Whether you are new to eating allergy-friendly or an old pro, there are some significant challenges when it comes to finding good snacks. And a good snack is important. It might be a bit of a (completely deserved) running joke with my friends about how much food I have with me at all times: I typically carry at least two snacks in each bag and have a stash of snacks at my desk for my day job.
Why know the challenges? Knowing is half the battle! If you know what is coming, then you can get ahead of it. Here are the top five we have noticed:
1. Hidden ingredients
At the end of the day, this is the biggest challenge for allergy-friendly snacking. So, if you can only read one challenge, make this one it. Snacks are meant to be easy and portable, and to do that, most snacks have some sort of preservative to keep the snack fresh/crispy/not clumped together, or all of the above. Depending on the allergy you or the person you snack with has, that can be really bad news. Most of the preservatives I have noticed are derived from some form of corn, soy, or wheat (read: gluten). The worst part? These ingredients don’t necessarily read like the thing you are allergic to! They might say “natural flavors,” or “citric acid,” or some long name that sounds like a chemical that actually comes from something to which you are allergic.
How do you address this challenge? The easiest answers are to stick to snacks that have one ingredient (like a fruit or a vegetable), make the snack from scratch yourself (control can be key), or buy snacks where all of the ingredients are words that clearly tell you from what plant or animal they come. If you want a little more variety and freedom, you could also make an easy-access list of all byproduct names that are not friendly to your allergy and then compare the ingredients in what you want to eat to this list. Or, you could also memorize the list. The downside to this is that some ingredients, like (natural flavors), could come from a variety of things, one of which could contain your allergen..
This leads right into our next challenge:
Depending on how extensive your allergies are, one of the biggest challenges for most people is getting bored. Me, I could eat the same meals every day for weeks, but I know that is unusual.
How do you fix this? Incorporating more fresh snacks into your week can make a difference, because fruit and vegetables are seasonal, and therefore change throughout the year (for instance, as we move into fall I am crying my annual tears about the loss of in-season stone fruit). Having dips, sauces, or toppings can also help. If you can have hummus, make sure you make or buy a variety of flavors to mix things up. If you can eat dairy, then switch up the type of cheese you are eating. Small changes go a long way to prevent boredom.
This is pretty self explanatory. For many reasons, processed foods (most likely to be not allergy-friendly), are less expensive than foods containing mostly or only whole ingredients. This essentially means that the more hidden ingredients something has, the more likely it is that it will be the cheapest option. To be clear, this is not always the case. If you keep your eyes open and think about the options, then you can find things cheaply that don’t contain your specific allergen. Bananas and apples are a great example. But by and large, allergy-friendly snacks are more expensive. (As a complete aside, for those with an academic leaning, it is fascinating to read up on why processed foods are now less expensive than whole foods, when this has not historically been the case).
The solution to this challenge is to keep your eyes open and know what your best options are. For example, grocery stores are more likely to have inexpensive options than convenience stores. Grocery stores also offer more options. Also, if you have the time to make your own snacks (crackers, bars, fruit leathers, granola, etc), then buying ingredients in bulk can really drive down the overall cost per snack. But, as they say, time is money, and making your own snacks is expensive in a different way.
Since allergy-friendly foods tend to be fresh whole foods, they tend to spoil faster. This could be anything from truly spoiling and being inedible, to just being stale and unappealing. Either way, the fewer preservatives in a food, the quicker it doesn’t seem fresh. So one of the big challenges with allergy-friendly snacking is the increase in food going bad, moldy, stale, or otherwise rotten. The good news is that this suggests the food is easily accessible to your body when you are eating and digesting it. I mean, if it can go bad and shift form in the outside world, then it is probably easy for it to do the same in your belly. The challenging part is that you need to stay on top of replacing your snacks.
To take care of this, I have a few fixes. I buy fewer snacks at a time (thinking weekly instead of monthly, and sometimes even more than once a week), and then doing a weekly sweep of my fridge and cupboard to make sure I am using up what is there, and then getting rid of what is bad. This also means I put a little more thought into which snacks I carry with me versus placing in an insulated lunch box, or only eating out of my fridge. I also prioritize my snacks. The melon from the farmer’s market? That is my early week snack because it ripens and goes bad more quickly than the apple. Mostly I just think about how long things truly last instead of assuming they will be good for a while.
This one sums up all of the others. It would be really nice to waltz into a gas station in the middle of a road trip and be able to grab anything in the store to snack on. That would be easy, and fast, and require very little thought. And for people without food allergies or other dietary restrictions, that is what they get. (Now that I think about it, it actually adds another facet to the broader conversations about privilege.) But when you are facing all of the above challenges, it isn’t convenient. In fact, it can be incredibly annoying. Even though it becomes a fact of life.
So what do you do about this? Well, this is where it becomes absolutely imperative to find a way to make peace with the facts of life. If you have a food allergy, you have a food allergy. And because the food allergy doesn’t just go away, and change is slow in consumer places, the sheer mental load and inconvenience of grabbing a snack somewhere is simply less likely. But that doesn’t mean it has to be anguish-filled every time. Talk to your friends and loved ones. Process with a therapist, or consult a registered dietician. You are strong, you can adapt, you have adapted, and you will continue to get better and better at this!
As always, let us know your challenges and what you would like our insights on.