Category Archives: Travel and Allergies

“What’s in your food?” – Experiences with Food Labelling Abroad

When I was 19, I packed up myself, my peanut and soy allergies, and five EpiPen® auto-injectors, and moved to Finland. This was a goal I had set for myself when I was 12 and I barely slept from the day I received my university acceptance in January until I left in July. After 21 hours of travel, I ventured to the grocery store to find something – anything – to eat. My excitement was quickly squashed when I noticed the vague “may contain nuts” label present on so many foods. Did they mean peanuts? How was I supposed to eat with this vague labelling? Cookies, chocolates, breads, and even some pasta…and for some reason, things were labelled with “nuts and almonds.” Those are the same thing! Almonds are nuts! Not only was I dealing with reading in two new languages (Finnish and Swedish), but I was also dealing with new labelling laws in two new languages…and one wrong choice could have had drastic consequences. While I’m sure Finnish hospitals are wonderful, I didn’t particularly want to see the inside of one of them.
I lost 10 lbs in the first month, and anyone who knows me will tell you I didn’t have 10 lbs to lose. I quickly realized I needed to figure out these laws or let my allergies win and pack my bags to go back to Canada. I started contacting companies asking them to define what
nuts are included in their “may contain nuts” statement so I could better assess the risk for my allergies. Every company responded to me right away, and knew exactly what nuts were present in the facilities where their food was produced. Even a simple Facebook© message resulted in a straight-to-the-point answer where I clearly understood if the product was safe or not. With these quick responses, I soon started to question if I was better off in Finland than Canada.

From there, I explored restaurants. My Finnish friend insisted this bakery she loved would be allergen-safe. Bakeries are an automatic ‘no’ for me while I’m at home and I could feel my anxiety rising as I prepared myself to order a coffee with no cinnamon bun, as usual (perspective: that’s basically like ordering a poutine with no cheese in Canada). I nearly cried when, without missing a beat, the woman working behind the counter knew that the cocoa used in that cake *points to chocolate cake in the corner* had a “may contain nuts” warning on it, but that every other ingredient was safe and every piece of equipment was sanitized between making products. Yes, those traditional Christmas joulutorttu – puff pastries with prune jam, things I had eyed in the stores and accepted I would never get to try – were deemed safe.

The quality of service was not isolated to this small bakery. Every time I ate out I felt 100% safe and understood. All restaurants knew exactly what was in their food and what their food had come into contact with, whether it was a burger joint on the highway or a fancy restaurant in downtown Helsinki. The school cafeterias labelled allergens in all meals on large screens. Cafeteria food was labelled “contains a small amount of X” (aka, likely safe for intolerances) or “contains no X” (aka, likely safe for serious allergies). The cafeteria workers were incredibly precise with ensuring utensils only touched the food they were supposed to touch and that nothing dripped from one area to another. I skipped the days when peanut dishes were offered, but regularly ate the other cafeteria foods without any issues – and, most importantly, I felt safe whenever I chose to eat.

Originally, I wanted to write about the difficulties of food labelling abroad. Of course, I ran into issues in Estonia when I didn’t bother to learn any Estonian before my travels. I ran into problems in the arctic when a chef told me to just read the menu to see what was in the food (he thought I meant an intolerance). I also assumed that food in Denmark would be labelled in Swedish because food in Sweden was labeled in Danish. I quickly found myself buying a soda pop instead of a real meal to get me through my flight without a reaction because I couldn’t read any of the food ingredients. But through writing this blog post, I have come to realize that, for the most part, food allergies were incredibly well handled in Finland. Of course, you need to know the native words for your allergen. For example, I knew maapähkinä is peanut and soijaproteiini is soy protein before I even applied to move to Finland, and I knew how to pronounce them the best I could. Had I not learned those words, I would have had a significantly different experience. But other than the language barrier, no significant issues occurred. Travelling with allergies is possible, and sometimes you’ll be pleasantly surprised with what you find!

