Low FODMAP Living: Bye-Bye Onions and Garlic

image via stock.xchng | photography by rwetzlmayr

image via stock.xchng | photography by rwetzlmayr

Onions are one of the favorite foods of picky eaters to pick on, maligned for their pungent scent and taste. Of course, many a cook knows that once an onion is cooked it changes to a wonderfully sweet and savory flavoring agent and would never dream of cooking without it. And let’s not even get started about how many dishes would just not be the same without a healthy dose of garlic!

Unfortunately, though, in testing for trigger foods during the FODMAP challenge phase, I found that garlic and onions are no longer my friends. Well, to be honest, they weren’t being friendly for the last good while, I just didn’t realize it. They were one of the first foods we chose to challenge because of how important they were in our cooking, and it was a sad realization that they would no longer be welcome in our kitchen (at least not for anything I’d been eating).

Onions and garlic (along with leeks, shallots, and other members of the allium family) contain fructans in levels too high for many folks with IBS to process. (This is, incidentally, the same FODMAP that is present in wheat, barley, and rye.)

So, how does a former chef go without onions and garlic in her kitchen?

She doesn’t. Not completely at least.

First of all, green onions (scallions) are safe if only the green tops are used. Thus, we buy at least one bunch of green onions a week, sometimes two. A side benefit to using green onions is that they’re even easier to prep, sometimes I just use the kitchen shears rather than a knife and cutting board. By this same logic, the usually-discarded tops of leeks can also be used and they are very nice in stir-frys and chunky soups. Now, they do add color to the dish (which isn’t always a bad thing) but sometimes you want them to not be so obvious but you still want that onion flavor.

Enter asafoetida.

Asa-what-ida? Asafoetida is something I’d first encountered back in one of the Indian Cooking Challenges I participated in, as certain sects in India require diets to be allium-free. This powdered latex (so not the best choice for those with a latex allergy, I’m guessing) comes from a perennial herb common to Afganistan and India, Ferula, and has a very strong smell that’s kinda hard to describe. But in food, especially if it’s allowed to cook a little in some warm oil, it tastes remarkably like garlic and onions. This makes it a perfect addition to meatloaf or burgers where you want to make sure the flavor carries through. Just remember that a little goes a long way. A couple of dashes from the container (which should only have a very small hole in the top or bottom) is enough for a pound of meat.

Another surprise substitute that really works for onion is a small turnip shredded into your soup. We tried this with a New England-style Clam Chowder with impressive results. If turnips are available and there are no other borderline FODMAPs (foods that are safe in limited quantities only, as are many of the “allowed” fruits and vegetables, but can become triggers if a lot is ingested) in a dish, I’ll happily grate one into the dish for that peppery flavor that might otherwise be missing.

As for garlic, which we really would not want to live without, there’s another cool thing about FODMAPs it helps to know: fructans are water-soluble, but not fat-soluble. Meaning, you can use infused oils with no problem!

On an as-needed basis you could cut a clove of garlic into large chunks, let it saute in your oil of choice for a few moments and then remove the garlic chunks and continue on with your cooking, getting the flavor without the fructans. (You can do this with quartered onions, too, by the way.) We could do this but it seems wasteful and time-consuming to me, so we just buy garlic-infused olive oil at the store, easy as that.

Can you make your own infused oil? Absolutely. BUT (and this is a kind of big caveat, so please pay attention) you must be very careful how you prepare the oil (cook the garlic in hot oil for a prescribed time) and store it properly (in the fridge) to avoid botulism poisoning. Like all things grown in the ground, there is the possibility of botulinum spores to be on the food. The spores need warm temperatures and an air-free environment to do their dirty deeds, and that’s just what an infused oil provides. While it’s rare to meet all the specific requirements for the toxins to become active and dangerous, it’s not a chance I’m willing to take when there are commercial products available that are safer.

Granted, I seldom find a bottle of garlic-infused olive oil for less than $10 for 8 oz, but the good news is that these oils tend to be strong, so a little goes a long way in a dish. YOu can also cut it with a bit of regular olive oil if what your wanting is to brush it onto bread, etc.

