Nut-Allergic and Vegetarian: Hurdles in a Happy Decision

For ethical reasons, I decided to adopt a plant-based diet. But with nut and legume allergies, I'm having to watch out. Alternative meats and milks plus dining do get tricky.

22 July 2021
By Hannah Lank

In the past year, I’ve tried doing something that I always thought was next to impossible because of my peanut and tree nut allergies: going vegetarian. Nowadays, there are more nut-free vegetarian options than ever before, but I also have a less serious food allergy to peas and other legumes. This means that I can’t eat meat substitutes made with pea protein, like Beyond Meat. 

I knew of this issue going into my decision, but I wanted to eat less meat for ethical reasons. So I figured it was worth giving it a shot to go vegetarian. 

Nut-Allergic and Vegetarian: Hurdles in a Happy Decision
Hannah with her vegetarian stir-fry.

Changing your diet to mostly plant-based is, hands down, a challenge for anyone with food allergies. When your diet is already restricted by a food allergy, adding other self-imposed restrictions can feel constraining. That’s because, well, it is.

For those of us allergic to peanuts, tree nuts or soy, it’s especially problematic that so many plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy are made using soy or nuts. For example, many non-dairy milks and cheeses are made from soy, cashews, almonds, or other nuts. Then I add in the legume reactivity – data show cross-allergy with peanut and other legumes (including peas) happens to about 5 percent with a peanut allergy. It all means there are plenty of plant-based alternatives to meat that I must pass on.

But perhaps the biggest hurdle with going plant-based is dealing with cross-contamination warnings. Because so many plant-based products are made with nuts or soy, those that don’t actually contain nuts or soy – like oat milk – are often made in the same facility as nut or soy milks and carry a standard “may contain” warning on the label. This can leave those of us with food allergies to nuts or soy with only one viable option of a particular plant-based food to purchase – if we’re lucky. 

The Vegan Dressing Dilemma

The same can be true at restaurants, many of which still only offer one or two vegetarian or vegan entrée options. From my experience, these dishes almost always contain nuts. Asking for a modification can feel risky – and what if you don’t even like the option to begin with!

I recently had an anxiety-inducing experience at a popular bar which offers many vegan food options. I was with one of my best friends, who’s vegan, and we decided to order the tofu bao buns with buffalo sauce, which came drizzled with “vegan ranch.”

I am hyper-aware that vegan versions of dairy products are often made with nuts like cashews. So I asked our server if the bun was safe for me to eat, and explicitly asked if the vegan ranch was nut-free or contained nuts. The server checked with the kitchen and assured me that it was, but I felt nervous. What if the kitchen had discounted my question, thinking it impossible that ranch dressing could contain nuts?

I took out my phone and Googled “vegan ranch” to see what it is typically made with. The results were generally nut-free, which calmed my worries a bit, though I remained on edge. As I’ve learned, when you have food allergies, you can never assume that even the most seemingly benign ingredient or dish is safe for you to eat.

In the end, I enjoyed my vegan buffalo tofu bao bun (it was quite delicious). I trusted my server’s assurance that it was safe for me to eat. I’d also eaten safely at this bar before, and felt reassured by the fact that this bar marks allergens on their menu and there was no “contains nuts” symbol beside the vegan bun. But with vegetarian and vegan alternatives of popular ingredients becoming more and more common, I know this type of situation will occur again. It no doubt has cropped up for many with food allergies who also choose to eat plant-based.

How Food Makers Can Help

Yet, eating plant-based and managing food allergies are not mutually exclusive. In the year that I’ve been doing this, I don’t miss meat. It often requires a bit more planning and effort, yet eating vegetarian is entirely possible. But I also think that those of with food allergies shouldn’t have to do it alone. There is a lot of space for food manufacturers and restaurants to improve in this new crossover space of plant-based diets and food allergies. 

Stricter manufacturing protocols, for example, would be very helpful. Manufacturers can take steps to be careful to clearly distinguish how they label their products. Recently, I saw an unsettling Twitter thread where a father with a young daughter allergic to tree nuts accidentally purchased the cashew milk version of a vegan ice cream because the packaging was almost identical to the coconut milk version. This kind of mix-up is entirely preventable, and manufacturers should provide visual aids to help food-allergic consumers easily distinguish between products. (In addition, we as allergic consumers must do our regular diligence of label reading, mindful that product ingredients can and do change.)

As always, there is plenty that restaurants can do to make dining a more comfortable experience for patrons with food allergies, whether they are plant-based or not. For example, clearly labeling allergens on menus; this would have greatly eased my vegan ranch concern. Restaurants can also try to offer more vegetarian and vegan meal options, including some that consciously do not include common allergens like peanuts, tree nuts, or soy. This may require some creativity, but it is far from impossible.

My journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle has been overall a success. The world of plant-based foods is exciting and growing every day, including new options that are allergy-friendly. I recently had a very positive experience at a nut-free vegan gelato bar that describes itself as “allergy-conscious” and uses vegan/allergy-friendly crossover products (like those from Enjoy Life) to make their gelato. This type of establishment demonstrates that having food allergies and eating plant-based do not have to be mutually exclusive.

This makes me excited about the new possibilities that plant-based food innovation is generating. Maybe all we need is a little more creativity!

Hannah Lank, who is studying law in Toronto, is a regular Allergic Living contributor.

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Will Restaurants Still Welcome We the Allergic?
It’s High Time Restaurants Got Serious About Food Allergies
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