Grocery Shopping for People with Food Allergies

Where You Can Find Allergy-Safe Food

Many dietary staples for people with food allergies — even for people with severe or multiple allergies — are the same as for everyone: fruits, vegetables, grains, beverages, and meats. Finding these staples is easy. Finding foods uniquely suited for allergies, however, can be tough.

Your options for buying allergy-safe foods will vary by your location. You'll often find more choices near large cities, but some smaller towns have great options.

The general advice I provide below can't replace a visit to your local stores, but you can use it as a starting point for your forays into places that sell groceries.

1
Shopping at Warehouse Clubs

Man reading milk label in grocery store
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Warehouse clubs are generally cost-effective, but they may not offer many allergy-safe options. Potential exceptions include sausages and hors d'oeuvres that are suitable for many allergy needs, some dairy-free milk alternatives, and nut-free snacks. Be aware, though, that even those foods can include some Big Eight allergens, and always check the label before purchasing.

2
Shopping at Supermarkets

Supermarkets vary in the amount of allergy-safe food they carry onsite. These foods often are shelved in the "natural foods" or "health foods" section in larger grocery stores, although you'll find them mixed in with their non-allergy-friendly competitors in others (for example, some stores stock gluten-free mixes alongside their gluten-containing mixes).

You will be able to find some dairy-free milks, especially soy and rice milks, at virtually all supermarkets. Areas with large populations of school children are likely to have large selections of wheat- and dairy-free foods (especially cereals, snacks, and pasta) to accommodate kids on gluten-free/casein-free diets, plus some nut-free cereals, sandwich spreads, and snacks.

Some supermarkets — particularly larger, upscale markets in areas where they are competing with specialty retailers — also offer baking mixes, frozen allergy-safe foods, and a wide selection of dry goods.

3
Shopping at Specialty Supermarkets

Specialty supermarkets, such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, can be viable options for allergy-safe shopping. They generally offer a variety of products for a number of restricted diets and may offer pamphlets and other materials detailing which items in their stores are dairy-free, wheat-free, nut-free, or free of other common allergens.

Specialty supermarkets often offer store brands of especially common allergy-safe alternatives such as rice pasta and soy milk, making them especially cost-effective for these products. Some sell baked goods that may meet some common allergy needs.

4
Shopping at Ethnic Markets

Ethnic markets are an often overlooked option for allergy-safe shopping. They are especially useful for grain, fruit, and vegetable allergies, since different national food traditions may rely on grains and plants that are less common in American cooking.

However, ethnic markets can pose a cross-contamination risk (be very cautious if considering something in a bulk bin, for example), and the language barrier is a potential issue. It goes without saying that you should never buy any food whose ingredient label you do not understand or that isn't clear. This may be a problem on food labels that have been translated from the original language.

5
Shopping at Health Food Stores

It's hard to make generalizations about health food stores, since they vary widely in their selection, the knowledge of their staffs, and their prices. Nonetheless, in any given area, a health food store is likely to have the widest selection of foods from a variety of smaller allergy-safe retailers.

Health food stores, in general, are ideal places to buy baking ingredients like corn-free starches, egg replacer, xanthan gum, and wheat-free flour. Many also sell a large selection of cookbooks. Again, do be aware of cross-contamination possibilities if you choose to buy from bulk bins.

6
Shopping Online

Online retailers are available no matter your physical location and may be the best choice if your allergy needs are complex or if your local grocery shopping options are limited. The primary drawbacks to online shopping are shipping costs and the need to plan ahead (since you will need to order foods in advance of when you need them).

Online shopping is easiest for nut allergies and for celiac disease, since specialty online grocers exist for both of these conditions. However, you can buy nearly any allergy-safe food online (although frozen or refrigerated foods are, of course, expensive and cumbersome to ship).

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