Managing Life with Soy Allergy or Other Legume Allergy

in Food Allergy, Soy & Seed
Soy allergy can be difficult to manage as soy appears in many products under different names.Photo: Getty

Updated October 2023 – When living with an allergy to soy or other legumes, it is important to avoid these foods and products that may contain them. But do see our ‘Label Reading’ section. With soy in particular, there are a couple of exceptions that can make it easier to manage the soy-free diet.

With a legume allergy, be sure to carry epinephrine auto-injectors. If your allergic child (or you) accidentally eats soy or another legume with a known allergy, you may require the auto-injector to halt the reaction.

This is why “avoidance” is the operative word for managing a soy or legume allergy. However, this isn’t as simple or easy as that one word suggests. Soy is in many packaged food products. It is a Top 9 allergen in the U.S. (and a Top 11 in Canada), so it must be clearly labeled.

Since soy is a cheap and easy binder, filler and preservative, it’s common to find it in crackers, breads, cookies and other packaged foods.

Soy Allergy, Beans and Chickpeas

Other legumes like beans, peas, chickpeas and lentils turn up less frequently in packaged foods. However, they present their own challenges. While many manufacturers will include them on labels, they aren’t official “top allergens,” so they don’t have to be listed. Also, with the growth of vegan foods, yellow pea protein is being used more commonly. And the amount used may be significant. (See this Q&A on pea protein burger reactions.)

Chickpeas are the main component of hummus and hummus can be used not only as a dip on its own but in sauces as well. European studies of chickpea and lentil allergies note that those allergic to chickpea have a tendency to react as well to lentils or peas. (If you have concerns about this, speak to your allergist.) Watch out as well for the lupine bean if you (or your child) are allergic to peanut. There is considerable cross-reactivity.

If you have a soy allergy, Asian restaurants are usually off-limits because soy is a staple in this group of cuisines. However, don’t let legume allergies discourage you from re-creating traditional Asian dishes. For example, you can make an equally good soy-free stir-fry with broccoli, chicken and rice, instead of bean sprouts and peas. As well, a great substitute for soy sauce in recipes is coconut aminos. This product is made from coconut sap. You’ll find it online and in natural health food stores. It is a little sweeter than soy sauce, so just use less sugar (when called for) in a sauce.

Hand-Washing: When your child (or you) has a soybean or another plant from the legume family, soap and water are your best friends. Hands should be washed thoroughly before and after eating.

If you have a school-aged child, ensure he (or she) is able to wash his hands before snacks and lunch. With younger children, schools usually adopt an allergy protocol of washing hands among all children after eating.

Cross-Contact: It’s important to make sure soy or legumes and any products that contain them don’t come in contact with the food you are eating. That means thoroughly cleaning utensils and kitchen equipment after use. For example, if someone uses a spoon to take out some hummus in a bowl, make sure you do not use the same spoon for your own food.

When there is a child or adult with a soy or legume allergy in the household, many families choose to eliminate the allergens from the house. This is a personal preference and will depend in part on your family’s ability to be vigilant about keeping the allergic person safe.

Label Reading: Whenever you eat a packaged food, you need to read the label in its entirety to check for any mention of soy. Sometimes, soy (more so than other legumes) can have different names. You also have to look for precautionary statements on package labels, such as “May Contain Soy.”

Soy oil is generally considered safe for soy allergy, provided it’s highly refined. But a minority of people with soy allergy have been reported to react to soy lecithin (which is labeled on packages). Ask for allergist for guidance on your allergy.

One thing to be cautious of with soy allergy: imported foods. Not all countries have the stringent labeling requirements of the United States, Canada and the European Union. Don’t take chances if you suspect soy could be an ingredient of an import.

Speak Up About Food: With food allergies, you have to ask questions and get over shyness when someone else wants to serve food to you or your child with this allergy.

We teach kids to respect adults and authority, but with an allergic child, it’s important to teach them not to eat foods that others offer – unless mom or dad has pre-approved or (when they’re older) unless they’re sure of the ingredients.

For adults, get over embarrassment; be certain to ask about ingredients, and learn to do this an efficient, confident manner.

At School: For a parent of a child with soy or legume allergies, sending them off to school can be a time of anxiousness. While soy is on the list of top allergens, many people are unaware of it as a potentially serious allergy.

It’s important to communicate clearly and calmly with your child’s teacher and the principal, and to create an anaphylaxis emergency plan (also called a food allergy action plan) to protect your child. In the U.S., we recommend getting a federal 504 Plan. This is a form you work out with the school, to spell out your child’s allergy needs.

Be sure your allergic child knows not to share food with peers and not to take food from anyone, including the teacher, unless you’ve said it’s OK.

At a Restaurant: Dining out with a soy or legume allergy may seem daunting at first, but it is possible to do so safely and enjoyably.

First, find a restaurant you trust. Call ahead to ask the manager or chef about menu items and how they handle pans and utensils in the kitchen to avoid cross-contamination. If he or she is unable to answer your questions, don’t eat there.

When you arrive at the restaurant, tell your server directly of your serious soy or legume allergy and discuss menu items that will be safe to eat.

If you don’t feel he or she is able to answer your questions properly, ask to speak to the chef or the manager. Be mindful of particularly risky foods: sauces, pre-packaged baked products, breads and salad dressing. When in doubt, don’t eat it.

There is often confusion about cooking in soy oil. As long as the oil is highly refined, studies show it is considered safe for those with soy allergy. As well, the FDA doesn’t require manufacturers to label it as an allergen. (If in doubt about your own allergy, speak to your allergist.)

Be Prepared: Make it your rule – no epinephrine auto-injector means no food.

While you’ll do everything to make sure you’re not eating soy or legumes, accidents happen.

Make sure you always have your auto-injector on you when you eat, in case of an emergency. If your child is allergic, make sure this rule is one he or she takes seriously.

Educating Others: In order to successfully manage a soy or legume allergy, those around you/your child need to be aware of the allergy and the serious consequences that could result from eating them.

Plan what you’ll say to others to explain this condition. Be calm, clear about the information and keep the conversation based on facts. Politely request that they help you keep yourself or your child safe.

You’ll often find that once a person understands about food allergies and anaphylaxis, they’ll be more than willing to help out.

Be mindful that there is a learning curve. Don’t expect people who don’t live with soy allergy or another legume allergy to absorb it all as quickly as you have.