– Danielle B.

Barbados in Peanut-Free Shell

Your footprints disappear in white sand behind you as clear turquoise water laps gently against your toes. The air smells warm, the breeze carries tranquil scents and the sights offer endless blue horizons and lush green gullies. It’s hard to have any worries when you’re surrounded by such beauty, but the reality of having a severe food allergy is and it follows you anywhere you go.

I had the opportunity to travel to a slice of paradise last year when visiting the Caribbean island of Barbados. My family and I stayed at a condo-style facility where I had the opportunity to make most of my own food, which is an ideal situation for anyone who, like me, is at-risk for anaphylaxis to several foods. I thought I would find issues with food labeling laws or lack of information available when it comes to prepackaged foods. I was surprised to walk into a grocery store to see both North American brands that I am more comfortable with and precautionary labelling (e.g. “may contain”) on other brands. As well, an abundance of fresh foods like meats, vegetables, and fruits gave me variety in what I chose to eat. I was also shocked to see separate sections for all tree nuts away from the produce, along with closing bags and wash stations, a feature that I’ve never seen at a grocery store! It was amazing to see food allergy safety protocol outside of my home. It put my worries at ease and I felt safer and more comfortable.

Having bags that zip shut, and a place to wash or disinfect your hands is an idea worth considering for other grocery stores internationally. Whether it be for sanitary reasons, or food allergy safety, it’s a protocol I wish more would adapt. All of this made cooking on our vacation no sweat but I was still looking forward to trying the local foods and spirits.

Before I eat anywhere whether it be at home in Canada or abroad, I always research several restaurants online and gather any information I can find. From menus and allergen information, to hopefully contacting the restaurant by email or phone, I like to be prepared when I dine out. If I’m travelling, I try to contact a restaurant beforehand and see what (if any) allergen policy they may have. My emails and phone calls always have the same message and questions. If there isn’t an email or contact, I try to contact the restaurant on social media like Facebook or Twitter with simple questions. In my experience, they’re usually great at responding but I was floored at the responses and multiple follow ups I received from several restaurants in Barbados. The moment that caught me off guard was the remembrance of me and my food allergy. I emailed a particular place about two weeks before our trip, after being assured it was safe, I made a reservation, and to my surprise the manager remembered my name and allergy when we arrived. She took time to get the chef to chat with me about my options and assured me he would personally make my meal. I haven’t felt that safe and confident in my meal choice since Walt Disney World, where the staff went above and beyond! The chef brought my meal out specifically and even made me a special dessert since none were safe on the menu.

It was such a nice surprise to be greeted this way. I never expected that level of involvement and assurance from the chef, not to mention the sheer acknowledgement of my name and allergen was enough to keep a smile on my face the entire meal. I never expected that level of involvement and allergen awareness when I entered that restaurant. Here in Canada, restaurants are great when it comes to food allergy awareness. One thing I think some could learn is the hospitality and comfort I was offered in that fateful place. The assurance of safety and knowledge in the kitchen and care from the chef and staff boosted my confidence in asking questions and voicing my concerns.

A travel advertisement once left you with the line “life wasn’t created here, but it was perfected.” When each day starts with crystal blue water and ends with picture perfect sunsets, it’s hard not to get swept away into the peace and beauty that is Barbados. When you have a food allergy, it can be hard not to let a black cloud hang over your head when travelling. Between the plane and being in a different location, it can cause serious anxiety regardless of where you are. It can also be easy to forget about or be less vigilant when it comes to your food allergy when you’re on vacation and already in a relaxed state of mind. Whether you’re the former or the later it’s important to plan ahead, do your research, and come prepared wherever you may be.

With less worry blocking your view, that black cloud can lift and you’ll be able to see that beautiful view of vacationing.

-Arianne K.

