I am severely allergic to gluten and also have a mild dairy allergy, and even though I’m a frequent traveler, it’s not always obvious to me which dishes have either (or both!) when I’m in a new place and eating unfamiliar foods.
Dr. Alyson Pidich, the medical director of the Ash Center, in New York City, and a food allergy specialist, is allergic to shellfish and, like me, knows firsthand that even so-called “safe” foods can have trace allergens that can make you ill.
So what’s a food allergy sufferer and world traveler to do? Here are some of Dr. Pidich’s tips, all of which she keeps top of mind for her own travels.
Carry a food allergy card in multiple languages
Have a card handy that lists your food allergies in the language or languages spoken at your destination. You can create your own cards with simple notecards or sturdy paper, or order them from Allergy Translation, which charges $8 to create one card through its app or website. (You can print as many copies of each card as you want once you place an order.)
Make sure that your cards clearly list which foods you can’t eat, rather than just stating what you’re allergic to. For example, my allergy cards don’t just say that I’m allergic to gluten and dairy, they say that wheat and wheat-based products such as soy and anything containing milk, including yogurt, are off-limits.
Similarly, Dr. Pidich’s cards say that she can’t eat clams, shrimp and lobster. She learned the hard way how important it is to be super specific on her cards: her allergy card when she traveled to Tulum, Mexico a few years ago simply said in Spanish that she was allergic to shellfish, but she was served a dish with shrimp and ended up with hives all over her body.
Order with an abundance of caution
This may sound obvious, but in an ideal scenario, you always travel with food allergy cards and the people serving you understand what you’re not allowed to eat.
But say you forget your cards, or think “oh, this looks fine” because your trigger foods aren’t on the ingredient list. Dr. Pidich said that you still shouldn’t assume that what you’re eating is safe. Certain foods and drinks, in particular, including sauces, salad dressings, soups and cocktails hide common allergens such as wheat, nuts, dairy and shellfish.
Restaurant cooks often use flour to thicken sauces, for example, while soups can have shellfish broth, and salad dressings are blended with soy sauce or nut oils. Ask any vegetarian or vegan what it’s like to be surprised when their salad dressing has cheese in it or the vegetable soup has been prepared with chicken broth, and you’ll understand what it’s like. In short, even if you think you’re being cautious, be extra cautious.
Travel with a food stash
There’s nothing worse than going hungry on your trip because you can’t find enough safe food to eat. Dr. Pidich highly recommended packing plenty of snacks and a few meal replacement options on your trip, if you can.
Consider nonperishable snacks that are carry-on safe, like powdered protein shakes (go for pea protein powder if you can because it’s easy to digest and the least allergenic, compared with other, usually whey-based, powdered proteins), low-sodium jerky, low-sodium powdered soups that can be rehydrated with hot water, roasted chickpeas, nuts (as long as you’re not allergic to nuts!), and dried fruits or crunchy vegetables.
Consider a hotel room or a Airbnb with a kitchen
Having access to a kitchen means you can prepare some meals for yourself. This also cuts down on the stress of not being able to find allergy-safe food to eat.
Take your allergy card with you when you go food shopping so that the people working at the supermarket or farmers’ market can you steer you clear of anything you’re allergic to, and make sure to follow our general tips to stay healthy while traveling.
Don’t forget your allergy medicine (but carry it legally)
Even if your food allergy isn’t severe, you shouldn’t leave home without your allergy medicine. Sure, you’ll want it just in case you have an uncomfortable reaction like hives or itching, but you shouldn’t assume you can buy what you need locally, depending on where you go.
In most common destinations you can, but Dr. Pidich said that it’s better to pack some in your carry-on that you already know and have used. If you have a travel companion, have them carry an extra dose or two of the medicine in case you lose yours. The same goes for an Epi-Pen, if you use one. Finally, make sure you familiarize yourself with your destination’s rules and regulations about prescription (and nonprescription) medication, so you’ll make it through customs with your medicine.