The Cost of a Soy Allergy

There’s soy in So. Many. Things.

Photo: mc559/Flickr

Last October, I developed an allergy to soy. Like my allergies to both apples and hazelnuts, it came on suddenly. But what really struck me in the months following was how ubiquitous soy is and how much an allergy to a ubiquitous food/ingredient costs.

I was eating some edamame and had a fairly dramatic allergic reaction. This was the start of my soy allergy. Right away, I realized I’d have to strike edamame from my grocery list. But that was no big deal. I seldom ate it, and it’s easily replaceable as a vegetable.

A day later, I reached for soy sauce to put on my lunchtime rice and it hit me…no soy meant no soy sauce. Soy sauce is one of my favorite food things. First, I love Chinese — and any Asian — food, in which soy sauce plays a leading role. Second, I use soy sauce in a lot of stuff. Chicken soup. Eggs. Plain rice. Pasta, if I don’t feel like using tomato sauce, pesto, or butter.

The realization that soy sauce might be off limits counted as a food tragedy, right up there with hazelnuts, but far more devastating. Hazelnuts are easily replaceable (just choose a dessert with almonds instead!) and doesn’t occur in a lot of foods.

But soy does. Even after realizing that soy sauce was off limits, it took me several weeks to grasp just how many foods contain plain old soy. I continued to eat sushi, for example. No go. Soy sauce within as well as on. Ramen noodles, a dish I especially love in the winter. No go. The noodles contain soy. Clam chowder, ditto. It wasn’t until a Kit Kat bar that I realized “Hey, I’ve got to read the labels of…everything.”

Right before this realization, I had just gone on the sort of grocery run I call a “mega.” In a mega, I buy staples for a month or two. In other grocery runs, it’s pretty much just fruit, vegetables, and bread.

A partial list of what I suddenly realized was off limits due to soy: bread, nearly every kind in a conventional loaf. Cous-cous. Rice pilaf. Saltines. Tuna fish, most brands. (Packed in soy oil.) Ritz crackers. Peanut butter. Soups ranging from chicken noodle to lentil. Salad dressings. Tomato sauce. Margarine. Pita bread. Croutons. Eggo waffles. Convenient entrees like Stouffer’s stuffed peppers and spinach soufflé. French fries and sweet potato fries. Kale bites. Frozen fish fillets. Ice cream bars. (This sounds like a lot of frozen foods, I know, but the kind of planning that stocks up freezers is part of a mega.) Pizza. Chocolate, every type available in a grocery store.

Almost every widely available chocolate uses soy lecithin as an emulsifier. The University of Nebraska, in its very helpful Food Allergy Research and Resource Program web site, optimistically states that many folks with soy allergies can eat soy lecithin. Well, unfortunately…I can’t.

Once I started reading labels, I realized that a lot of the foods I’d just bought were now out of bounds. I had at least $200 worth of unusable groceries, which was sad, sad, sad. Some stuff I could and did give to the local food bank. But some is still sitting in my freezer, because I can’t bear to toss it all. Beyond the financial loss, there are costs involved in reorganizing your eating and shopping habits. There are fairly sizable expenditures of time involved in rethinking and re-planning. Here’s my journey and the resultant dollar signs.

Because I’m a woman of priorities, I set them. First up was finding a replacement for soy sauce. There had to be something that was just as good, right? I tried looking up recipes for soy sauce on the off chance that they fermented something other than, you know, soybeans.

There are a number of queasy-sounding soy sauce recipes on the web, including one, and I am not kidding, that asks you to grow mold in paper towels for a week or more as part of the recipe.There are other recipes that use ingredients like vinegar and molasses to make a sauce, but frankly, I couldn’t imagine they’d taste like soy sauce. And I definitely couldn’t stomach growing mold in my house.

Next, I went surfing on foodie/allergy sites to find out what other people in this predicament did. The first idea I found was coconut amino sauce. Although some people claim this tastes exactly like soy, I found it more a nice-enough sauce, but one that didn’t touch (or taste like) soy sauce. Other suggestions included using fish sauce where once you used soy. Also okay; also nothing like soy sauce. I found the same result with duck sauce.

Unsatisfied with these substitutes, I tried going for any umami flavor I could get my hands on, starting with Trader Joe’s bluntly named Umami Stir-In Paste and Condiment. It’s a passable sauce for rice and soups, containing anchovies, olives, and several different kinds of vinegar. It couldn’t pass a soy sauce-taste-alike contest to save its life.

There was also the South River Miso Company, makes miso — kind of close to soy sauce — both from soy and beans other than soy. I am planning to try their chickpea miso at some future point.

Cost of experimenting: about $100, plus research time.

My next hurdle in this journey? Chocolate. I like a piece of chocolate at the end of the day. Being without it was very difficult to contemplate. There has to be chocolate made without soy, right? Undaunted, I rushed into more research. I discovered a wonderful blog on all things chocolate, nicely named The Ultimate Chocolate Blog. And, the blog had a post titled “Chocolate Bars With No Soy Lecithin Are Not Easy to Find…but They Are Out There.” It seemed I had struck pay dirt. Then, the dollar signs really began to mount up.

I was greatly encouraged by the fact that, according to the blog, we are apparently in a renaissance of artisanal chocolate-making in North America, and that artisanal chocolate rarely uses soy. So I ordered from two chocolatiers, Dandelion and Ritual. Artisanal chocolate is expensive compared to its mass market cousins. (We’re talking $10 per bar, but what price happiness?) I was truly thrilled to not only get chocolate back, but to be part of the great present and future of artisanal chocolate.

The only thing is…I found I didn’t really care for the chocolate. I’m sure it’s great of its type. But to my taste, artisan chocolate is more like a chocolate-tasting type of small brick than a lovely melting treat. (Emulsifier may not be hip, but it works!) I hate to put artisanal chocolate down, as it’s a genuinely interesting and creative endeavor. But, the mouth and taste buds want what they want.

Cost of experimenting with chocolate: about $60.

Next up was bread. My usual breakfast bread was out. Fortunately, a lot of breads don’t have soy. Thanks, challah, focaccia, French bread, and even corn muffins! Also bagels! I also moved heavy into oatmeal, an also-ran before having a soy allergy. Cost-wise, all the breads are slightly higher, but not unduly so. Oatmeal is cheaper, but it does require cinnamon in my world.

Cost: negligible.

My fourth priority was getting back a lot of stuff I enjoyed eating.One of the positive benefits of a soy allergy is that I decided to cook a lot more. Clam chowder and lentil soup from scratch were once on heavy rotation in my kitchen, and I’d dropped them only because I was in school full time.

The initial outlay did cost more than canned soups. I needed spices like marjoram and cumin, which I’d allowed to lapse from the cupboard. Clams, bacon, flour, and garlic cloves needed to be purchased. Lentils are cheap, but still, I needed to get them.

I have to say, the soups were totally great. Even though the cost is slightly more, I was very happy to have wonderful and nutritious stuff I made myself. French onion soup in a slow cooker is next.

All in all, shopping, cooking, and eating with a soy allergy is slightly more expensive than those activities without. It’s also more time-consuming, which I count toward cost, because time factors into time versus cost outlays. I’ll eventually come to a point where I know what foods have it and which don’t, but that is still at least several months away.

Rita Williams is a writer, researcher, and teacher who loves words and archives. She blogs on culture, the arts, and education at Retaining the Meta: Adventures of a Midlife PhD, which can be found here:

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