only succeeded, but the whole family wished I had made more. Even my husband who usually orders extra cheese was quite happy with the results.

It all starts with the crust, and I found one that works really well. Miss Roben’s pizza crust mix is gluten-free, wheat-free, milk-free, egg-free, soy-free, nut-free, and the only ingredients you need to add are oil and water. There is a quick acting yeast packet included that is optional (I used it in my pizza). They offer a small and a large sized crust. I used the large, and it was enough to make two pizzas – one large and one small. If you want a thicker crust, then use the entire package for one large pizza. The crust has a bit of a sweet taste that is sure to be a hit.

And on top I layered on – tomato sauce, onions and pepperoni. Any of your favorite toppings would work.

I think the key to making cheese-free pizza is to go heavy on the toppings. I didn’t try to add dairy-free cheese, but you certainly could.

Now, if only I could figure out how to make an allergen-free lasagna…

So here's my challenge to you. It's your turn to make an allergen-free pizza. How are you going to top your pizza?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Allergen-Free Picnic Dessert Ideas

Today’s post comes from guest blogger Chen, who shares picnic ideas at Picnic Food Ideas . When he offered to share some recipes with us I challenged him to make them completely allergen-free, and this is the result. Even if you don’t have plans for a picnic yet, I think he’s got some great recipes for us!

From Chen:

Fortunately, there are tons of allergen-free recipes out there that take advantage of common food substitutes in order to create delicious treats. Dessert recipes are in high demand, because many desserts contain dairy products, nuts, eggs, and other foods that trigger allergies. This article gives you two allergen-free picnic dessert ideas.

Allergen-Free Picnic Dessert Idea #1: Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate chip cookies make a great dessert for a picnic. This recipe makes one dozen allergen-free cookies that taste great – even as good or better as regular cookies do! They lack nuts, dairy products, eggs, gluten, and soy. You’ll need:
  • Two tablespoons of lukewarm water
  • 1 1/3 teaspoons of egg replacer
  • 2/3 teaspoon of baking powder (without gluten)
  • 2/3 teaspoon of vanilla extract (without gluten)
  • 1/3 teaspoon of baking soda
  • 2 tablespoons of shortening replacer
  • 2 tablespoons of non-dairy butter
  • ¼ cup of brown sugar, light
  • 1 cup of flour (without gluten)
  • ½ cup of chocolate chips (without soy, gluten, or dairy)
  • 1/6 cup of cane sugar
  • 1/6 teaspoon of salt

Preheat to 375 degrees F. Take the sugar and combine it with the butter, and whip them together. Add the vanilla. Blend the egg replacer with water for 90 seconds. Add the first mixture. Combine the flour, baking soda and powder, and salt in a bowl, then combine with the first mixture and add the chocolate chips. When you place the cookie dough down, shape the cookies into a cookie shape before baking them in the oven for 11-13 minutes. Be sure to watch carefully until they’re done.

Allergen-Free Picnic Dessert Idea #2: Rice Krispies Treats

Another favorite. You will need:
  • 1 10 ounce package of sugar-free, non-dairy marshmallows
  • 6 cups of Rice Krispies cereal
  • 3 tablespoons of non-dairy butter
Grab a saucepan and melt the butter on a low heat setting. Melt the marshmallows completely in the saucepan, and then remove from the stove. Stir in the cereal until you have a nice coating over all of the krispies. Then, take a 13 x 9 x 2 greased pan and use a greased spatula to put the rice krispie mixture into place. Let sit until it is cool before serving.

Both of these desserts are terrific ways to enjoy something sweet at a picnic without having to worry about pesky allergens getting in the way. I hope you enjoy!

Monday, March 15, 2010

More Consumers are Reading Food Labels

The Food and Drug Administration recently reported the results of the 2008 US Health and Diet Survey, and reported that more American consumers read food labels than the prior survey in 2002.

Not surprising, right?

