Enjoyable food and safe eating are within reach for those with sensitive diets.

Itching. Hives. Abdominal pain. Wheezing. Shortness of breath. Dizziness. It’s not a group of symptoms you want to mess with, and they only get scarier as the list goes on. For the countless millions with food allergies, these reactions are waiting if the wrong food is ingested, touched or even smelled. So, it is imperative for these individuals and those who care for them to look elsewhere when it comes to their diet.

Bland, or worse yet, unpalatable choices are a major hurdle for those faced with an allergy or intolerance. But with more dedicated companies like the ones you’re about to meet making better tasting products all the time, consumers in this category are in for a brighter, more delicious day ahead.

An Alternative Reality

A commonality among small companies invested in sensitive diet product lines, as well as some bigger companies with humble origins, is their shared roots. Somewhere in their history was a loved one who couldn’t have the foods they love because of a food allergy. Entrepreneurial families then took up the task of developing a tasty alternative. One product blossoms into many, and soon a natural food company is born.

Chocolate and sweets. One such case is Vermont Nut Free Chocolates, Grand Isle, VT, whose vice president is Mark T. Elvidge. He started the company along with his wife after becoming knowledgeable in the area of nut allergies for the sake of their peanut-allergic son.

Their catalog encompasses a wide variety of candy and dessert chocolate, and like many allergy-friendly companies, they’re branching out into new areas, including a line of protein-filled ball snacks with flavors like raisin and berry. “With these diverse products, we’ve been trying to get away from the seasonality of the chocolate business,” Elvidge says.

He explains that the key to success in this category is great-tasting products. “We believe you can have a product that meets these criteria without sacrificing quality. A lot of the allergy-free products out there are actually taste-free,” he says.

The quest for good taste drives consumers and product makers alike. Another example is Pamela Giusto-Sorrells, president of Pamela’s Products, Ukiah, CA. Her family owned a wholesale natural foods bakery, where she encountered a variety of alternative foods, including gluten-free items. “They were just awful tasting and I use to ask my dad, ‘Who eats these things?’ My dad said there were only a few people and they were happy to have something available on the market,” Giusto-Sorrells says.

She started Pamela’s Products in 1988 to cater to that initial lack of tasty, enjoyable choices. While maintaining a focus on gluten-free alternatives, she has broadened her horizons more recently with dairy- and nut-free products such as non-dairy chunky chocolate chip cookies and nut-free lemon shortbread.

An important point arises in conjunction with Pamela’s Products. Although some products in the line are effectively dairyand nut-free, they are not marketed as such. This is because they are produced in facilities that also produce dairy and nut products, so the “-free” claim is not made on packaging. Where these or other like claims are absent, precaution should be taken by those with allergies and intolerances, because the risk of cross-contamination, however small, is present in such cases.

Nut butter. Satisfying a sweet tooth isn’t the only way to go for good-tasting food replacements. The market for quality nut butter as a substitute for the peanut variety is growing. The competition for that market drives nut butter makers to excel.

“Sunflower seeds have gained popularity particularly in sunflower butter where the consistency is similar to peanut butter and the flavor is appealing (even) to those without food allergies,” says Gael Orr, communications manager for Once Again Nut Butter, Nunda, NY. Their line of nut butters is diverse, and also includes a Tahini (sesame seed) butter that caters to those with peanut allergies.

There is more fanfare for sunflower seed butter. “Roasted sunflower seed especially has a very similar initial taste as any nut butter would have, where you get roasted notes. A lot of people can’t tell the difference between a typical peanut butter and ours,” says Justin LaGosh, brand manager for Red River Commodities Inc., Fargo, ND, makers of SunButter. This brand, consisting solely of sunflower seed butter in several different flavors, is openly marketed as entirely peanut-free.

LaGosh says that sunflower seed butter finishes with a distinct sunflower seed aftertaste. “Sunflowers are not nearly as bitter as some peanuts or a lot of other tree nuts are. If you can imagine taking a handful of sunflower kernels and chewing it up, that would be the taste you would get.”

