Originally, I intended this article for people with food allergies, but then I realized that so many more people can benefit from it! At the end of the day, how many of us know much about spices, beyond the fact that they add deliciousness to the food? If you are a spice snob, you may steer away from this post as we will be covering mostly the essentials, but otherwise, please join me on a short Silk Road adventure!
Firstly, if you are completely new to this topic, I highly recommend to review my Instagram post on Herbs vs. Spices, so that you can quickly recap the difference between the two. Secondly, here are two fantastic tips for those who have just been diagnosed with a spice allergy:
TIP 1: Same blend name doesn’t mean same components! This is a super important point to remember, as companies may do their own twists to each mix they produce. Always read the ingredient list if available. If it is a homemade blend, ask how exactly it was prepared. If unsure, steer clear.
TIP 2: Depending on the type of allergen and level of your reaction, you MAY be able to tolerate cooked spices. This is because some spice components that cause allergic reactions are heat/acid sensitive, and therefore can become less potent/completely inactive after cooking, boiling or frying. There is some anecdotal evidence, however, that certain spices can become more potent after cooking instead and thus worsen the reaction. Talk to your Allergist and Registered Dietitian to determine the best solution for you!
So, here are some notes on spices (A-F only) that I am asked about most often:
AllSpice sounds like a blend, but this is the name for one single spice made from the dried fruit of the Pimenta dioica plant. Its aroma is somewhat similar to nutmeg, cinnamon and clove and therefore is a good substitution to keep in mind if you are allergic to any of the above.
Chile (chili) is another complicated spice. Strictly speaking, it is a fruit, that can be dried and ground into powder and then used as a spice. However, just as with the case of curry (see below), chili powder on an ingredient list may not necessarily mean pure chile pods that have been powdered. Chili powder is often used to refer to a blend of chile peppers, cumin, garlic, nutmeg and other spices, as well as herbs like oregano, so be careful!
Some people say that you can distinguish between the two by the last letter “i” vs. “e”, meaning that a spice blend will be spelled with an “i” (ie. chili), and a pure spice will be spelled with an “e” (ie. chile). However, I would be cautious about this advice, as I’ve seen spice blends spelled both ways, with "chili" being more common. Although quite tricky to substitute because of the unique flavour, if you are allergic to chili you can try black pepper (use freshly ground for more power), cumin, horseradish (may work well in some recipes) or Szechuan pepper (not related to black pepper or chile peppers) instead. This is possible because not all peppers are relatives, and if you want to know more, check out my "Free Resources" tab or join me @smartbitesolutions on Instagram!
Curry has quite a complicated history and has to be watched by people with allergies, because it can refer to a curry tree (leaves), various curry blends/powders (may include ginger, cinnamon, cumin, chili, and many other spices) and simply a variety of dishes where curry blends are used. Curry leaves are herbs that belong to the citrus fruit family, so if you are allergic to ginger, you should have no problem eating a dish with curry leaves. In contrast, commonly used curry powder is a complex blend of various spices that vary drastically and may easily contain your allergen, such as cumin, turmeric, ginger, black pepper, mustard, and others.
Cumin spice comes from seeds (each one contained within a fruit) that are dried and used either in whole or ground form. Cumin in ground form is quite easily recognised; however, if it is used as a seed, it may be confused with caraway (a spice with a pungent anise-like flavour). It is important to know that the two come from different plants, yet belong to the same parsley family, so hypersensitivity for both is possible, yet not always the case. Other members of the parsley family include parsley itself, dill, coriander, aniseed, fennel seeds and even carrots. If you have a cumin allergy, you can try substituting it with chile peppers or white/black peppers. Also, if you are allergic to cumin, be especially careful with curry and taco seasonings where cumin is most often added in larger amounts.
Cayenne and paprika are confusing for lots of people. The short answer is that both are hot peppers, just like chile (see above). However, paprikas are usually made from milder peppers, while cayennes are very hot! Nevertheless, all three (chile, paprika and cayenne) belong to the same family and if you are allergic to one, you may be sensitive to others as well (again, not always). These peppers are not relatives to black pepper, so if you have a paprika allergy, black/white peppers could be an acceptable substitution. Cumin, horseradish or Szechuan pepper could also be a plausible option for some dishes.
Interestingly, aside from spice allergies, there is a known condition called "capsaicin intolerance". Capsaicin is the active component in these peppers, which creates the familiar delicious heat; however, in some susceptible individuals capsaicin may trigger severe abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, nausea and even vomiting. In this case and since it is not a true allergy, some people are able to use sweet and mild paprikas as an alternative to chile and cayenne, since these varieties don't contain capsaicin.
Fajita is another popular spice blend to mention. Like in curry spice or taco spice blends, the exact ingredients can vary, but most often it will include chili powder, paprika, sugar, cayenne pepper, cumin, garlic powder and onion powder. Some brands also add ginger and black pepper, so always read the ingredient list carefully! Again, if details are not listed and you are unsure, better steer away!
Five Spice usually includes cinnamon, fennel seeds, star anise (not to be confused with regular anise seeds), Szechuan peppercorns and cloves. If you are a fan of Five Spice but allergic to any of these ingredients, try to make your own substitution. For example, with cinnamon allergy, you can try to substitute cinnamon with a blend of allspice, ginger and nutmeg. Fennel seeds can also be replaced with allspice. You can also try a simple combo of cloves, cinnamon and chile peppers if you need to remove Szechuan peppercorns. Note that Szechuan peppercorns are not related to black pepper nor chile peppers, but rather citrus, so they could be a good alternative for people with black pepper allergy.
I hope you you found these short notes clear and helpful! I'll start working on Part II soon, and meanwhile you can check my "Free Resources" tab for more information on spices, join me on Instagram and of course, feel free to send me a message if you have any questions!
Love you all! Til next!