Be Our Guest: Dining at Walt Disney World

Let’s face it, we’ve all looked at a menu with hesitation. Wondering what limitations or substitutions await you. We’re all on the edge of our seats waiting for the lines “made on the same grill, pre-made at another facility, or may have come into contact with.” It can be so discouraging that you almost want to wait to crack open that menu until you can talk with a server or chef. I’ve always held off on making decisions on ordering until I’ve spoken with someone, that is, until I stepped into the most magical place on earth and was handed a menu that helped me put away my worries and strife.

The Vacation Kingdom of the World. You don’t get a title like that without being a well-rounded, fine-tuned, working machine. Now full disclosure, I am no slouch when it comes to Walt Disney World (WDW). We started going to Disney in the early 90’s, a turbulent time in the family as we had my newly discovered risk-for-anaphylaxis to peanuts and tree-nuts and my brother’s newly discovered food allergy to eggs. With all these food allergies packed into one family, we decided to pack up a trailer and drive from Ontario, Canada to the great state of Florida (a three day excursion mind you) and camp at the Fort Wilderness Campground. This way, my mom and dad could be in charge of all the food we ate because I was terrified to eat anywhere other than my mom and Grandma’s house.

Now, it may not come to anyone’s surprise that The Walt Disney World Company has their food allergy game figured out, but at the time I was still scared, I didn’t have the self-confidence to try the food in the parks. That was until I turned 13. Things changed and I became more confident in myself and my food allergies, and was ready to try new dining adventures. I had my very first dining-out experience at Tony’s Town Square Restaurant in the Magic Kingdom.

Since then, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for WDW. In such a safe and welcoming environment, I could discuss my food allergies with an actual chef, who took the time to explain the menu and reassure me of their due diligence. It was this stepping stone that laid the ground work for me to become more confident in speaking about my food allergies in restaurants anywhere. I learned to look over menus carefully and talk to servers myself and ask the right
questions. Because their cast members were so well trained and prepared, it rubbed off on me and helped me understand the value and importance of taking this time to be sure of my food choice and feel safe about them.

Fast forward to January 2017. My partner Steve and I decided to travel down to WDW to ring in the New Year with the mouse. I am continually impressed with how restaurants treat food allergies, but I am knocked off my feet in awe of how the Walt Disney Company is changing the game when it comes to food allergies. When you’re planning a trip to WDW, it’s in your best interest to book dinner reservations in advance. Booking online is the first step in WDW’s food allergy preparedness. You have the option to fill out all your food allergies in detail before you even step foot in the restaurant.
When we finally arrived to our first dining reservation, I was greeted with the question, “who has the allergy in this party?” and then promptly handed an allergy-friendly menu. The menu had detailed dishes from appetizers to desserts, outlining all ingredients and what dishes were free of certain allergens. It’s hard to put into words how I felt in that moment. I wanted to cry and laugh all at the same time. It was the first time I was able to go through a menu with confidence before speaking with someone from the restaurant. When we placed our order, the server asked if I felt comfortable and if I needed to speak with a chef just in case. I couldn’t help but remember that shy 13-year-old, who blustered up the courage to talk with a chef about her food allergies. I was bursting with emotions thinking about how a tool such as this will help kids just like me build confidence and a voice when it comes to their food allergy. Instead of being presented with a bunch of no’s and off-limits, we finally have a menu that is full of options and
opportunities.

Remember, the onus is still on you to disclose all of your allergies and take all of the necessary precautions you would usually take at any restaurant. It’s hard to guarantee anything, but WDW gets pretty close in my books!

The Walt Disney World Company truly gets it. They understand the mental toll it takes to dine out with a food allergy regardless of being a confident adult, or a parent with their child. They’ve stream lined a process with 100% visibility from putting menu’s online, to informing the restaurant when you book a reservation, down to a beautiful allergy-friendly menu. They also have the opportunity to look over menu books at quick server restaurants, and give you the option to speak with a chef at buffet style dining halls in their resorts. It is magical for a lack of a better term, but I think the word fits nicely considering the location. Food allergy awareness has come a long way and WDW is certainly looking like a gold standard contender. They are continuously innovating and discovering new ways to ensure everyone has a safe and happy dining experience while on vacation.

