How I Safely Ate My Way Through Mexico with Food Allergies!
My boyfriend and I just came back from a week in Mexico, where we introduced my palate to authentic and traditional Mexican flavors. I absolutely love traveling and immersing myself in different cultures, and above all in local cuisines. However, as a person with severe Oral allergy syndrome, I often find myself a bit reluctant or scared to try new food, especially any raw fruit or vegetable.
During our trip, we visited friends, family, had dinner at a few restaurants, breakfast at a farmers’ market, snacked on street food, and even attended a wedding! Needless to say, there were plenty of opportunities for me to be exposed to my allergens, but by following some simple rules prior to and during this trip, we ensured that we could both safely enjoy our vacation to the fullest.
So today, I have decided to share with you my routine before and while traveling, in hope that it will help make your traveling experience stress-free and therefore much more pleasant!
Here are the 10 steps that I have been following:
BEFORE YOUR TRIP
1. Prepare a list of your allergies in the country’s official language.
Do not assume that, because you speak one of the most spoken languages in the world, people will know the name of the fruits or nuts you are allergic to. When learning a new language, we first learn basic communication in order to address our immediate needs (former language teacher speaking here). A speaker of English-as-a-second-language won’t necessarily know what the words “hazelnut” or “eggplant” mean. So every time I travel abroad, I make sure to know how to properly say (and accurately pronounce) “I am allergic to…” and all my allergies in the official language of the country I will be visiting. For a quick and reliable resource, I use WordReference.com (a free online dictionary that provides translation into a little over 15 languages). However, if I have friends or coworkers who are natives from that country, I also like to show them my list to make sure everything is correct, as dictionaries can sometimes be outdated. Native speakers are also of incredible help when practicing your pronunciation. You would not want to keep telling people that you are allergic to “poop” instead of “coconut” when traveling to Brazil, so better practicing with a friend first! Also be aware, if traveling to Spanish-speaking countries, that food names can differ from one country to another. For instance, “peanut” will be “cacahuete” in Spain, but “maní” in Colombia, “cacahuate” in Honduras, and at times “manía” in Guatemala. So make sure to check!
NOTE: Be careful when trying to get quick and free access to translations! In my search of more efficient and accurate translation websites, I have come across many that provide inaccurate or just plainly wrong translations, including this one: InDifferentLanguages.com, a website that claims to be able to display the translation of almost any word in over 80 languages at once. While playing around with it to check how well it worked, I found many many mistakes. Using the wrong word might be harmless in a casual conversation, but it can certainly make a difference between life and death when listing your allergies to your waiter.
2. Research the country’s local fruit, veggies, and nuts, and which “family” they belong to.
This might sound very time consuming, but you otherwise take the risk of having an unexpected allergic reaction while traveling (which is what we 100% want to avoid), or you will limit yourself to very safe food and might not enjoy everything this beautiful country has to offer. For instance, being deadly allergic to peaches, while in Mexico, I did not have a bite of any fruit that fell into the same category as peaches, even if its local name did not translate into “peach”. I prefer to be extra cautious than having to go to the hospital (or worse) in a foreign country.
3. Pack and plan on carrying your epinephrine injection with you at all times!
Even if you are being very careful, accidents can happen. Better be safe than sorry! Now, epinephrine (whether from EpiPen, Auvi-Q, or any other brand out there) has to be kept within a certain temperature range, neither too hot nor too cold. So traveling within a temperate climate would be fine, but exposing your epinephrine injection to the scorching heat of Egypt or the below-freezing temperatures of Finland in winter might be problematic. While walking around in Mexico’s warm weather, one idea that my boyfriend came up with was to wrap my injection in tin foil (or aluminum foil) and leave it in our backpack close to a small ice bag that we had kept in the freezer over night. In very cold weather, I would suggest to use tin foil as well, but then place your wrapped injection into a warm sock before putting it in your bag. For faster access in case of an emergency, I would either take my epinephrine out of the bag or put it in one of the front pockets while at restaurants. You don’t want to be looking for it when you need it rapidly.
4. Get yourself or your child a medical bracelet.
The medical emergency symbol (also called the Star of Life) is nearly universal! Even if people don’t speak the language written on you or your child’s medical ID, they will realize you have a medical condition that needs to be taken into consideration. It also gives you more credibility when asking a restaurant to be mindful of your allergies. I got mine from Lauren’s Hope, which link is available on my Useful Links page. They can be a bit pricey depending on how fancy you want your medical ID to look, but they are durable and the ID tags provide up to 6 lines for your name, conditions, and emergency contact number.
