Food Allergies and Vegetable Oil: What You Need to Know

Near our home in Colorado Springs is a Mexican restaurant called Carlos Miguel’s that people rave about. So last Friday evening, when the streets were icy and my husband and I didn’t want to venture too far from home, I called the restaurant to discuss my food restrictions.

“What type of vegetable oil do you cook with?” I asked the man who answered the phone.


“What type?  Soy? Corn? Canola?” I asked.

“Just vegetable.” He seemed a little perturbed.

I told the man I couldn’t eat at his restaurant without knowing exactly what was in the vegetable oil because I was allergic to soy and corn. He didn’t offer to check the ingredients label so I said goodbye.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time a restaurant couldn’t tell me what was in their cooking oil. And I’m sure it won’t be the last.  How absurd it is for restaurants not to know what they are serving their guests!



I also have a hard time with processed foods containing soy and corn. In the United States, corn isn’t one of the top eight allergens required by law to be identified on labeling.  While soy is one of the top eight, the FDA exempts soybean oil and soy lecithin from being labeled.  The FDA and medical experts, such as Dr. Scott H. Sicherer, MD, author of Food Allergies: A Complete Guide for Eating When Your Life Depends On It ( Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), say most soy oil is highly refined so there is little proteins left to trigger an allergic reaction. Cold pressed and expeller pressed soybean oil are not highly refined and may contain soy proteins. The experts also say soy lecithin, a derivative of soy used as a nonstick agent in baking, has minimal proteins and those with a soy allergy need not worry.

My body does not agree with these experts. I’ve learned the hard way that soy oil, soy lecithin and corn oil  will all cause a severe reaction, including eosinophilic esophagitis. Blend them together–use soy/corn oil in my salad dressing and spray the grill with cooking spray containing soy lecithin–and I’ll be in really bad shape.  Talking with the other soy-allergic folks at food allergy conferences and through social media, I know I am not alone. Of course,  if you react to soy (so far 15 allergenic proteins have been found in soy) but can tolerate soy oil and/or soy lecithin, I’m happy for you! And a bit jealous! But do watch and discuss any changes in your health with your doctor.

Food Allergies and Vegetable Oil

Soy oil, or a blend of oils including soy oil, is used in restaurants because it’s inexpensive. Soybean meal and vegetable oil consume around 85% of the world’s soybean crop. By the way, the soybean is not a vegetable–soybean is a legume–but soy oil is still  referred to as vegetable oil.  Other plant-based oils include:

  • Canola (rapeseed)
  • Coconut
  • Corn
  • Cottonseed
  • Flaxseed
  • Olive
  • Palm
  • Peanut (a legume, not a nut)
  • Safflower
  • Sunflower

Unless the label says the oil is 100 percent, it may a blend of other oils. Read my post The Olive Oil Controversy. People can be allergic to any of these plant-based oils.

So here’s what I do to avoid an allergic reaction because of a vegetable oil mishap:

  • I read the ingredients labels of all oils before I buy them, and I stick to companies I trust. For a cooking spray, I use Winona Pure which does not contain soy lecithin.
  • I avoid all restaurants that cook only with soy oil and offer no other options (even if I’m ordering a food that doesn’t require oil–it’s just too risky). If they cannot identify what is in their  “vegetable oil,” I leave. In my experience, most Mexican restaurants and many Asian restaurants use soybean oil.
  • If it’s a questionable restaurant, I ask if the olive oil or other oil is 100 percent. This doesn’t usually go over well, but it’s been a lifesaver on several occasions.
  • I read allergen menus with a magnifying glass. Because of the FDA exemption for soybean oil and soy  lecithin, restaurants do not have to list them under “soy allergy.” Some allergen menus note this exemption with an asterisk, but not all do.
  • I ask a lot of questions before I order. What oil do you use to cook with? Does your vegetable oil contain soy? Do any other foods contain soy lecithin? Do you use cooking spray?
  • If possible, I call the chef in advance and discuss my dietary needs. I have celiac disease and allergies to dairy, eggs and corn, but I always stress the soy allergy because it’s the one that gets missed by waitstaff the most. Untrained waitstaff think tofu and soy sauce.
  • When I make reservations on OpenTable, which I do a lot, I note I have a soy allergy including soy oil and soy lecithin. I also check out what people say on Urban Spoon and Food Allergy/Celiac Disease apps.
  • When I travel, I try to stick to chain restaurants that never use soy oil (these are usually higher-end chains).
  • When eating out in my hometown, I’m a regular at restaurants that don’t use any soy at all. I let them know how grateful I am to have a safe place to eat.

