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Have food allergies? Stay healthy and on budget with these shopping tips

Food allergies affect more than 12 million Americans, yet safe-food selections are still limited and prices can be double those of "normal" foods.

Dealing with celiac disease or food allergies (primarily dairy, egg, soy, wheat, peanut, tree-nut, fish and shellfish) is enough of a challenge without the extra expense and time investment required.

Here are five tips on how to manage the extra costs of food allergies.

1. Meal planning. Every article about reducing food costs begins with a recommendation to plan ahead. Cooking with allergy-safe foods, however, requires even more planning. Until you've developed a solid repertoire of safe recipes and products, it's easy to overspend. Invest some time in researching basic recipes that require a minimum of ingredients and can be prepared easily. You'll be less tempted to overspend on prepared safe foods or eating out.

2. Read labels carefully. Make sure you're not buying unsafe products that end up in the garbage can. It's a great help that FDA regulations require manufacturers to list the top eight food allergens in plain language, either in the body of the ingredients or in boldface after the ingredients.

Be aware, however, that some foods may include hidden allergens. In particular, check prepared foods (anything made from more than one ingredient) for a warning that the food was made in a factory where your allergens may have been used on the same manufacturing lines.

3. Strike-point shopping. This refers to buying large quantities of nonperishables when they're on sale. Unfortunately, specialty allergy foods rarely go on sale, so keep a sharp eye out and stock up when you find sales.

4. Coupons. Online coupons are one of your best money-saving resources, no matter what your diet. One option is to sign up on BeFreeForMe (www.befreeforme.com) to receive an e-mail newsletter with information about free samples and coupons.

You can also check aggregate sites, for natural and organic grocery coupons. Another excellent resource is Mambo Sprouts (www.mambosprouts.com), which provides consumers with natural-foods coupon booklets.

Some merchants and manufacturers offer coupons and samples on their websites, and others will send them to loyal customers who e-mail them directly. You'll also find online coupons at some organic manufacturers, such as Organic Valley (www.organicvalley.coop/coupons). The offerings may be limited, but they do offer coupons for wheat-free and nonlactose products.

5. Buy online. Online grocers like Allergy Grocer (allergygrocer.com) offer loyalty programs with special discounts. Amazon.com sells allergy-safe products (primarily snacks) and periodically offers grocery deals.

Remember to figure in shipping costs when ordering online.

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