DURING YOUR TRIP
5. Tell waiters and vendors about your allergy right away, and ask them about the ingredients they use.
Follow the same routine you would when in your own country or neighborhood. Let people know that you have an allergy, and make sure to ask about all the ingredients in the dish you are contemplating ordering. If they cannot give you a list of all the ingredients, or are not sure for how long their peach cobbler or apple pie (Oral allergy syndrome trauma!) was in the oven, stay away from it! In addition, if cross contamination is an issue, mention it before ordering anything. Food joints in large cities and rich countries might be able to accommodate people with life-threatening allergies, but some restaurants or vendors in smaller or poorer towns might simply not have the resources or infrastructure to do so. It is better to say “thank you, but I cannot take the risk” and walk away in search of another food stop, than stay and become more stressed and worried with each and every bite you are taking. For instance, I never order juices or smoothies because most juice bars use apple juice and only rinse (not wash!) their blenders between smoothies. However, while on my trip and since apples are not part of the regular Mexican diet, I found a vendor that did not use apple and was able to have a fresh fruit juice for breakfast three days in a row!!! #paradise
6. Do not minimize your allergy!
No this is not some tourist’s whim, it is an allergy. And no, I won’t sneeze, cough, get a rash or pimples, I will stop breathing! When making this clear, you will get people’s attention and you can be certain that they will be careful and get you accurate information.
7. If you have a doubt, ask someone you trust to taste it first.
As much as we would like every meal to be perfect and safe, things can be very hectic at times in restaurant kitchens, and a mistake can happen. For instance, I have been to places where I had asked for a salad which, according to the menu, had none of my allergens, and found what looked like a few dice of apple right in the middle (it has happened in three instances already…). In those moments of uncertainty, I asked a trusted friend/colleague to taste one of the dice before I either went on with eating my salad or called the waiter to get something different. And by “trusted”, I don’t mean a person that you can trust to tell you the truth, I mean a person who has a great palate and can accurately identify what they are eating. So, if something on your plate resembles one of your allergens and you have no trusted companion with you, or if your trusted companion has tasted the food but cannot tell what it is for sure, DO NOT EAT IT!
8. Avoid processed food!
Keep the ingredients natural and simple. You do not know how other countries process their food. Where corn might be the base ingredient for your favorite snack back home, wheat might be another country’s preferred ingredient at the base of the exact same-looking snack. While in Mexico, we favored simple and tasty dishes made with fresh ingredients. For that, eating at the farmer’s market was a fantastic experience as the food was prepared right there in front of us, and all the ingredients were laid out before our eyes.
9. Forget your diet!
If you are already dealing with food allergies, following strict diet preferences while traveling to another country could make things much more complicated. At home, you surely have a routine, preferred products, supermarkets, and restaurants that allow you to follow a gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, high-cholesterol, low-carb, sugar-free etc. diet while also being mindful of your food allergies, but complying with strict dietary restrictions might be unrealistic in another country or in a remote rural location in your own country. So, unless you absolutely have to be on a specific diet (and I mean for medical reasons), be psychologically prepared and allow yourself to make an exception.
10. Try new food!
Once you have carefully followed the previous steps, stop worrying, you will still have plenty of local food and beverages left to try. So eat it all, drink it all, and ENJOY YOURSELF!
All this might sound like a waste of time to some of you, and nobody would blame you if you wanted to play it extra safe by staying away from anything unknown when traveling, but following these 10 steps has allowed me to have an incredible time and discover that I can safely eat 3 fruits that I had never tried before: soursop, sapota, and mammee (mamey)!
I also believe that by doing this, I helped raise awareness of food allergies in places where people were not aware of such issues (especially allergic reactions to fruit and vegetable) and did not have the protocol to offer safe meals to those of us who suffer from oral allergy syndrome. I like to think this might get some vendors to start catering to people with allergies or at least to create an environment in which their business can offer us safe food alternatives.
Finally, by following these exact 10 steps every time since the beginning of my allergies in July 2013, I have been able to travel and safely enjoy amazing meals in Aruba, Brazil, France, Iceland, Italy, Mexico, and all over the US, from large cities used to accommodating customers with severe allergies and dietary restrictions to very small and remote rural towns.
So… Where are you going next?