By Jessica J. Hammon
In today’s food world, substitutes for what many consider normal staples are not only common but at times a necessity for those with health conditions. Allergies to nuts and wheat are at an all-time high, and auto-immune disorders such as Celiac’s Disease are highlighted often in the media. Unfortunately, if you’re new to cooking with substitutes you inevitably will end up spending money on things you hate. In general, food substitutes do not need to be made from chemicals; and to be honest, they usually taste the worst. Cream cheese made out of partially hydrogenated soybean oil? Yuck. Try sticking to natural substitutes; you’d be surprised at how many are out there. Here are a few tips on the big three – gluten, dairy and sugar.
- GLUTEN: Whether for general health or medical reasons, gluten free living is the fastest growing food trend in America. Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. If you are considering going gluten-free, or maybe need to cook for a gluten-free friend, try these options:
- Lettuce wraps are a nice substitute for bread in any sandwich situation. They also make gluten-free breads but they are hit-and-miss at best. My favorite right now is O’Doughs Bagel Thins. They are all natural, so you avoid the chemical problem often found in processed foods and they taste pretty good. Once lightly toasted, they fill my “gotta have a bagel” craving. You can find them in the frozen health food section of your grocery store.
- Gluten-free pasta is great if you get the right kind. Stay away from pasta made solely of brown rice; it gets mushy very quickly. Go for pasta made from non-GMO corn, white rice, quinoa, or any mix of the three. Aldi has some really great options for gluten-free noodles.
- Speaking of quinoa, it is one of the few grains that are gluten-free and it tastes delicious. Use it in recipes in place of couscous, cracked wheat, or even regular pasta.
- Bonus! Gluten-free desserts are DELICIOUS. Why? They often have more butter and sugar and therefore are denser and sweeter than the traditional variety. Don’t be too shy to try a flourless chocolate cake. You just might not go back to the original!
2. DAIRY: For whatever reason, lactose intolerance and allergy is said to be on the rise. Without getting into the numerous and sometimes conflicting theories behind this, here are some alternatives to try:
- Goat and sheep’s milk/cheese – Many people who have dairy sensitivities can get away with goat and sheep’s milk products because they have less lactose and are easier to digest. And please, don’t let yourself think that the only kind of goat cheese is the strong-flavored creamy variety. Take yourself down to the Hill’s cheese guys at the Flint Farmer’s Market and have them give you a sample of the Beemster mature goat cheese. It will open your eyes to a whole new world of the variety of goat and sheep’s milk cheeses.
- Almond and soy milk – Personally, I lean towards almond milk. I like the taste better and it has more calcium, but hey, I’ll never turn down a soy latte from Flint’s Café Rhema either. Either work great for cereal eaters.
- Coconut milk – My secret ingredient to truly delicious meals. It is the perfect substitute in stews, sauces, desserts, smoothies, and of course, it makes a mean curry. If you really don’t like the taste of coconut though, you might want to test a little bit before pouring the whole can in. There can be a coconut flavor that comes through.
3. SUGAR: I’ll say it again, given the option of natural or chemical, I’ll always go for natural, and sugar is by no means an exception. The controversy alone regarding artificial sweeteners and high fructose corn syrup is enough for me to stay away and frankly, I think the natural options taste better anyway. Here are my go-to choices:
- Agave nectar is just plain awesome, as is good old fashioned honey. They are sweet, all natural, and very healthy. Both agave nectar and honey have been shown to not give people the blood sugar spike the regular stuff does.
- Rebiana, derived from the Stevia plant, is now a big player in the sugar substitute game. Since studies are not clear on the health effects, I try to limit my use, but a Stevia baking blend (make sure to use the baking blend) is great for desserts. Just be careful—this stuff is MUCH sweeter than regular sugar so you won’t need to use nearly as much.
- And last is my favorite, Monkfruit sugar. This natural sweetener is sometimes mixed with Erythritol or Xylitol (sugar alcohols). In my experience, this is the most sugar-like option and you use it in a 1-to-1 ratio in recipes. Erythritol or Xylitol on their own work well too but be careful as too much can cause a belly ache.
Well, there you have it. Hopefully these health tips will have you notso- scared of giving up your Cheddar for, say, a nice aged Manchego. Not everyone needs to substitute traditional ingredients for an alternative option, but for those of us who do, it’s nice to know society is catching up with our needs.