23 Feb ‘Free-From’ Baking
Is it possible to bake something that is dairy-free, wheat-free, gluten-free, egg-free, soy-free, sugar-free, and still taste delicious? More importantly, you may ask, why would you bother? Well, in this video that I filmed for Laya Healthcare last year, I address the former question, and the recipe below shows that it is definitely possible to re-create delicious ‘free-from’ baked goods. But in this blog post, I’m looking to address the latter question: why would you go to all that effort baking something ‘free from’, removing all the ingredients that are traditional to baking?
If you suspect that you are suffering from a type of food hypersensitivity, then actively avoiding the most common triggers may be a worthwhile endeavour. Hypersensitivity to food can be experienced by 2-23% of the population (figures vary greatly), and in its simplest terms, involves a negative physical reaction following ingestion of a food. Hypersensitivity to food can be divided into food allergy and food intolerance. This post is geared more toward food intolerance, but let’s touch on the distinction between allergy and intolerance.
Food allergy is an immunological response to a trigger; the body perceives a certain food as dangerous, and it mounts an immune-based response to defend itself. The symptoms from this kind of immune-based response vary between skin irritation, breathing difficulties, abdominal pain, and, at its most serious, anaphylaxis, muscle paralysis, and shock, which can be fatal. The reaction is immediate and extreme. Some of the most common foods that trigger an immune response in individuals with allergies are tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, milk, egg, soy, and wheat.
Food intolerance is not an immune response, but a spectrum of physiological reactions to pharmacological triggers and enzymatic deficiencies. The most common pharmacological food intolerances are to chemicals such as histamine, found in red wine, strong cheese, and mackerel; salicylate, commonly found in plant foods like berries, tomato sauce, and citrus fruits; and colourings and preservatives such as tartrazine and sulphur dioxide. The most common enzymatic deficiency is lactase deficiency, which leads to an inability to breakdown and digest lactose, leading to lactose intolerance.
Many people’s experience with food intolerance may be unspecific – they can’t really pinpoint which foods are causing reactions. This is because food intolerances are notoriously hard to define, as they can present up to 48 hours after ingestion of the trigger food. Symptoms can be nuanced, triggering responses such as bloating, fatigue, headache, acne, and achey joints. Testing for food intolerance is very common and many pharmacies and healthcare practitioners offer a finger-prick test which claims to highlight what foods are causing problems. However, the lack of validity and reliability for these tests is of concern, with anecdotal evidence often cited on company websites in lieu of any scientific evidence. As a result, most Irish, European, and North American Allergy and Intolerance Committees or Working Groups recommend caution with intolerance testing. I don’t offer them in my clinic.
If you suspect you have an intolerance, what can you do about it?
Many people take matters into their own hands by eliminating foods from their diets that they suspect are causing problems; the most common being gluten and dairy. This elimination often elicits a positive response (i.e. reduction of symptoms) and people continue eliminating the foods for extended periods to avoid return of symptoms. While this strategy sounds logical, and I always encourage people to feel empowered to make positive diet- and lifestyle-changes, doing so without structured guidance has the potential for certain problems, from risk of nutrient deficiency to anxiety around social situations. If you have chosen to, or are in the process of deciding whether to, restrict certain foods from your diet, my advice would always be, firstly, to consult with a nutritionist or dietitian for expert advice so you can do it well, and get long-term positive relief. While you get that appointment sorted, here are a couple of extra tips to avoid the most common pitfalls in the ‘free-from’ experience.
- Going Gluten-Free: Try not to depend heavily on manufactured gluten-free breads, gluten-free cereals, and gluten-free biscuits, as they are notoriously reliant on oil or sugar to increase palatability. Instead, choose naturally gluten-free grains such as brown rice, quinoa, and buckwheat and any 1-2-ingredient pastas, noodles, or crackers that have been made using these flours. Then fill the rest of your plate with veggies, salad, lean protein, and healthy fats. Oats are naturally gluten-free but they are usually contaminated with wheat in the storing/packaging phase, and thus are unsuitable for individuals with coeliac disease. Gluten-free oats are just oats that have their own dedicated machinery or factories to prevent cross-contamination. Gluten-free flours, like the one used in this recipe, can be sourced easily (but not cheaply) in any health food store and large supermarket chains. Creating your own homemade breads using Bob’s Red Mill or Doves Farm can be a little labour-intensive, but very worthwhile. This focaccia recipe is fantastic served alongside baked hake, steamed veggies, and a rocket and spinach salad.
- Dairy-Free: One of the pitfalls that is often discussed in relation to going dairy-free is the risk of reducing calcium in the diet. Dairy is a common source of calcium, but if you cannot tolerate lactose, and wish to remove dairy, replacing with fortified non-dairy plant milks such as almond, rice or coconut milk provides a similar calcium profile. Removing whole food groups can lead to deficiency if not accounted for, so instead of removing dairy, replace it with something you can tolerate. Check the label of your plant milks, and always ensure they’re fortified with calcium and vitamin D (most of them are, but do check). Lactose-free milk is also a solution for many people looking to address lactose intolerance. The lactase enzyme has been added to the milk and the lactose is split into its constituent parts galactose and glucose which the body can then better digest.
- Removing Sugar: While not related to allergy or intolerance as such, going sugar-free is currently one of the buzziest nutrition-related concerns, but a common baby-with-the-bathwater situation, where bananas get lumped with colas. Added sugars are known to be problematic in large amounts, and should be capped at 5% of your total daily caloric intake. Evidence-based research into obesity, type 2 diabetes, and fatty liver disease all pinpoint added sugars, in excess and in combination with poor diet quality overall, as a driver of ill-health. The priority with reducing sugar intakes must first centre on added sugars. Soft drinks/fizzy drinks, sugar added to your tea/coffee, sugar sprinkled on your breakfast cereal or honey squeezed onto your oats, syrupy lattes, and confectionaries such as cakes, biscuits, pastries, chocolates, jellies, etc must be dealt with first. Agave, honey, and maple syrup are also added sugars. They may contain additional nutrients when compared to white cane sugar, but often in trace amounts. However, intrinsic sugars like those found in fruit and dairy should not be your primary concern, unless you have an intolerance to fructose or lactose. There’s a hierarchy with sugars, and foods with intrinsic sugars are often rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants, and are very different from foods manufactured with added sugars. In very black and white terms, if you’re looking to reduce your sugar intake, deal with the added stuff first.
This recipe is free-from wheat, gluten, dairy, soy, egg, and added sugar.
2 cups Doves Farm GF Bread Flour
2.5 tsp GF baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tbsp dried rosemary, or fresh rosemary chopped
2tbsp ground flax plus 80-100ml water, to make ‘flax egg’
1 cup rice milk
1/4 cup olive oil
1/3 cup chopped walnuts
1/3 cup chopped pitted black olives
1/3 cup chopped sundried tomatoes
1 sprig fresh rosemary chopped
Make up flax egg and set aside for 10 minutes. Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. Mix wet ingredients in a separate bowl. Add flax egg to bowl of wet ingredients and fold all into bowl of dry ingredients. Grease pan with olive oil, and pour mixture out, flattening gently. Top with walnuts, olives, sundried tomatoes, rosemary leaves, and sprinkle sea salt and black pepper. Place in pre-heated oven for 30-40 mins at 180.
N.B.: This blog post is aimed at an adult population and should not be transposed onto a paediatric population. Children have different nutritional needs to adults. This blog post is not intended to replace individualised advice based on your symptoms and experiences. Please consult a nutritionist, dietitian or your GP if you are concerned about possible food intolerance or food allergy and how to achieve symptom relief.