Dr Alyson Pidich, the medical director of the Ash Center, in NYC, and a food allergy specialist, is allergic to shellfish and knows firsthand that even so-called “safe” foods can have trace allergens that can make you ill.
So what is a food allergy sufferer and world traveller to do?
Here are some of 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 (R100 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 are allergic to.
Be overly cautious when ordering food
This may sound obvious, but in an ideal scenario, you always travel with food allergy cards and the people serving you understand what you are 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. 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 is like to be surprised when their salad dressing has cheese in it or the vegetable soup has been prepared with chicken broth, and you will understand what it is like. In short, even if you think you are being cautious, be extra cautious.
Travel with a food stash
There is nothing worse than going hungry on your trip because you can’t find enough safe food to eat. Pack 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 is easy to digest and the least allergenic, compared with other, usually whey-based, powdered proteins), biltong, low-sodium powdered soups that can be rehydrated with hot water, roasted chickpeas, nuts (as long as you are not allergic to nuts!), and dried fruits or crunchy vegetables.
Consider a hotel room or an 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 steer you clear of anything you are allergic to.
Don’t forget your allergy medicine
Even if your food allergy is not severe, you should not leave home without your allergy medicine. Sure, you will want it just in case you have an uncomfortable reaction like hives or itching, but you should not assume you can buy what you need locally, depending on where you go.
In most common destinations you can, but it is 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 will make it through customs with your medicine.