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Travelling with Food Allergies

Travelling with Food AllergiesOne of the great pleasures of travelling is the opportunity to sample different foods. But for anyone with a food allergy or food sensitivity, sampling new foods can be an uncertain or, at worst, a dangerous proposition.

This health condition affects millions of people. Some people are so highly allergic to foods that only a small amount will send them to the hospital and in some cases cause death. Others have less severe reactions to foods ranging from intestinal stomach problems to skin rashes.

The following information provides an overview of the challenges these travellers face.

Restaurants and Menus
For a traveller with food allergies the single most serious obstacle is language. Well-established tourist-friendly restaurants are more likely to have English-speaking staff, as are restaurants in major metropolitan areas. Restaurants outside the tourist centers may not have a staff fluent in English, and menus typically do not have English translations. For this, a foreign language dictionary can help translate simple food words but is less helpful in communicating which foods to avoid.

The majority of international air carriers provide special meals if you notify them in advance. Some offer an extensive variety of meals and have gone to great lengths to satisfy personal needs in this area. Most of the special meals are focused on religious, diabetic, vegetarian or dietary plans like low-fat or low-cholesterol. Some mention lactose-free and gluten-free meals. However, there are very few references to highly toxic foods such as nuts, peanuts and shellfish.

Food labels
Unless one is fluent in a language reading food labels is difficult to do in a foreign language. Different countries have different food labeling laws that can provide more, less or utterly confusing information. Some countries are required to list nearly all ingredients, some list only the major items and some are not required to list any ingredients on a product label.

Cross contamination
Cross-contamination in food preparation facilities and restaurants is not uncommon. It’s easy to understand how commonly prepared foods might share the same pot or skillet in a busy restaurant. Cross- contamination mainly occurs in three ways: “food-to-food” (touching or dripping), “food-to-hand” (handling by the kitchen staff, waiter or market vendor) or “food-to-equipment” (in preparation of a meal with pots and pans). The best way to address this issue to make sure the person serving the food clearly understands one’s dietary restrictions.

Some helpful solutions
There are a couple of ways that might help. A company called SelectWisely provides travellers with food allergies a simple tool to help them select the foods they want - and the foods they want to avoid. The company offers wallet-sized laminated cards that contain simple translations relating to specific foods.  When customers visit the SelectWisely web site (, they select a card, a food and a language of the country they intend to visit. SelectWisely takes the order and creates the personalized card just for them.

Travellers can also develop their own cards or pamphlets describing their allergies. A trip to the local library or some time spent on the Internet might provide enough information to get them through.

If you are travelling with food allergies, make sure you prepare in advance and be aware of every meal and drink you consume.


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