Plant-Based Foods Can Be a Risk for Kids With Allergies

Meatless burgers and non-dairy milk are good options for families following a plant-based diet—but they may also be surprising sources of allergens for certain kids. Here's what you need to know.

All the new plant-based products hitting store shelves—think meatless burgers and non-dairy milks—give people many more options. But these products are also introducing surprising new allergy risks.

The most concerning is pea protein, which is being used in products like plant-based meat alternatives and non-dairy yogurt. Because peas are legumes just like peanuts are, some kids who are allergic to peanuts may also react to pea protein. It's estimated that about 5 percent of people allergic to peanuts may also be allergic to other legumes (like peas, beans, and lentils).

If your child has ever had even a mild reaction to legumes, talk to your allergist about getting tested, advises Elana Lavine, M.D., a pediatric allergist, clinical immunologist, and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Lavine recently published a paper in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology describing case studies of children with reactions to pea protein, including a 2-year-old girl who had an anaphylactic reaction in the grocery store after eating a sample of non-dairy yogurt that contained pea protein.

milk carton with pea plant design on it in front of caution symbol background
Illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Getty Images (2)

Protein concentration, notes Dr. Lavine, is so much higher in these products: up to 95 percent protein in pea protein isolate versus just about 8 percent for plain, cooked yellow peas. So if a child is allergic to legumes, reactions are more likely to occur when eating these products—and when they do occur, they may be more severe than they would after eating fresh peas.

If your child needs to avoid legumes, check ingredient lists for terms including pea protein isolate, pea protein concentrate, pea fiber, pea hull fiber, and hydrolyzed pea protein. When eating out, make sure to also tell restaurant servers about issues with pea protein as well.

Keep in mind, some companies are also adding warnings on their products. For example, Beyond Meat, which uses pea protein, includes this statement below the ingredient list: "Peas are legumes. People with severe allergies to legumes like peanuts should be cautious when introducing pea protein into their diet because of the possibility of a pea allergy. Our products do not contain peanuts or tree nuts."

And while we know you're already reading labels closely if your child has food allergies, it's good to remember that plant-based products aren't necessarily vegan and may still contain animal products. In 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a public alert on behalf of the makers of plant-based frozen desserts Almond Dream, Rice Dream, and Coconut Dream after some consumers with milk allergies had reactions to the products. Though they're plant-based desserts, some of them still contain traces of milk. A statement below the ingredient list now reads "not suitable for milk allergic individuals."

There have also been reports of reactions to mycoprotein, a meatless protein source made from a fungus and used in products such as Quorn meatless nuggets and burgers. These reactions ranged from diarrhea and vomiting to anaphylaxis, according to an article in Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (though a study funded by the manufacturer found a very low incidence of reaction).

The Bottom Line

Just because a product is plant-based doesn't mean it's free from allergens. Plant-based foods may still contain animal products like milk, as well as pea protein which can cause reactions in children who are allergic to peanuts as both are legumes. Make sure to always read the labels carefully before purchasing any plant-based products.

Sally Kuzemchak, M.S., R.D., is a registered dietitian, Parents Contributing Editor, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition, a no-judgements zone about feeding a family. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids and Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide. You can follow her on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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