Keeping onion and garlic out of my diet means being very wary of most soups and stocks (onion is almost always included) as well as bullion cubes and soup bases. Many sauces and condiments have one or both of them in there, and I’ve found that it doesn’t take much to set my system off. The other thing you have to really watch for with onion and garlic are your friendly neighborhood grocery store spice blends. Man do they like to sneak these flavorings in any number of products we would normally buy. Thankfully, making your own spice blends without onion or garlic powder is a very simple enterprise and can be done in batches or as needed. We make our own curry powder blend, our own taco seasoning, etc. and the quality of our dinners hasn’t suffered one bit. While you can include asafoetida in your mixes, I would caution against it only because the powder can really overpower the scent of other ingredients. Instead, put a note on your at-home-spice-blend to add a dash of it to your meal when you prepare it and get better results.

Making the transition to a Low-FODMAP lifestyle hasn’t been easy, but finding good substitutions and work-arounds has made it less difficult than we initially anticipated.

34 thoughts on “Low FODMAP Living: Bye-Bye Onions and Garlic

  1. If you cut some garlic bulbs in half and add it to your bottle of oil is that Ok?? And just leave it to infuse over time.

    1. No, to be safe you need to heat the cloves in the oil for a certain amount of time and then store them in the refrigerator and use within a week or so. To deviate could put your health at risk.

  2. Garlic scapes are an excellent way to get the garlic flavor without the fructans and are in season, at least in my part of the world, right now. I mince scapes and chives (onions withot the fructans) and freeze them in ice cube trays full of olive oil or (melted) butter, then pop the cubes out into bags when they are set and then throw a couple of cubes in the pan when I start most any savory dish. That way I have them all year long.

  3. Thank you! My husband has IBS and a sulphite-sensitivity, so garlic and onions are a big no-no, but they add such flavor to food. I am very glad to hear of this Asafoetida, and I was even able to find a gluten-free version of it!

      1. Asafoetida is typically blended with flour to prevent caking (in the same way that confectioner’s sugar blends cornstarch with the sugar). Most producers use wheat flour, but you can find brands that have been blended instead with rice flour. That’s what I use.

  4. Are you adding grated turnip while cooking or are you adding to the finished product before serving?

    1. Definitely adding it during cooking–sorry that it was unclear. You’d use the turnip in the same way you’d use onions: at the beginning of the dish.

    1. You’re welcome! Yes, I add the asafoetida at the beginning (or mix it into the ground meat or chopped vegetables) so that some of the pungency cooks out a bit. Remember a little goes a LONG way with that stuff, and I wouldn’t use both the turnip and the asafoetida in the same receipt, that might be overkill.

  5. You mention the garlic and onion infused oils. Can these oils be used in a soup or stew or would the fructants be released upon boiling in water?

    1. Since the non-FODMAP compounds are those that are infused into the oils, my understanding has always been that the fructans are no longer present in the oils to release into water-based preparations. We use them in soups and stews all the time.

      1. Thank you for the prompt reply. Next question… Does that mean I can fry onion in a pan next to a steak and eat both as there is no water in there? (this is my husbands query)

        1. Short answer: you’d probably be okay.

          HOWEVER… It’s a fallacy to believe there’s *no* water in the pan in this scenario. First, there’s water in the cells of the onion (as there are in all plant and animal cells) that will be released as the onions are cooked, though at high enough heat the water would evaporate fairly quickly (not that this wouldn’t stop some of the fructans from leeching out onto your cooking surface, though probably not to a terrible degree, even if they are not bonding to the oil in the pan). Plus, once a steak is added to the pan, the process of cooking proteins squeezes the molecules closer together, displacing the water in the cells into the pan (which is why meat becomes drier and tougher the longer heat is applied). Cooking the steak with the onions could, therefore, result in a certain amount of cross contamination (for lack of a better word). Still, it’s not something I worry too much about at this stage of the game for myself. I’ll eat take-out stir fry, for instance, and just eat around the onions without much of any distress. I wouldn’t do this if I were going through the Elimination and Challenge phases, though, because that could skew the results of that experiment to have the fructans/oligos around while challenging a different group.

          Until you’re certain what your own tolerance is, it’s far safer to saute the onion or garlic in the cooking oil alone, then remove them before continuing on with your cooking (this is recommended by several sources, even Monash I believe). Once you introduce any liquid that isn’t a fat, you’re opening the door for FODMAPs to mingle. Infusions, by the by, are usually done without cooking the flavoring agents, meaning the available water in the plant cells stays fairly well put. And most commercial infused oils are made with processed essences (natural or lab-created) so the chance is even less.

          That was probably more than you were really asking 😉 Always happy to help any way I can!