-Arianne. K

Denial: A Thought Process During an Allergic Reaction

As an adult I’ve experienced two anaphylactic reactions. They both had one thing in common: denial. Today I want to share my thought process during my reactions.

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We were having a great day walking around the Dutch city of Leiden. European cities have an age to them that Canadian cities can’t match. With age comes wisdom and somehow walking these cobbled streets helped me feel a sense of serenity and peace.

Earlier that day at lunch I went through a very unique experience ordering food from a waiter who spoke only Dutch, a language I couldn’t understand. It was unnerving to have my normal allergy discussion through a translator. After a few minutes my translator seemed satisfied that this restaurant was safe and we decided to eat. In retrospect, I ignored a few red flags and should have been more careful.

As I walked down the street I began feeling bloated. That’s normal enough when I’m suffering from jet lag and eating new foods in new places. I would have ignored it completely if it hadn’t steadily worsened over the course of an hour or so. Eventually I was so uncomfortable that I felt I might throw up. It crossed my mind that I may be having an anaphylactic reaction to my lunch.


When people with allergies talk about allergies to friends and family we tend to play up our vigilance. “I would never…” is the beginning of many of our bold claims. Here’s a good one that I’ve shared hundreds of times “I would never ignore even the slightest symptom of a reaction, it isn’t worth it.”

Contrary to my claim I wasn’t just ignoring my symptoms but I was actively rationalizing them away. My thought process went like this:

“My stomach hurts, that’s not an allergic reaction!”

A few moments later…
“If this was a reaction you’d already be passed out. This is taking too long, it’s just indigestion”

Finally…

“Don’t be stupid Jason, you’re making yourself panic. Take a deep breath and enjoy yourself. You’re only in Holland for a short time!”

This ongoing desperate attempt to explain away my symptoms was eventually interrupted by my brother who noticed I was behaving strangely. He offered me a mint to settle my stomach and noticed that I immediately complained that the mint made my tongue itch. With a subtlety that I only understood after the fact he casually remarked that if my tongue was itchy I should pinch my ear. I did. My ear was itchy and sore.
My brother and I locked eyes, he didn’t say anything. That was the moment I realized what was really happening.

Minutes later I was sitting on a Dutch hospital bed as a doctor scolded me for not using my auto-injector. Everything worked out fine but the denial nearly cost me my life.

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Three years later I was getting married.

My groomsmen and I rented a cottage for the bachelor party. After an evening of video games, beer, and cigars we were winding down the evening playing cards.
I didn’t feel right. My back and shoulders were itchy and I was generally uncomfortable. I figured I was tired, drunk, or both. Just like my walk through the streets of Leiden at some point it occurred to me that I may be having an allergic reaction.

I may be the king of denial because this time was nearly the same as last time.

“You’re fine.”

My brother, who is also allergic to peanuts, and was present, was not having a reaction. We had been eating the same food all weekend.

“If Dylan’s OK then I am too. It’s impossible for one of us to react and not the other.”

The worst part about the denial during shock is that it makes so much sense at the time. Every thought I had explained away my symptoms in a logical manner. I thought about indigestion, seasonal allergies, reactions to alcohol, fatigue. All of it made sense. It was enough to protect my fragile sense of security from the reality of a dangerous situation.

All good things come to an end. I walked past a mirror and saw a red patch on the back of my arm. This looked alarmingly like hives. Lifting my shirt, I checked my back. I felt a sinking feeling as I saw that my back was covered in hives.

From the outside looking in I know that this is the moment when I should have taken a shot of epinephrine and called an ambulance. I’m embarrassed that my actual response almost turned my anecdote into a tragedy. I looked at the rash and thought:

“This is fine. It’s just a rash, don’t ruin the party.”

