Traveling While Gluten-Free
The summer season is upon us and traveling while maintaining a gluten-free diet can be challenging. Here are some tips on how to overcome the obstacles you may face while out and about in the world.
Research, research, research
When traveling with an eating restriction, a good chunk of the unease stems from the unknown. What ingredients are used in different countries? What is safe? I start out by researching the cuisine in a place using Wikipedia. Then, I break down the ingredients in the main dishes for that city or country in a spreadsheet. Do recipes call for flour in the soup? Is the fish dredged in flour first?
I try to have these answers before I embark on a trip to a new destination. While this approach sacrifices some spontaneity in dining, I can still build in flexibility when armed with knowledge about the dishes instead of specific restaurants.
Condiments might be your enemy
Most celiacs know that soy sauce has wheat flour in it, which makes travel to countries that use it heavily more difficult. But other table condiments are problematic also. I found out the hard way that in New Zealand, several brands of mayonnaise contained wheat flour. In Portugal, yellow mustard includes wheat. Pre-made salad dressings, BBQ sauces and gravies are often off limits. When I get to a new country, I head to the grocery store to check out the labels for the most common table condiments.
I am grateful for companies that sell strict celiac translation cards in a variety of languages, such as Select Wisely and Allergy Translation. The problem? The cards explain what to avoid, but most food vendors do not know whether their ingredients contain gluten. And why should they? It’s not something they’ve had to worry about traditionally. In many destinations, asking a simple “does this have wheat” is insufficient. In Oaxaca, Mexico, several mole sauces include bread as an ingredient. I asked vendors if their moles contained wheat or wheat flour, and they said no. Only when I asked if the sauces had bread did they say yes.
The right questions matter.
To try and fix racking your brain for all questions available, I’ve begun building highly detailed translation cards for countries around the world, available for free. These include the dish names in the local language, as well as commonly used ingredients there. I have completed Japan, Greece and Italy, with more on the way.
Take snacks on your daily wanders
Finding safe food on the ground is not a guarantee. I bring snacks on flights, but also as I wander around a new place. In many countries, snacks are bread-based – sandwiches, waffles, pizza and more. I buy raw almonds or snack-sized cups of peanut butter, and cut up some cucumber or raw peppers to go with it. Throwing these into my bag keeps me afloat when hunger strikes.
Eye the street food
I find myself most in control of what I can eat when I’m eating on the street. Street stalls are transparent kitchens where I can see what ingredients go into each meal, and specifically request to have certain ones removed. When in Thailand, I’ve requested dishes to be made without soy sauce, and in Mexico I’ve been able to watch and make sure corn tortillas aren’t replaced with wheat. Cross-contamination risks are often lower also, because street food joints tend to focus on a smaller selection of dishes. I can choose the ones with the safest dishes and heaviest turnover. A bonus: the experience of exploring a new place through a bustling street food experience.
Awareness of celiac disease is on the rise, but many places have never heard of it, and might feel less moved by food allergies generally. As with my experience in Greece, patience is required – both in explaining the issue and handling the occasional mistakes.
Overall, this disease has forced me to rethink my relationship with food in a more positive way. When I hear from newly diagnosed celiacs, I implore them to treat the disease as a springboard to learn more about food, and to please keep traveling.