He explains that since sunflower seed butter is similar in consistency, texture, smell and even color to other nut butters including peanut butter, it is a good baking or general recipe replacement. Recipes may require alterations to the amount of baking powder used, usually lessening it by about a third to avoid a visually unappealing though harmless grayish-green color to peanut butter cookies, for instance, due to a reaction with the chlorophyll in sunflower seeds. Pre-altered recipes are available on the Internet for using products like this (such as www.wholefoodsmagazine.com/grocery/recipes), making alternate nut butters a perfect direct replacement for every conventional use of peanut butter.

The variety of spreadable nut butters is as wide as can be. For nearly every type of nut one can think of, someone is making a butter to go with it. Almond, cashew, pecan, pistachio, walnut and even more esoteric selections are all available. Other seed-derived butters like pumpkin, Tahini and soybean offer their own distinctive taste and texture. Of course, many individuals have multiple nut allergies, or have a soy allergy, so some of these choices may not be viable.

Some companies have begun to offer “no stir” nut butters in their product lines. This cuts out the need to prepare a nut butter by stirring it into a spreadable mixture. Creating a stable solution for “no stir” varieties presents a challenge for manufacturers, but once achieved, they may prove more convenient and better at matching the experience of peanut butter.

Milk and soy substitutes. There are an abundance of milk-substitute products on the market, derived from similar sources to many of the nut butters described previously, as well as from soy or certain grains. They vary in taste and consistency, and many of them have nutritional profiles different from milk, and so present differing nutritional benefits that match their sources, such as almond milk. Others are fortified to approximate the nutritional profile of milk.

These substitutes are limited in some respects, industry insiders believe. Says Rose Anne Colavito, founder and CEO of Green Rabbit, LLC (maker of MimicCreme), Albany, NY, “As far as versatility goes, many of them cannot be used as total substitutes for dairy in recipes because the texture or composition of these alternatives is not sufficient to pull the recipe off. Many are too thin or weak of taste or body to be positive additions to recipes that call for milk.” Rice milk for instance, with its lighter consistency, is slightly sweeter than some other substitutes but does not work as well in recipes calling for savory, salty flavor.

Colavito goes further in describing the outlook for those that must steer clear of lactose. “There are presently on the market many brands of dairy-substitute products (for milk, cheese) made from soy, grains and nuts (including coconut) that all can be safely eaten by the lactose-intolerant consumer. For whipped toppings, there are the well-known plastic-tub alternatives, which aren’t appropriate for consumers who are keeping to an overall healthy diet.”

Truly dairy-free whipped cream is available on the market, in addition to the well-known whipped cream imitations that are popularly served from aerosol cans. Those with an actual milk allergy should beware these latter products may still contain the milk derivative casein.

Dairy-free cream presents an interesting alternative for those who are lactose intolerant. Designed to serve as a substitute for any recipe that calls for regular dairy cream, it can come from a nut blend of almonds and cashews, and can be made gluten and soy free. unsweetened cream can be used to thicken soup, sauces and gravies, and works as a baking ingredient. Sweetened creams are ideal for dessert toppings.

Avoiding soy can be a catch-22 for some, in that it’s often the go-to ingredient substitute for those with alternative diets, yet it’s a common type of allergy itself. Vegetarians and allergy sufferers both turn to soy often, usually treating it as a versatile protein replacement in daily meals. An unlucky few may possess both lactose intolerance and a soy allergy, eliminating soy milk as an option, though this combination is actually somewhat common in young children under the age of 5 (3).

While dodging soy completely rivals dealing with a severe nut allergy in difficulty, replacing soy in the diet is no more

             Something Still Not Right?

Nailing down root causes in the complex world of food allergies and intolerances can be a tough task. If individuals suspect they have a particular allergy, but haven’t yet confirmed it with testing, something else may be afoot. Especially in cases where the suspected allergen is avoided and symptoms still persist, a less well-known problem could be to blame. According to Marcus Laux, N.D., histamine intolerances are responsible for a great number of undiagnosed Adverse Food Reactions.

Histamines are found in high quantities in many commonly consumed foods like wine, aged cheese, eggplant, yogurt, spinach, tomatoes and many more. Also to blame can be histamine-releasing substances such as bananas, chocolate, shellfish and strawberries (1). About adverse reactions to foods in general, Laux says, “More likely than not, it is a histamine intolerance. There are more chances for it to be caused by diet, alcohol, drugs, etc.” However, great caution must be used and doctors should always be consulted every step of the way. If a reaction is severe and/or life threatening, the likelihood of the reaction being allergy-based increases, and an allergy test should be taken.