For years, I scolded my friends who hid their symptoms to protect the fun that their friends were having. The joke was on me, I’m not so different. There I was in the midst of a full blown anaphylactic reaction convincing myself that I had nothing to worry about.

A few minutes later the hives were getting worse and I fessed up to the gang and showed them my back. While my friends debated what the rash could mean I made eye contact with my brother and immediately knew what he was thinking. This wasn’t a drill.

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Denial is one of the most dangerous symptoms of shock. Heart attacks are misunderstood as indigestion, strokes are mistaken for fatigue, and “small infections” are ignored leading to blood poisoning or worse.

We’re taught to treat hives, throat closures, chest tightness, and many other symptoms with urgency to protect ourselves. In an emergency, however, this can all be derailed by a few moments of denial. My first-hand experience was a real eye opener for me. I realize now that there is more to this equation than I had originally thought.

This can happen to any of us. If I had been reacting by myself who knows what would have happened. Luckily I had my brother with me to snap me out of denial twice. When you practice using your auto-injector or educate your friends don’t forget this scenario. Be prepared to face denial.

Always remember to take your symptoms seriously.

– Jason B.

Airbnb-ing Across Europe Food Allergy Style

Airbnb has become an increasingly popular way for people to find accommodations when travelling and also a way for people to make money by letting others stay in their home. Depending on where and when you are travelling, Airbnb can be a very cost-effective solution rather than staying at a traditional hotel. When travelling through Europe, I opted to rent an Airbnb in two cities I was staying in: Paris, France and Bern, Switzerland. These places had hotel rates that were extremely high and also had a very high cost of living. Therefore, I thought it would be economical to stay at someone’s home.

Closeup Of Old Signboard Bed & Breakfast Hanging On Fence

When renting through Airbnb there is a wide variety of accommodation types you can choose from. I will go through the two options I have experience with and explain how this all worked out with my food allergies.

  1. Renting a room in a home

When in Bern, my travelling partner and I rented a room from a very nice girl who lived in an apartment with three other people. We were permitted to use common areas such as the bathroom, laundry, kitchen, etc. Due to my risk for anaphylaxis, we did not opt to use the kitchen as I could not be guaranteed what food had been prepared there. This was a personal choice I made as I did not want to go through the hassle of meticulously washing countertops, dishes, and utensils. However, this is still an option for people willing to put in the work. Staying in someone else’s home with others still living there obviously presents with some limitations. It is important to fully understand what type of rental you are signing up for when making your booking. Often private rooms in a home or apartment are cheaper than having the whole place to yourself. With this in mind, you do have the risk of cross-contamination or coming into contact with your allergen in a shared kitchen, so be cautious.

Bed & Breakfast  accommodation in England

  1. Renting an entire home

For our time in Paris we were able to rent a one-bedroom apartment which we had to ourselves as the owner was not there. This was a really great luxury to have as we were able to save a lot of money on meals by buying food at a local grocery store. We had breakfast in the apartment every day and also prepared lunches to take with us. I ran into no difficulties with my food allergies while staying in the apartment. The kitchen was very clean when we arrived and if I was concerned I would just carefully wash things like knives that may have previously been used for peanut butter. Our host was even nice enough to leave us a bottle of wine to enjoy. Being able to make two out of three meals in a day also helped me to ensure that what I was eating was safe for me. I purchased allergen-safe foods from the grocery store and did not have to worry about miscommunication or cross-contamination at restaurants.

My experiences with Airbnb and my food allergies have been great so far. I have had no problems staying safe while staying in someone else’s home! If you are very concerned about your allergies, you are able to message the person you are renting from on the website to discuss any issues or accommodations that can be made!

Happy travelling!

– Lindsay S.

Travelling to Spain with Food Allergies

Hola! Como estas? Spain is a beautiful country to visit filled with lots of culture, history and delicious food! If you prepare in advance and are aware of the common cuisine, your trip to Spain should be enjoyable despite your food allergies.

