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Allergen Sensitive Substitutes for Every Need

Dec 30, 2019 ● By Tiffany Hinton

Credit: Image by Aline Ponce from Pixabay

by Tiffany Hinton

Researchers estimate that 32 million Americans have food allergies, including 5.6 million children under age 18. That relates to one in 13 children, or roughly two children in every Chicago classroom. It is easy to see the effects of the allergen-sensitive community as grocery stores are expanding their offerings of food that’s safe from the common allergens of milk, eggs, nuts and wheat. However, many families feel lost at home when trying to cook for these special diets. For families with allergies, understanding ingredient substitutions is key to enjoying cooking and continuing many family recipe traditions. But when it comes to substitutes in the kitchen, there are many schools of thought; some which work well and a few that do not.

When beginning to use substitutes, remember that cooking is a science, and baking is chemistry at its core. Just like in chemistry class at school, some substitutions will work out and some may just explode. Learning which substitutes will work best for a recipe will require a few experiments. It is important to keep in mind that the weight and density of ingredients can make a huge difference to each recipe, as well as the combination or balance of dry and wet ingredients. There may be some substitutions that can adjust the cooking time or require extra preparation steps for best results.


Gluten-free is a common dietary need both in the allergen and autoimmune disease communities. With substituting a gluten-free flour, there is no true one-to-one replacement because the texture makes a difference, as well as the weight of the flour substitute. This is why many times, a gluten-free flour will have multiple flours and starches listed in a recipe instead of just one flour to replicate the same texture and function as wheat. The most common wheat flour substitutes include white rice, brown rice, potato starch, sweet rice starch, corn starch, sweet potato flour, fava flour, arrowroot starch, tapioca starch and others.

When substituting for grain-free or paleo diets, the most common substitute is coconut flour. This is a difficult substitute and can require one-quarter cup more water and an extra egg in many cases. It also carries a distinctive coconut taste that may affect savory recipes.

Tree Nuts and Peanuts

Substituting for nuts, especially peanuts, is another common need and easier than some may think. Sunflower spread is a common replacement for peanut butter, encouraged in many schools as a safer solution. This substitution is great for savory dishes like “peanut” sauces, salad dressings and dips, and many other uses, but unfortunately does not bake well, turning a green tone in the oven. Try using almond butter or cashew butter for a sweeter taste without the green tint. If a tree nut allergy exists, try substituting tahini and honey in baked goods for peanut butter.


Eggs are the trickiest substitution to manage. The substitute will vary depending on the recipe. For custards and puddings, the best choice is agar-agar (also referred to simply as agar), a form of algae that can be found in the Asian foods section of most grocery stores. For baking, a store-bought egg replacer may be the easiest solution for a busy family. However, for a homemade approach, try ground flax with warm water. Mix two teaspoons of ground flax with three tablespoons of warm water and let sit for five minutes. Other options for muffins and breads are chia seeds, bananas, apple sauce and the water from a can of chickpeas, known as aqua fava.


Although not a common food allergy, sugar is on the avoidance list for many diets and health conditions and is actually a bit easier to substitute. The idea is to keep it natural and avoid the chemically engineered sugar substitutes, especially for those trying to reduce processed sugar in their diet. Coconut sugar can be a replacement for brown sugar and cane sugar in many recipes. It also has fiber, which helps lower the glycemic load. Ground date sugar is another great alternative and available for baking and cooking, as well. For jams and other cooked items, try using honey, maple syrup, agave or even soaked dates which have been puréed.

Caring for children with food allergies costs U.S. families nearly $25 billion annually. By understanding food substitutions and the needs of the allergen sensitive community, these annual costs can be lowered and families regain their kitchens again.

GF Mom Certified favorite gluten-free at home flour mix

Yields: 2 cups

Note: Make ahead and store in an airtight container. 

1 cup white rice flour

½ cup brown rice flour

¼ cup potato starch

¼ cup tapioca starch

Add 1 tsp xanthum gum if the dough is to be stretched or rolled out for cookies

For making a cake, adding 1 tsp expander is very helpful to eliminate the crumbles

Tiffany Hinton is a functional medicine certified health coach based in Chicago. Connect with her on social media by following @gfmomcertifed.