But get this – even though more Americans are reading food labels, only 54% report that they “often” read foods labels the first time they buy a product. I find it interesting that there was no option to choose “always” as a response to the question on how often you read food labels.

For those of us who have food-allergic or gluten-free families “always” or at least “almost always” would be the appropriate choice.

They also tested the nutrient claims that are made on the front of the packages. These were aimed at determining how much consumers relied on claims like “low-fat”, or “zero grams trans fat”, or “cholesterol-free”. There were no questions on “gluten-free”, or “wheat-free”, or “dairy-free”…

In fact, nowhere in the survey did they test allergen labeling, or gluten-free labeling. There was one question (just one) that asked if consumers read labels to “see if there is an ingredient that you or someone in your family should avoid”. Forty eight percent responded “often” to that question.

The survey is intended to “assess the United States adult population’s self-reported behaviors, knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about health and diet”. There was a strong focus on the link between diet and heart disease and that is clearly a good thing. But I’m baffled as to why there were no questions aimed at determining the effectiveness and use of allergen labeling. Check out the entire survey here.

Are food allergies less of a concern than heart disease? Or is this just a sign of a slow-moving FDA that hasn’t caught up with the extreme rise in food allergies? What do you think?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Allergen-Free Baker’s Handbook – Book Review

Allergen-Free Baker's Handbook
Before I take you to the contents of Cybele Pascal’s latest allergy cookbook, I need to comment on the book itself. This book is beautifully designed – the format, the layout, and the photos are all just stunning!

The book design is suitable for a gourmet cookbook, and that is exactly how I would describe this book. It is the gourmet baking book for those who need to bake allergen-free.

While Pascal’s earlier cookbook, The Whole Foods Allergy Cookbook, covered meals of all types, her latest book is solely focused on baked goods, covering everything from muffins and breads to cookies, cakes, and pies. Well, almost everything – there were no pancake or waffle recipes. Am I complaining? Not really – this book is definitely a treasure.

The recipes include classics adapted to be allergen-free, like Classic Crumb Cake and Lemon-Lime Squares, as well as completely new ideas, like Golden Agave Cupcakes and SunButter Cupcakes that are sure to make those without food allergies jealous!

I recently used her recipe for Chocolate Zucchini bread, and made muffins. This recipe gets a big thumbs up. These breakfast treats disappeared very quickly!

The bottom line?

Food-allergic families, especially those who love to bake and have been feeling deprived, will definitely want to add this cookbook to their bookshelf.

Have you had a chance to try it yet? What do you think?

Monday, March 8, 2010

What is Your Favorite Allergen-Free Milk?

It’s really nice to see lots of choices on the shelves at the grocery store and health food store for substitutes for traditional milk. For a while it seemed like soy milk was the only easy alternative - and of course that doesn't work if you have soy allergies. Now we have rice milk, almond milk, oat milk, coconut milk, and others.

The favorite in my house is hemp milk. The natural flavored hemp milk has a bit of a nutty (yet nut-free) taste. The vanilla version is great with cereals, and I use the chocolate variety in chocolate baked goods. It is relatively expensive though.

Rice milk is perhaps the most universal as a substitute. It's used in a lot of allergen-free recipes, and few are allergic to rice. Almond milk is low in fat, but not an option for the tree nut-allergic. I find oat milk to be a good substitute also, but those who need to eat gluten-free will need to avoid this due to possible cross-contamination with wheat.

What is your favorite substitute for traditional milk? Are there particular brands you like? Do you use different milks for different purposes?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Going Out to Eat?

Chances are you have visited many of the restaurants in your local area with your food-allergic family. And chances are you have had some great experiences at some, and not so great experiences at others. We always hope that the latter is not the case, but we know it happens.

I’m sure you have your favorite restaurants – the ones you know you can eat at safely – that will let you substitute and adapt to your needs. And I’m sure you’ve been to restaurants where a server didn’t take your food allergies seriously.