When it comes to food intolerances, the solution does not always need to be a matter of complete avoidance. A dedicated program of slow but methodical enzyme-building could ease some cases of intolerance away. “It’s usually a gradation of a problem. Could they be overloaded because they just had a smoothie? Yes,” Laux says. But this does not mean a true, irremediable intolerance is present. “Gradually over time, perhaps over a period of months, the body will re-energize its lactose enzymes,” he says. If dairy is approached gradually and with care, this type of avoidable intolerance can be lessened or even removed. Unless there is a genetic predisposition toward extremely low levels of lactase, this approach may work for some as long as caution is taken (2).


1. M. Laux, “Food Intolerance: Revealing the Hidden Epidemic,” presentation delivered at Natural Products Expo East in Boston, MA, October 2010.

2. S. Tally, “Lactose Intolerant? Drink More Milk,” Agricultures, www.agriculture.purdue.edu/agricultures/past/Spring1998/1998-Spring-Spotlights.pdf, accessed Oct. 21, 2010.

difficult than any other food. Labels that include the term “natural flavor” are likely to contain traces of soy, so guide shoppers to read labels carefully. Common vegetable oils will often include soy, so recommend for canola, corn or olive oil instead. The soy-free life can be a daunting challenge for people, and they can use all the help they can get, including from the place they buy their food. Educating yourself on soy allergy will garner great appreciation from those dealing with it every day.

Serious Attention

The safety stakes couldn’t be higher for some with allergies. A lot goes into making sensitive diet products safe, and a lot can be done to make sure they are sold safely as well.

Safe products. LaGosh of Red River Commodities points out that his company’s nut butters are totally lactose, peanut and tree nut free, while emphasizing an important factor that applies across the board for allergy-free manufacturing. Soy products are made in their facility, he says, so it is possible that cross-contamination can occur. “There is a minimal chance of a trace amount of soy being in the product, even though there is a thorough clean-out process that involves pressure washing the equipment with 180-degree water in between roasting, and they’re never roasted together,” LaGosh says. This cross-contamination issue goes for every allergy and intolerance category equally. If a label includes something to the effect of “Manufactured on the same equipment used to process (insert allergen here) products,” these should be consumed only at the individual’s discretion and after consulting a doctor.

Responsible manufacturers take precautions against even trace amounts of an allergen ending up in their products. The Vermont Nut-Free Chocolates facilities are entirely peanut and tree nut free. Just to be sure, Elvidge says, “we perform random, finished product testing at our facilities. We source safe ingredients without any risk of cross-contamination.”

Companies in these categories will often offer up information about the safety of their products, on their Web sites or even on labeling. Seeking out this information is a good way become aware of the safety profile of a product and to pass that knowledge on to customers. “All manufacturing lines are extensively flushed and sanitized between production runs to ensure that there is no cross-contamination of allergen ingredients,” says Colavito of her company’s procedures. She says Green Rabbit uses a contract packaging partner with transparent manufacturing practices, that thoroughly isolates product ingredients from one another at their facility.

Colavito summarizes safety from the manufacturing perspective, saying, “you must have a watchdog mentality. All ingredients must be thoroughly vetted, so to speak, to ensure they are free of unwanted allergens, all processing facilities must be operating at the highest of standards, and labeling of the products to clearly state the presence of any allergens is, of course, a must.”

Sensitive retailing. Kelly Rudnicki, author, food allergy advocate and founder of foodallergymama.com, comments on the current regulatory and certification scene for sensitive diet manufacturing. “Companies that get Kosher Parve status go through strict certification procedures, and for this reason, many allergy-friendly companies like to get this symbol on their packaging. There isn’t a ‘label’ for allergen-safe products, but there may be in the future,” says Rudnicki, a mother of five who became an advocate when one of her children was diagnosed with allergies. Though there is no federal regulation in place, third-party certifications exist. One is the Certified Allergen Control label based in Canada, which includes a nut-free certification, and another is the Allergen Free International Certification, covering products that are free of gluten, wheat and lactose.

