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More Thanksgiving meals catering to special diets

A vegetarian Thanksgiving meal is shown. More Americans are adopting restrictive diets, making Thanksgiving meals trickier to plan. (Associated Press)
A vegetarian Thanksgiving meal is shown. More Americans are adopting restrictive diets, making Thanksgiving meals trickier to plan. (Associated Press)

NEW YORK – Three different types of stuffing will be offered on Stacy Fox’s table this Thanksgiving: traditional, gluten-free and vegan.

There will be steak for people who don’t like turkey.

No eggs will be used in the latkes, or Jewish potato pancakes.

And the sweet potato pie will be topped with vegan marshmallows she buys at a health food store.

“My life used to be simple,” said Fox, who’s entertaining 18 guests in Suffern, N.Y.

At homes across the country this Thursday, tables will be set to accommodate everyone from vegans and vegetarians to those trying to eat like cavemen. The increasingly complicated feasts reflect the growing ranks of Americans who are paying closer attention to the food they put into their bodies.

The reasons vary. With two-thirds of the U.S. population either overweight or obese, many find setting rules helps ward off temptation. In other cases, people steer clear of ingredients such as dairy to alleviate bloating or to boost energy. Others worry about the long-term impact of artificial dyes, preservatives and antibiotics in their food.

While the dietary quirks of relatives or friends may seem like a mere curiosity on Thanksgiving, they’re reshaping the food industry. Sales of organic packaged foods rose 24 percent to $11.48 billion over the past five years, according to market researcher Euromonitor International. Gluten-free packaged foods, made for those who are sensitive to wheat, more than doubled to $419.8 million. And the broader market of packaged foods targeted toward people with food intolerances to things like wheat, dairy or sugar rose 12 percent to $2.89 billion.

By introducing gluten-free varieties of Chex cereal in recent years, General Mills says it was able to reverse years of declines and get sales growing again. So far this year, the company says sales are up 6 percent from the same time last year, although it did not give the actual figure.

Hillshire Brands has expanded the number of sausages and meatballs made without antibiotics under its higher-end Aidells brand, which has been a bright spot for the company. And sales of Tofurky, the tofu-based turkey alternative for vegetarians, have grown each year since it was introduced in 1995, said founder and president Seth Tibbott.

When Tofurky was rolled out, only about 500 were sold in health food stores in Portland and Seattle. This year, Tibbott expects to sell about 350,000 of the loaves, which resemble round, boneless turkey breasts filled with stuffing.

“People do say it’s close to turkey,” Tibbott said, noting that the company has worked to achieve the hint of gaminess that distinguishes turkey from chicken.

Even with all the new food options, however, many remain Thanksgiving traditionalists. As a result, some with dietary restrictions find that they still have to make concessions when eating at relatives’ houses.

Alison Johnson, for instance, realizes it would be unreasonable to expect her in-laws to cater to her many preferences. She’s a vegetarian and she and her husband are on a Paleo diet that shuns processed foods, legumes and most sugars. So for Thanksgiving, she plans to relax her rules a bit, stick to the side dishes and bring along her own Paleo-friendly pumpkin bars for dessert.

“When you start saying you’re diabetic and Paleo and vegetarian, they would just throw their hands up and give up,” said Johnson, who runs a recruiting firm in the Albany, N.Y., region. “I have to accommodate myself.”

In other households, those with dietary restrictions have taken control. Daniel Albaugh, personal trainer in Houston, said his family feasts on Tofurky and stopped bothering with a turkey a few years ago. He and his fiance are vegans, as are his mother and sister.

“We outnumber them now,” said Albaugh of his stepfather and grandmother. “They don’t mind it. We gradually stopped accommodating the meat eaters.”

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