What do you do when you've been diagnosed with a food allergy and your favourite foods are taken away? Fears not! Each month FBC member and certified nutritionist, Sondi Bruner, takes a look at how to adapt to an allergen-friendly diet, while still eating delicious and healthy food. This month she shows us how to choose allergen-friendly meat and fish.
There is a huge swath of people who imagine my daily diet is dull and lifeless: no gluten, no dairy, no eggs, no refined sugars. If I received a giant hug every time someone said to me, "Oh, I could never live without [insert favourite cheese/bread product here]," I would never, ever be lonely.
What most folks don't realize is the pure abundance of food that I can eat: vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits, dairy-free chocolate (hel-lo), and meat and fish.
The latter two are foodstuffs I only began to eat in the last two years — and things have changed a lot since I stopped eating animal products in my early 20s. Meat isn't just meat, and fish isn't just fish: we need to consider food allergies and intolerances, animal ethics and the environment in our choices.
In today's post, I'll walk you through how to choose animal products for allergen-friendly diets.
How to Choose Allergen-Friendly Meat (Red Meat, Poultry, Pork)
While meat in and of itself is naturally allergen-friendly, the way it's processed can impact whether or not it's still safe for allergen-friendly diets. For example:
- Deli meats can contain hidden sources of gluten, dairy, soy, nuts or other allergy causing foods
- Processed animal products can include items like breadcrumbs, glutenous flour and other allergens as binders or fillers
- Spices and seasonings used to flavour meat may not be allergen-free
- The meat could be doused in a sauce or gravy that contains allergens
- Animal products are subject to cross contamination, meaning they might be processed alongside allergens or prepared in a kitchen where they could be exposed to allergens
When a food allergy or intolerance is involved, don't assume that animal products you purchase will be gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free, or free of whatever allergen you need to avoid. Your best bet is to always read labels when in the grocery store or even better, choose to buy whole, unprocessed animal products to cook and season yourself.
As a culture, we have the expectation that food should be cheap, cheap, cheap and animal products are no exception. Research shows that animals that are produced ethically, sustainably and organically are better for our health, the health of animals and the planet. For example, grass-fed beef contains higher amounts of anti-inflammatory omega-3s, antioxidants and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which helps us burn fat and protect our cardiovascular system. If allergies are a concern for you, it's important to know where your animal products are coming from and to ask questions.
Here are some tips to source nutritious, allergen-friendly meat in your area.
Talk to Your Local Farmers
Ask questions about how they treat their animals, what they feed them, how they are housed and slaughtering practices. Ethical farmers will be happy to share this information — and most are also open to you visiting the farm yourself.
Purchase From an Ethical, Sustainable Butcher
If you don't buy from the farmer directly, look for a local butcher that buys from farmers who care about the way meat is raised. Most major cities will have a few options to choose from. If you don't, talk to your butcher about your concerns and see if you can influence their buying practices. Speaking up notifies business owners of consumer appetites, so ask (nicely please!) and create change in your community.
Chat With Your Grocery Store Manager
Speak to your local grocery store manager and ask questions about where their animal products come from. You can request animal products that are organic and ethically raised. Again, expressing your demands can influence supply. Don't be afraid to speak up!
How to Choose Allergen-Friendly Fish and Seafood
Fish and seafood are naturally gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free, egg-free and nut-free, making this food group extremely allergen-friendly (unless, of course, you're allergic to seafood). Similar to animal products, you'll need to watch out for fish and seafood that have been processed or cooked with other known allergens. This means checking labels for any additional ingredients, especially with fish dishes that are breaded or cooked in sauces.
Nutritionally speaking, fish confers a load of health benefits. It's rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce inflammation and are wonderful for blood sugar balance, skin health and the cardiovascular system. Research shows that fish consumption at least once a week reduces your risk of heart disease. What's more, fish is high in protein and Vitamin D, an especially helpful nutrient for us Canadians!
Overfishing in many parts of the world is a serious problem, leaving fish species and the ocean ecosystem at risk of collapse. That's why it's important to choose sustainable seafood. For up-to-date information about which species to choose, I rely on the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise program and the David Suzuki Foundation's SeaChoice program. These are incredible resources that offer the latest information and research, plus they partner with restaurants and stores to indicate sustainable choices on menus and food items, which is very handy indeed.
Wild vs Farmed Salmon?
There are many sides to the aquaculture debate. On the one hand, farmed salmon are higher in contaminants and omega-6 fatty acids than wild salmon. While omega-6s are essential fats that we need, when we consume them in high concentrations they can activate inflammation. However, not all farmed salmon is evil — SeaChoice and Ocean Wise both state that farmed fish can be a good choice depending on the species and how they are raised.
On the wild side of the equation, as wild fish are roaming the oceans they can potentially be exposed to a range of toxins that we can't control. Still, since wild fish contains considerably fewer contaminants than farmed, wild is typically my first choice. The following are some handy tips to keep in mind when purchasing fish.
Aim for Smaller Fish (Sardines, Anchovies, etc.)
Instead of always reaching for salmon and tuna, smaller fish can mean less bio-accumulation of toxins.
Talk to Your Fishmonger and Local Fisherman
These professionals have been invaluable resources for me, taking the time to answer all of my questions about sourcing and sustainability.
What About Fukushima?
Since the 2011 nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Power Plant in 2011, there has been some concern about the radiation affecting fish and seafood from the shores of Japan to the Pacific coast of North America. Recent research shows that the risk to humans is quite low, and from my point of view, the benefits of eating fish once or twice a week far outweigh the potential risks.
Portion Size is Important
Whether you choose to eat meat, poultry, fish, seafood or eggs, portion size matters. We're used to seeing steaks the size of dinner plates, but you don't need to stuff your face to reap the benefits of animal products. Instead of consuming meat as the main event, have it in small quantities as a side dish and make plant-based foods (veggies, beans, nuts, seeds) the focal point of your meal. This will benefit your wallet as well as your health!
There's a lot to consider when choosing animal products and it's easy to get overwhelmed. It's important to read labels and ask lots of questions about the meat and fish you're buying to make sure allergens aren't hiding in them. If you're interested in transitioning to ethical and sustainable meat and fish, I'd recommend starting with the type you eat the most. If chicken makes a regular appearance in your meal rotation, purchase better quality chicken and then branch out from there. Don't forget that healthy eating is a process, not a race to the finish — I'll bet you'll find the journey worth the effort.
Check out more of Sondi’s Allergen-Friendly Remixes for great ideas on revamping your favourite recipes to make them allergen friendly!
- The FBC Guide to Using Gluten-Free Flours
- Dairy-Free Smoothies
- Healthy Summer Mocktails
- Sensational Salads
Got a favourite recipe you’d like to see get an allergen-friendly makeover? Let us know in the comments!
Sondi Bruner is a holistic nutritionist, freelance writer and food blogger. She educates people who follow allergen-friendly diets about how to eat simply, deliciously and safely, allowing them to rediscover the pleasure of food. When she’s wearing her writer’s hat, she works with natural health brands to create content that will help their customers live fulfilling, healthful lives. Find out more at www.sondibruner.com. Or you can follow Sondi on Facebook or Twitter.