She went on to tell WholeFoods some of the important ways retailers can cater to sensitive-diet shoppers, and some of the things of which they need to be aware. “Stores should recognize that these types of products should be shelved with the other products, and not in separate ‘organic’ sections. For example, nut butter alternatives should be shelved near peanut butter, soy milk near regular milk, etc.,” Rudnicki suggests, adding that customers may not otherwise be aware that alternatives exist, or may skip buying them instead of hunting them down in another section of the store.

The right array of products will make shoppers happy, and sure to return for their new favorite sensitive diet staples. “For lactose intolerant or those with dairy allergies, alternatives such as dairy-free cream cheese, sour cream, cheese, etc. should be available,” Rudnicki says. She adds, about safely displaying products in these categories, “Packaged products ensure food safety, but products in open bins (such as bagels, rolls, etc.) are at high risk for cross-contamination. For example, plain, dairy-free and nut-free bagels should not share a display with Asiago cheese bagels.”

Bonus Points

For people with restricted diets who relish the simple opportunity to try great-tasting alternatives, any potential health benefits from these foods will just be (allergy-free) gravy. In many cases, a health boost is just what they may be getting. Take the case of sunflower seeds. According to LaGosh, they are “nutritionally superior not only to peanuts, but also every other tree nut you can think of. If you put them in a nutritional chart, they are much higher in all vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E especially, magnesium, copper, zinc, iron and fiber.”

He adds that while sunflower seed butter has a similar fat content to peanut butter, it contains more “good” and less “bad” fat; it has about a third less saturated fat than peanut butter to be specific, but with the same amount of protein. It is low in sodium, and has no trans fat or cholesterol, LaGosh says.

Orr of Once Again Nut Butter agrees, saying, “Sunflower butter tends to be a bit higher in fiber and tastes very similar to peanut butter.” She cites the benefits of certain nutrients in sunflower seed butter, especially selenium. Selenium has been shown to induce DNA repair and synthesis in damaged cells, to inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells, and to induce their apoptosis, the self-destruct sequence the body uses to eliminate worn out or abnormal cells (4).

It’s a no-brainer that people should make some of these foods part of their diet, allergies or not, says Colavito. “It’s not news that we should all keep our cholesterol, saturated fat and sodium intakes to a minimum for good overall heart and vascular-system health, so it just makes common sense to replace some dairy, which is high in cholesterol and saturated fat, with alternatives, which typically are low in both.”

Variety, being the spice of life, should be the main appeal of these unconventional foods to the average consumer. “It provides the consumer different sources of protein and nutrients and provides more variety in their diet,” Rudnicki contends. So, to consumers skeptical of trying, say, almond milk or butter, perhaps the refrain should be, “Expand your diet, and just try it!”

Retailers can make a habit of directing customers to information about the individual products themselves. Something to keep in mind when dealing with products in these categories is their low profile. “We’ve not done a lot of mainstream marketing. All of our marketing, even though it’s limited, is very focused on the food allergy group and community. So if someone is not directly affected by food allergies then they may never have heard of us,” says LaGosh. Companies in these categories often work with specialty distributors and individual retailers. Many companies have highly interactive websites with sound nutritional and safety advice on them, so the opportunity is there to learn. Getting the word out in the right circles is essential, especially for new or uncommon products. This is how most tasty, allergen-free alternatives find their way into the shopping baskets, and eventually the mouths, of people who would otherwise go without. WF


1. M. Laux, “Food Intolerance: Revealing the Hidden Epidemic,” presentation delivered at Natural Products Expo East in Boston, MA, Oct. 2010.

2. “Food Allergy vs. Food Intolerance: Comparing Symptoms and Causes,” WebMD, Feb. 5, 2009, www.webmd.com/allergies/foods-allergy-intolerance, accessed Oct. 26, 2010.

3. J.H. Savage, et al., “The Natural History of Soy Allergy,” J. Allergy Clin. Immunol. 125 (3), 683–686 (2010).

4. “WH Foods: Sunflower Seeds,” The World’s Healthiest Foods, www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=57, accessed Oct. 25, 2010.

5. S. Tally, “Lactose Intolerant? Drink More Milk,” Agricultures, www.agriculture.purdue.edu/agricultures/past/Spring1998/1998-Spring-Spotlights. pdf, accessed Oct. 21, 2010.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, December 2010