What’s Really in that Stuffing? Food Allergies on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a time of coming together with family and friends and giving thanks for the joys in life. And food. Thanksgiving is also about lots and lots of food.

For most of us, the quantity and variety of foods offered at Thanksgiving feasts means only that we may have to wear our fat pants, take a long nap after dinner, or maybe hit the gym a few more times.  For the millions of Americans with food allergies, however, the feast can be a nightmare.

A food allergy is when a food triggers an extreme reaction by the immune system. About 4% of the total American population suffer from food allergies. Many more, potentially one in three, suffer from a sensitivity or intolerance to certain foods.

While many people consider allergies and intolerances the same, they are in fact different. Lactose intolerance, the most common food intolerance, means the body does not digest the sugar in milk. A milk allergy, on the other hand, means the body has triggered the immune system to fight off the milk, not just the sugar.

The most common foods that trigger allergic reactions in the American population are milk, wheat, eggs, soy, fish, shellfish, peanuts, and tree nuts. Most reactions are mild: hives, flushed skin, tingling or itching sensation, swelling of the lips or tongue, coughing or wheezing, vomiting or diarrhea. Others can be severe: constricted airways, lowering of blood pressure, dizziness or light-headedness, and suffocation by swelling of the throat.

Thanksgiving Foods That Can Cause Allergic Reactions

Mild symptoms can easily and quickly turn to severe.  Every year allergic reactions to food are responsible for 150 deaths across the United States.  If you are preparing dishes for your Thanksgiving meal, here’s what to look out for in some traditional dishes.


The staple of the American Thanksgiving Feast, this wonderful bird can be prepared and cooked in a number of ways: brined, roasted, basted, deep-fried, and many others. While the bird and most cooking methods are not a threat for allergy concerns, the gravy will often contain wheat (and therefore gluten). If you want to avoid the wheat, you can find a recipe made with cornstarch. Also, some recipes will call for butter, which can trigger a reaction to someone with a milk allergy.


Stuffing is generally made of bread, so wheat allergy sufferers and those sensitive to gluten should beware. Want to avoid this particular concern? Try a stuffing made with wild rice instead. This can take wheat (and gluten) out of the equation.

Another sneaky ingredient in many types of stuffing is tree nuts. Some recipes may call for almonds or other nuts. For the most part, skipping these potentially life-threatening allergens will have minimal impact on the taste of the stuffing, so remove them if you have someone who may not be able to eat them.


There are so many ways to prepare potatoes: cheesy potatoes, creamy potatoes, sweet potatoes, roasted potatoes,  mashed potatoes. And they’re all so good.

Milk is especially common in many potato dishes.  Cheese, cream, sour cream, butter, and milk all generally have a role in making our favorite potato recipes. However, potatoes can also be prepared without these ingredients – though the flavor may be different. Experiment before the big day to see how a non-dairy potato recipe tastes.

Sweet potatoes often have tree nuts, like almonds or pecans, in the recipes. Just like with the stuffing, these can probably be left out with minimal impact.

Cranberry Sauce

Cranberry sauce is generally pretty basic: Cook cranberries and add sugar. But new versions of this classic may include things like pears, pineapple, jalapenos, wine, and tree nuts like almonds or walnuts. Skip the nuts if you have someone who may be allergic to them over for dinner.

Green Beans

Green bean casserole is either a loved or hated part of the traditional feast. There are many takes on this classic dish. Better Homes and Gardens has recipes that include tuna, milk, cheese, noodles, flour, and breadcrumbs, along with many other different ingredients. These versions may send people with fish, milk, or wheat allergies to the emergency room. When in doubt, leave it out.

Pumpkin Pie

Delicious pumpkin pie, full of cream, cream cheese, evaporated milk, wheat flour, egg, and often tree nuts. Some will find it delicious, others deadly.  Depending on the recipe used (or where you buy it from), any and all of these allergen concerns may be present.  It doesn’t seem like a good idea to end a great meal by overlooking the allergen concerns in the last dish.

When in Doubt, Leave it Out!

When cooking Thanksgiving feast for people with food allergies, their safety is a foremost concern. Check the labels on the ingredients you buy – the eight major allergens are required to be listed if they are present.

You can also download and print our holiday allergy labels to inform your guests about what allergens may be present in your dishes.

Download the Holiday Allergy Labels PDF

When it comes to allergies, amount doesn’t matter. If you use even a tiny amount of an ingredient containing soy, your finished product could trigger an allergic reaction in someone with a soy allergy. There’s no need to risk a trip to the emergency room on a day when everyone should be enjoying time with family and friends.

So remember, when in doubt, leave it out!