Food Allergies and Vegetable Oil: What You Need to Know first appeared at Adventures of an Allergic Foodie.

17 thoughts on “Food Allergies and Vegetable Oil: What You Need to Know

  1. Good info, Amy. And I agree about the advance notice to the restaurant, of course. We always, email, call etc. Sometimes people can be mislead by a tweet from a PR person who says “come dine with us, we’re ready to serve allergic customers” only later to discover the CHEF did not stand behind this claim.

    I’ve also seen many errors and omissions on “allergen-friendly” menus.

    Liked by 1 person



  3. Just shared this with my husband, also allergic to soy. We did not know that soy oil and soy lecithin are not required to be listed by FDA. Wondering how many times his reactions were related to unlisted soy ingredients…


    • My gut tells me that researchers will eventually discover that a lot of us soy allergy folks also react to soy lecithin and soy oil. I’m sorry to hear about your husband. Just to clarify the ingredients labels should still state soy lecithin or soy oil–but they don’t have to list those as an allergen.


  4. Debby Smith says:

    Great posting! I am also highly allergic and agree that transparency is hard to find. I avoid soups at catered meals or in restaurants always b/c too often they have some sort of starchy filler– either flour or corn starch. I agree that oils are very scary. Did you know that some gourmet restaurants use peanut oil to fry french fries?– they say it makes for the best fries. BTW for egg allergic people, do you know that flu shots are incubated in eggs?

    Blessedly I keep kosher so at least I know that I can rely on the ingredient info because there is rigorous oversight. What scares me is genetic modification. I look everywhere for Non-GMO Certified Products.

    Thank you for this wonderful website and keep those postings coming!


  5. I feel pretty lucky that soy is one of my least reactive allergens. I mean, I miss edamame like crazy, but I don’t have to worry much about soy oil. I avoid it all at home, and I’ve found that the packaged foods I’m likely to buy, all in the “allergy-friendly” line of things all seem to label soy lecithin and soy oil as “soy.”

    For oil sprayers, though, I really like the one I got from Pampered Chef. I keep it full of olive oil. It’s not quite as easy, and it needs to be pumped a few times to do a full baking pan or the whole crock pot, but I trust what’s in it (so long as I trust my olive oil, which I don’t always).

    I so wish someone up here would get the egg-free flu shot in! I had to explain to the nurse I talked to at my doctor’s office that there WERE, in fact, egg-free shots. She hadn’t heard of that and seemed mostly uninterested. The drug stores know of them, but don’t stock them yet. You had no issues with the preservatives at all? I understand that can be an issue for the corn-allergic.


    • Great idea about the spray oil, Mary Kate. I have a few of those sitting in my pantry–they always get clogged for me! I’ve taught my husband to use olive oil on a paper towel to use on the outside grill instead of the spray bottles, too. Keeps the grill nicer as well as keeps me safe.
      Sorry about the eggless flu shots not being in your area. I haven’t noticed any reaction to corn from the shot. Knock on wood.


  6. Karen Talley says:

    Some years ago, we took my daughter out to a very expensive Mexican restaurant for her birthday. There were four of us in the party and the food was excellent. Unfortunately, she became violently ill. We had just become aware that she could not tolerate cotton seed oil. I had asked at the restaurant, before ordering if it was used. The reply was “No. They only used pure vegetable oil.” I called the restaurant later and asked again about any oil used. They were nice enough to read the label. It said vegetable/and or cottonseed oil. The front label said only ‘vegetable oil.’ Reading food labels on packaged cookies, cakes, and even some cereals I found the same thing. Labels on oils are very misleading and I have learned to ALWAYS turn to the back label for clarification.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is exactly why I wanted to write this blog post! So many restaurants do not know what is in vegetable oil, so they don’t know what they are cooking our food in, and then someone we love has a horrible life-threatening reaction. Thank you for sharing your story.


  7. Great post, Amy! The problem, though with asking about olive oil being 100% at restaurants is that (as you know) the companies themselves don’t even know it’s fake, or else turn a blind eye to it when it’s from other countries. For this reason I only trust California-made or USDA Organic olive oil. Obviously if you say this to the waiter or restaurant manager they will think you’re crazy so I always say I’m allergic to olive oil to save myself from an inadvertent reaction.

    On this same topic, I started a petition and was wondering if I may share here? Its to mandate labeling for ALL soy derivatives, including oils and GMO soy like natural flavors….


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