Which country is best for food allergy sufferers?
Forget slurping on the deadly tentacles of a Sannakji octopus or munching a fried scorpion: the deadliest morsel that’s ever passed between my lips was an innocuous steamed dumpling coated in powdered peanut.
As a travel writer who suffers from a severe peanut and tree nut allergy, my urge for cultural immersion often pushes the boundaries of my comfort zone.
Experience has taught me how to minimize the risks, but I find traveling in some countries easier than others.
Japan, where nuts are rarely used, is a safe haven where I can be let loose on the sushi bar with abandon.
Meals in Thailand, where crushed peanuts sneak their way into everything from pad Thai to soup garnish, are like a nerve-racking game of edible Russian roulette.
Ordering an otherwise safe pasta dish in Turkey and having it served with an inexplicable topping of ground pistachio is just plain annoying.
For many travelers who suffer allergic reactions, the best travel destination is simply the safest destination -- a country where allergens are sparse, food hygiene is excellent, public allergy awareness is high and restaurant staff are happy to cater to special needs.
Of course, nowhere is risk-free but, like myself, many allergic travelers find certain destinations easier to manage than others.
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Lost in translation
The biggest challenge for allergy sufferers heading overseas is communication, so it’s no surprise that English-speaking countries top the list of safe destinations.
Food allergy blogger Jenny Kales of Nut-FreeMom.com singles out Canada as a preferred destination for her multiple-allergic family, remarking that “their laws and practices with regard to awareness, food allergy labeling and restaurant preparedness are better than in the U.S.”
The Canadian government’s recent decision to order nut-free buffer zones on Air Canada flights (the first government in the world to make such a stand) is another plus for allergy sufferers.
Sarah Beresford, communications manager for The Anaphylaxis Campaign, also considers Canada (along with the United States, Australia and Europe) the lowest risk destination for allergy sufferers, thanks to strict food preparation and labeling regulations, as well as a high level of allergy awareness.
She advises caution when traveling to “places like Thailand, China and Vietnam, where nuts and fish are frequently used in recipes and street food is more prevalent, so you are less likely to know what it contains.”
Traveling in developing countries can pose more risks due to the lack of labeling and the difficulty of tracing food ingredients, although the limited food products available might make it easier to avoid a single allergen.
While carrying translation cards -- available from Allergy UK -- can help bridge the language barrier, explaining your needs in the local language sometimes isn't enough.
In countries where it’s culturally unacceptable to refuse a guest’s requests or where severe allergies are rare, requests can be misunderstood.
“When I'm in Peru, Jordan or even in Spain, I’ll explain that I cannot eat peanuts and [locals] think it’s by choice," says travel blogger and peanut allergy sufferer Elizabeth Carlson. "Often they don’t understand the difference between peanuts and other nuts, or that I can’t even eat something that has been cooked in the same pan as a peanut dish. Or they think if they pick the peanuts out, then I can still eat the dish.
“It’s hard for some to comprehend the severity of my illness simply because they have either never heard of it or it’s very uncommon for people [in their country] to have food allergies, let alone allergies that could kill you."
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The perils of exotic cuisine
Selecting safe foods in your home country is easy, but navigating a foreign menu can be a minefield of unexpected ingredients.
“Some cheeses in France have pistachio nuts in them and Lupin flour is more commonly used in bakery items in European countries like France and The Netherlands,” Beresford warns.
That doesn't mean you have to write off any destination.
Despite fretting about the pasta-heavy cuisine, allergy blogger and Coeliac Disease sufferer Sian Drew found Italy a paradise for those avoiding gluten.
“There are whole shops dedicated to gluten-free products and many restaurants offer gluten-free classics such as gluten-free pizza, tiramisu and even a gluten- and nut-free ice cream cone to have my gelato in!” she reports.
Even countries where street food is abundant aren't necessarily verboten. Carlson notes the advantages of more casual eating.
“I eat a lot of street food when I travel, which is great because you get to see the food being cooked right in front of you, and it’s easier to talk one on one with the cook,” she says.
A worthwhile risk
Some even find their allergy inspires them to explore, such as Drew, who finds the time spent researching restaurants and local cuisine adds a unique element to her trips.
“We often visit specific gluten-free restaurants and shops that are usually not located in the center of town, making our city tours slightly more local than the usual tourist trail,” she says.
Ultimately, most sufferers agree that traveling with food allergies is a worthwhile risk and that even higher risk destinations can be managed as long as they plan ahead and prepare for all eventualities.
“Allergies should not hold anyone back, because you can make a destination work for you," says Kale.