Entertaining family and friends can be full of challenges whether you’re the guest or host. Those challenges may increase if food allergies, food intolerances and those who choose to follow special diets, perhaps vegan or vegetarian, are in the mealtime mix.
Your vegan brother won’t eat a dessert that uses honey. A lactose-intolerant cousin will pass on the butter.
“When it comes to an allergy, your immune system is involved. It can be as simple as having an itch or rash and potentially lead to a life-threatening reaction where you stop breathing. So an allergy is something that is much more severe,” says Vandana Sheth, a California-based registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and representative for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
With a food intolerance, on the other hand, “it’s more that your body’s not able to process specific things,” says Sheth. “With lactose intolerance, for example, the most common intolerance that people have, you’re not involving the entire immune system.”
Determining whether the immune system is involved is an important factor with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
The term “gluten intolerance” often refers to the entire category of gluten issues: celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy, according to Carol M. Shilson, executive director of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center.
“Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disorder that affects the digestive process of the small intestine. ‘Non-celiac gluten sensitivity’ ‑ what many call ‘gluten intolerance’ ‑ causes the body to mount a stress response (often gastrointestinal symptoms) different from the immunological response that occurs in those who have celiac disease (which most often causes intestinal tissue damage).”
And a wheat allergy, like most allergies, “causes the immune system to respond to a food protein because it considers it dangerous to the body when it actually isn’t,” Shilson notes. “This immune response is often time-limited and does not cause lasting harm to body tissues.”
There are dozens of foods or food groups that can cause allergies, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But the eight major allergens are milk, eggs, fish (e.g. bass, cod), crustacean shellfish (e.g. shrimp, lobster, crab), tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans – the FDA requires food labels to list them.
Those with allergies, food intolerances or who follow a special diet know what foods cause problems. Friends or relatives may not. They may not realize there can be eggs in mayonnaise or wheat in soy sauce, or that there are often alternatives available for both.
Avoiding confusion begins with the person with dietary considerations. Touch base with the host before a gathering that will include a meal or snacks, says Sheth, and be as specific as you can about what you can and can’t eat. “A guest might say, ‘I’ve become vegetarian and I should be able to eat most of the things, but if you’ve used chicken broth or something, I may not eat it. Please don’t be offended. Can I bring something?’
“That way, you’ve let them know you don’t want to put pressure on them to make a whole entree that’s vegetarian for you and that you can bring that.”
If you’re the host, find out if any guest has food allergies or sensitivities, Sheth says. “When you’re shopping and preparing the menu, look at items that are easy to put together and can be the same dish for everyone rather than making many different versions.”
Notes Sheth: “When you’re cooking and trying to keep food safe, people don’t think about using that same wooden spoon or cutting board for preparing foods that might cause problems.”
Host-guest conversations have to be comfortable for both parties, Sheth says. “The host might be freaking out with all these different restrictions. So as a guest, try to be more understanding. Realize ultimately it’s your responsibility to ensure that what you’re eating is safe.”
There are many food allergies, intolerances and specialized diets. Here are a few guidelines:
Vegetarian: Does not eat animal products or animal byproducts (e.g. butter, cheese). Subgroups: lacto-ovo vegetarian (dairy and eggs OK), pescatarian (fish OK).
Label alert: Check seasoning packets. No gelatin or animal-based rennet.
Cooking tip: Serve a vegetarian chili or lentils.
Vegan: Plant-based diet. Does not eat eggs, milk, cheese.
Label alert: Check labels of baked goods, prepared sauces. Agar and guar gum are OK.
Cooking tip: Consider soy- or coconut-based milks and fats. Instead of mashed potatoes prepared with dairy, Sheth suggests baked potatoes with toppings on the side.
Peanut allergy: Some recipes (Mexican moles, Thai sauces) may contain peanuts.
Label alert: Look for “May contain traces of …” Don’t cook with peanut oil.
Cooking tip: Sheth says consider using seed butters (sunflower, pumpkin) or soy nut butter made from roasted soybeans.
Tree nuts: Includes pecans, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, cashews.
Label alert: Be alert to cross contamination
Cooking tip: Try using roasted pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds for crunch on a salad. Or roasted garbanzo beans.
Celiac disease and gluten intolerance: Gluten, a protein in wheat, shows up in most traditional breads, pastries. Check deli meats, bottled sauces, sauced frozen vegetables.
Label alert: Can also be found in other grains; sometimes rye, barley and oats. Be aware of “their derivatives in the ingredients used,” Shilson adds. If a person can tolerate a small amount of oats, use those labeled “certified gluten free.”
Cooking tip: Use cornstarch, potato starch or arrowroot for thickening. Consider quinoa, brown rice, polenta.
For further guidance and specifics: eatright.org, foodallergy.org and cureceliacdisease.org.