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Ask the experts: Allium

Q: “I have IBS with intolerances to several foods, but one that causes me a lot of trouble is the Allium family. I cannot tolerate onions, shallots, chives, garlic… in fact, none of the family that makes our food so tasty. When I cook, I have to leave that ingredient out, which does alter the taste of the final product. I have tried various herbs, but I haven’t hit on anything that will replace the flavour of onion. It’s nearly impossible to find a casserole or soup recipe that doesn’t include onions or garlic. On advice from my dietitian, I am following a gluten-free programme, and while this has helped considerably, it doesn’t solve my problem on taste!”

Elizabeth

A: Nutritionist and food writer Bronwen King answers:

“This is a good question but not easy to answer. As you point out, so many recipes start with onion or members of the onion family, and rely on them for both flavour and texture.

The Allium family of vegetables includes onions, shallots, chives, spring onions, garlic and leeks. They are rich in sulphur compounds, which provide the sharp pungent flavour they have when raw (on cooking, these compounds break down and the taste becomes sweeter). This, together with their high insoluble fibre content, causes gas and discomfort in certain people. For people with irritable bowel syndrome, they can trigger attacks. While total avoidance may be the best strategy, this comes at a cost. Apart from making cooking difficult, it means missing out on the very valuable nutrients this family of vegetables provide.

The first thing I would do is to retest your tolerance levels. Try a minute quantity of garlic in a recipe and check the results; keep testing (with garlic or onion) until you get a reaction – that way you will know what your tolerance level is. If you can tolerate even a tiny amount, it will make a huge difference to your enjoyment of food.

The next thing to do is to experiment with substitutes. The vegetables in this family provide wonderful flavour to recipes and some, like onion and leek, also provide bulk and texture. To replace flavour, I would try onion or garlic stock cubes/powder, onion or garlic salt, or onion-flavoured soup mixes. I recommend you discuss this with your dietitian though, to make sure you find gluten-free options.

To replace texture, finely sliced cabbage works well, particularly in stir-fries, soups and casseroles. It is even nice fried like onion rings on a barbecue.”

First published: May 2008



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