Paul Antico just launched Allergy Eats, a new resource for food-allergic families to help them find allergy-friendly restaurants. Allergy Eats provides a searchable database with reviews of restaurants across the US. Now I have to place to go to search for a restaurant when we go on vacation. And, I have a place to let others know about a bad experience that I had on my last vacation.

We all can help each other out by populating the Allergy Eats database with our reviews. It’s easy – just answer three quick questions about the restaurants you visit.

Personally, I think every restaurant should be aiming for a 5-star allergy friendly review. Paul Antico gets five gold stars for bringing us this great tool.

Check it out and let me know what you think with a comment.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A Great Sandwich Bread - Organ Alternative Grain Wholemeal Bread Mix

It’s really exciting to be able to find easy to make allergen-free foods off the shelf. Breads are among the most difficult packaged foods to find, as very few have no eggs, no milk, no soy.

I recently received some complementary mixes from Organ foods, including this Alternative Grain Wholemeal Bread Mix, to try. I made this over the weekend and I am really thrilled with the result.

Unlike the rice/tapioca/potato mixes we usually see, this bread uses maize (corn), sorghum, and rice flours. While this is not for those with corn allergies, it has no wheat, milk egg, soy, or nuts. Yeah!

Despite the fact that I consider it a challenge to make a gluten-free mix allergen-free, one of the things I liked best about this mix is that I didn’t have to adapt anything. The basic instructions only require water and oil. Double yeah! The adaptations on the box are for adding eggs and milk – not taking them out.

It also has no yeast. And yet – this is a self-rising formula. Very cool! After mixing, they suggest letting it rise for 15 minutes (I needed 20 minutes) before baking. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to watch a bread rise that my whole family can actually eat!

It came out of the oven with a nicely browned top, and looked terrific. It slices very easily (no need to slice tentatively), the crust doesn’t flake, and it doesn’t get soggy after a few days like some gluten-free bread does. When my son tried it he happily declared, “This is a real sandwich bread,” and it is. You don’t need to make two sandwiches to equal one traditional bread sandwich, and it has a nice fluffy texture.

After a few days the bread is as good as the day I baked it. I suggest trying it toasted with Sunbutter and jelly. Very tasty!

If your local health food store doesn’t carry it, you can find it at Allergy Grocer or Amazon.

What’s your favorite allergen-free bread mix?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Massachusetts Food Allergy Awareness Act Requires Restaurants to Take Action

A few weeks ago I told you a story about a server in a restaurant who didn’t seem to take my son’s allergies seriously. It just happens that that restaurant was in Massachusetts.

Interestingly, Massachusetts is the first state to have passed a Food Allergy Awareness Act, in January 2009. That legislation outlines a program for restaurants that must be implemented by July 1, 2010.

The act requires that:
  1. A poster on food allergy awareness must be prominently displayed in a food staff area.
  2. Menus must contain a notice that advises patrons to let their server know what foods they are allergic to.
  3. Food service staff (those in charge) must participate in food allergy awareness training.

The program also includes a voluntary certification for restaurants to be designated as Food Allergy Friendly. This certification would require additional training and identification of food ingredients.

Some details (like the exact wording for the poster, and which foods are considered ‘major’ allergens) are still being worked. An amendment to the Food Allergy Awareness Act was proposed on February 10th, which contains the recommendations for this language. The amendment also includes a requirement for every food establishment to have a designated Food Protection Manager on staff.

I think most of you will agree that this kind of legislation is long overdue.

The new law attempts to place the responsibility for avoiding allergic reactions at restaurants on both the consumer and the food establishment. But some, as reported in this article by MedPage Today, think the burden should be entirely on the customer. Hmmm…

At the same time, I worry that the law may cause all parties to become more complacent. Will the posters and notices cause customers to be less diligent than they would have been in the past? Will the restaurants just focus on what they need to do to be in compliance and nothing more?

What do you think?