  6. I just want to make sure Im understanding. I made spaghetti sauce last week with onion infused oil and I am so excited to find a way to keep the flavor in my diet. Would I be able to do the same thing by cooking onions in broth and then removing them before I make soup?

    1. Unfortunately, no. The reason why the infused oil works and infused broth doesn’t is that FODMAPs are water-soluble, but not fat-soluble. Soluble means, more or less, that the compounds dissolve into the liquid in question. So the fructans, etc. in onions will not dissolve in the oil–they can’t use the oil and a highway to get to our gut. But they DO dissolve in water-based items like broth, and therefore hitchhike to our digestive systems.

      You could saute your vegetables in oil, remove the onions and/or garlic from the oil, then add your liquid to make the stock with the rest of the vegetables (carrots, celery, etc.) in the usual way. I like to use green onion tops if I’m making soup or stock so I don’t have to worry about removing them.

      1. Thank you! Im very new to this. For years we attributed my problems to dairy and other things, only to discover that it was the onions in everything I ate that was making me sick. I feel much better since it was discovered but I am seriously missing out. I’m happy to know I can use the onion/oil combo and I appreciate your help!

        1. Happy to help! You may find, as I did, that after a while of restricting onions, etc. that you can be a little less vigilant without going back to your full-blown symptoms like before. I still react to lactose, but at least there’s plenty of options available around it, but using commercial stocks every now and then or when we’re out to eat doesn’t bother near as often as it used to!

          Best of luck!

          1. Thank you! I read lots of articles where they say you can eventually allow it back in and I’m very weary but it’s good to know that I might be able to be more tolerant eventually (at least while eating out!).

          2. I reacted to all classes of FODMAPs, Karen, and now I can allow bits of almost all of them as long as I space them out and keep the overall load low. It is possible and it’s what the program is designed to work towards.

    1. You know, that’s a good question. At first glance you’d think that was fine since butter is a fat, but most butter contains somewhere in the neighborhood of 17% water, so it’s theoretically possible that the water-soluble FODMAPs could transfer into your food by way of that water content. If you’re in the Elimination and Challenge phases of the protocol I would avoid it just to be safe. But once you’re in “maintenance mode,” where we try to eat as varied a diet as possible while minimizing symptoms, I’d absolutely give it a try and see what happens.

    1. According to Monash, Beetroot is considered High-FODMAP. Aside from that, juices tend to concentrate the FODMAPS. While I doubt it’d be a bit issue, again, during Elimination and Challenging I’d avoid. Otherwise, go with personal tolerance.

      You may find the Monash app useful for individual ingredient questions. They update it fairly often, I understand, as they test more and more foods.

  7. Hare Krishna’s and some “hindus”avoid onions and garlic and have great recipes both american and indian. Check out Kurma’s cookbook as well as the hare krishna cookbook which is just a couple of dollars and is totally amazing. Also, Hare Krishna restaurants are veg/vegan and do not use onions, garlic or mushrooms in their recipes. Yummy stuff regardless of your spiritual path!!

    1. Yes, I’ve encountered some recipes from alium-free cultures, but I didn’t know that bit about the mushrooms. I’ll have to search out some Hare Krishna recipes–thanks for the tip!

  8. Wondering if I can use ghee instead of olive oil for cooking onion and garlic then adding that to my sauce or stew?

  9. I found it amusing all your efforts to eliminate something that I find disgusting. Eating foods with onions and/or garlic in them is probably worse to me than what it would be like to eat food spiked with dog feces. Onions smell like a skunk and garlic smells like that skunk threw up.

    1. It’s true, there are many people who dislike onions and garlic for a variety of reasons. For those of us who do not find them distasteful but cannot adequately digest them, finding suitable substitutes is an important way to keep our food the way we like it.

  10. Would garlic infused ghee be acceptible? I might’ve misunderstood but to my knowledge all the water has been evaporated in ghee, but I’m not sure exactly when in the process the infusion is done (and whether the fructans would be a probem then) when buying ready-made (pure indian foods garlic infused ghee for instance).

  11. I forgot to say, 4th & Heart has a garlic ghee that has the label “fodmap friendly” on their website. Can I trust this? Is there a “fodmap friendly” label that is checked or supervised (like for instance the kosher labelling) or is this PR/advertising?

  12. I really miss onions and garlic, especially when it comes to winter soups. I also yearn for peaches, pears, apples, cherries and watermelon – all things my mother assured me were good for me. Something that I have found really useful in coping with this diet is the Monash University FODMAPS app which lists permissible fruits and vegetables.

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