Depending on where in Spain you are going, locals will know variable levels of English. In major cities like Barcelona and Madrid, many people who work at restaurants are able to speak fairly good English. However, if you are getting into smaller more coastal towns you may find that it is harder for people to understand you. It is a good idea when travelling anywhere with a foreign language to get allergy statement cards. There are a variety of websites where you can order cards that translate common sayings such as “Does this food contain ‘your allergen?’” This can make the language barrier a lot easier for you to work with. It is also important to look up the Spanish words for your allergen so that you are able to read packages if you are buying your own food. Here are some examples: Peanut = Mani, Shellfish = Mariscos, Milk = Leche.

Woman touristSpanish cuisine includes a wide variety of dishes from paella to tapas. Seafood and shellfish are very common in Spain, especially when visiting coastal towns. There are definitely options that do not contain these, but if you have an allergy to these foods you should be very aware of what you are eating. If fish is being cooked or fried in the same oil or in the same area as other foods, you should clarify the risks of cross-contamination with the restaurant staff. Tapas are very common fare in Spain, with some restaurants being dedicated to only serving this type of food. Tapas are kind of like appetizers and there are many options to choose from. When eating tapas just be careful to check exactly what the ingredients are, as you typically just pick them out buffet-style and do not have a menu describing what is in each dish.

Overall travelling to Spain is absolutely amazing and I highly recommend it! There are amazing sights to see and delicious foods to try. There is no reason why you can’t go there and eat safely with your food allergies – you just need to be actively ensuring you are safe!

– Lindsay S.

 

Adios amigos!

Travelling with Food Allergies to Mexico

I just recently came home from my first solo (without Mom and Dad) all-inclusive vacation to Mexico with my friends. I was super excited, but also anxious because of my food allergies. I was concerned that it would be difficult for me to eat in Mexico as a result of my food allergies.map of Mexico close-up image

Whether travelling with your friends or family, preparation can make your trip safe and enjoyable. I cannot stress enough that communication and preparation are key. My trip was absolutely amazing and I feel like it was partly because my family and I prepared so much in advance in regards to my food allergies. These are some of the things I did to prepare for my vacation:

  1. Before I even booked my vacation, I did some research as to what countries have decent hospitals. In case something was to happen, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t two hours away from a main hospital. I booked Cancun, Mexico because the resort I stayed at was only 15 minutes away from a main hospital.
  2. One week before leaving, I called both the resort and the airline I was flying with. The airline immediately wrote a note on my file and discussed ways in which they could accommodate me during my flight. When we were boarding at the airport, I made sure that I reminded the airline crew about my food allergy in case there was any miscommunication when I had previously called. I also packed food for my flight. You honestly don’t want to take the risk by eating unknown food.
  3. I booked an appointment with my allergist that I made sure fell within a month of my departure so I could speak to him about prescriptions I should take along with me. I knew one or two EpiPens® wouldn’t be enough for a trip, so I asked to get prescribed more. I wanted to be prepared with extra EpiPens® in case an accident did happen. My allergist also recommended buying Benadryl® for the trip.
  4. I knew someone from Mexico, so before my departure, I asked her to write me a letter outlining my food allergies that I could carry around the resort. The letter basically said, in Spanish, that I had life-threatening food allergies, as well as a list carefully outlining each item that I was allergic to. I then made sure to speak to the chef before ordering at any restaurant. I gave him/her the note, and then they told me the accommodations that they would make for me.

To be honest, the translated note was probably the most important thing I could have done for myself on the trip. Every single chef thanked me for bringing them the note because it made it so much clearer to them what was going on and what they had to do to deal with it. I would 10,000% recommend bringing a translated note. The resort was so accommodating; it amazed me. It made such a difference to my trip that they were so great with accommodating my food allergies.

A trip with food allergies can definitely be daunting, but as long as you prepare in advance, you will have the time of your life.

– Giulia C.