Tag Archives: Food Language

In a Perfect Food Allergy World…

In a perfect world people that grow, harvest, package, process, and cook food would be completely open and honest about their ingredients. They would know which products were produced where, and with a touch of a button, people with food allergies would easily be able to look up which products were potentially cross-contaminated.

For those inexperienced to the world of food allergies, you might think we’ve already arrived in that perfect world. Here in Canada, labelling laws require that companies clearly indicate the presence of priority allergens in their ingredient list. In 2012, new laws came into effect to try and make those lists easier to read- for example, if a milk derivative such as casein was used in a product, the manufacturer had to start listing “milk” in their lists.

However, we still have a long way to go. For those at-risk for anaphylaxis, one of the most concerning loopholes is the lack of mandatory cross-contamination declarations. Most companies have some sort of protocols in place for thoroughly washing equipment between products, but it’s often automated and isn’t guaranteed. Some ingredients can easily spread through air, for example powders like wheat flours. Cooking oils can create fine mist, and sulphites can be added as a gas to help prevent spices from clumping. Once theses airborne particles settle, they could easily cross-contaminate other products made simultaneously in the same factory. This can happen in people’s homes, too, cross-contaminating a kitchen over time in the same way that dust leaves a fine powder on everything. Surprisingly, however, the requirement to declare possible sources of cross-contamination for priority allergens is completely optional for companies. This is one of the nightmares for those with severe allergies, since it means you have to call each company individually and find out if they have chosen to mention that they use your allergen in the same factory or not.

It gets harder if your allergen is not a “priority allergen.” Let’s not forget that people can be allergic to any food! In Canada, the priority allergens are determined by the top 10 most common food allergens. That said, just because other food allergies are rare doesn’t mean they can’t cause severe reactions. Let me be the example here: my most serious allergic reactions have been caused by cherries and black pepper! There are situations when companies aren’t required to list those as an ingredient, let alone mention the risk of cross-contamination. As a result, my absolute favourite products and companies are those that take the time to list every single ingredient on the label, instead of hiding ingredients in vague statements such as “flavours” or “spices.” Some statements are misleading, too- “artificial flavours” is listed when there is any combination of flavours where most of the flavours are synthetically derived. They can still mix in the natural extracts, however, which was a frequent source of hives for me before I realized what was happening. Now, as a rule I simply don’t buy or use anything pre-packaged unless I’ve contacted the company. Whether that’s food, toothpaste, or even shampoo- if there’s a chance I might swallow it by accident, I need to know that none of my many allergens are present!

So then how do we deal with making labels more helpful for consumers with food allergies, while not overwhelming the packaging with the text of the ingredients? Some products that handle labelling well use the following techniques:

  • Less text because of fewer ingredients. You also have the added advantage of higher quality products if there are fewer additives. Plus there’s the entertainment factor- I turn into a crazed fan girl screaming with delight when I find products with only one ingredient listed.
  • Folded lists of ingredients hidden behind stickers. These are very common in the hygiene industry, where there are simply too many ingredients to list them all in a readable sized font. At least they’re all attached to the product, though!
  • Complete ingredient lists in plain language. It’s like a breath of fresh air when companies actually list every ingredient. I recognize that companies may want to be able to keep certain things proprietary, but honestly- the competition could theoretically decode most of the ingredients with lab testing… and the average consumer is more interested in the convenience of not having to make it themselves!
  • Special Quick Response (QR) Codes with links to online ingredient information. This is usually in addition to the ingredient lists, but adds extra information vital to the allergic consumer like a detailed chart about cross-contamination risks.
  • Contact information on the package, and staff who know product ingredients. I am 100% more likely to buy a product on the spot if I can reach someone knowledgeable while I’m at the store. I am also highly appreciative of companies who respond to my emailed queries with thorough answers.

At the end of the day, we don’t live in a perfect world. There are no perfect companies nor process that can make guarantees for all allergens. Someday, ingredient labelling may become obsolete as new technologies are being developed for consumer food allergen detection tests. But until the day when we can all afford our newly invented hand-held tricorders, I’ll be relying on companies with honesty, integrity, and a deep sense of pride in sharing with the world the quality of what they make. Here’s to hoping those companies flourish and multiply!

– Janice H.

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!

Travels to Peru- Allergies Included

From stunning mountain tops, to lush rainforests and deep canyons, combined with a remarkable history, rich culture, and of course Machu Picchu itself—the hard question is, what isn’t calling you to Peru? South America has long been on my list of places to visit with Peru at the top of countries to explore within this vast continent. So needless to say, as soon as the time was right, I purchased my ticket! While travelling to a new country in a continent you’ve never been to causes a great deal of excitement and anticipation, it also leaves you with some unknowns to be discovered. This holds especially true when travelling with food allergies. With that said, I am a firm believer that you should not let your food allergies hold you back from new and exciting experiences! I found that with the right preparation, I was able to accommodate my allergies to wheat, eggs, and peanuts, and not have my allergies hold me back from making the most of my travels to Peru!

Llama in front of ancient inca town of Machu Picchu
Llama in front of ancient inca town of Machu Picchu

When planning any trip/vacation there is always extensive preparations beforehand. From booking your flights, to nailing down your itinerary, and of course packing a strategic suitcase, there is always something to be planned or done. Of course, there is always an extra degree of planning when you have to consider your allergies. Whenever I am picking a country to travel to, I need to look up what their typical cuisine is and assess the likelihood of finding some allergen-friendly food options. I found that when researching common Peruvian dishes, most consisted of grilled meats, potatoes (over 300 varieties…yay!), grilled vegetables, quinoa, and soups. Luckily, most of these work well with my wheat, egg, and peanut-free diet! I also ensure that whenever I am travelling to another country where English is not the primary language spoken, that I bring my allergy cards.  These allergy cards are laminated cards that I’ve ordered online which are the size of business cards and state in whatever language I order (in this case Spanish): my allergies, pictures of the specific food allergens, and also feature a specific card that states I need immediate medical attention and need to be taken to a hospital where they speak English. I’ve used these cards in the past in Tanzania, Nepal, and throughout Europe and have had very positive results. I also like to always have Google Translate on my phone, as another means of translation if needed.

When it comes to planning my itinerary, I again take some extra considerations. For this particular trip to Peru, the first part of my trip that I planned was a four-day trek.  When researching trekking companies, I considered their ability to accommodate dietary restrictions. The company I decided on was one that actually asked clients to list their dietary restrictions on their initial intake form. After further communication with this company they assured me that they regularly accommodated food allergies and would be able to provide meals during the trek that would be allergen-safe.  Since this trek was only four days out of my two weeks of travelling, when I was planning what other cities and sites I would be visiting, I also looked up what health services were closest and the presence of any English-speaking hospitals. I kept a log of the name and locations of these hospitals and health services hoping not to ever actually need them, but knowing just in case!

Holiday suitcase

Finally, when it came to packing for my trip, along with trying to strategically fit enough clothes and supplies for two weeks in one hikers backpack I also ensured I packed allergy-friendly snacks for what I thought might last the better part of two weeks as well as multiples of my auto-injector as well as anti-histamine pills.

After months of lead up, the day of my trip finally arrived!  After two long plane rides I arrived safe and sound in the city of Cusco— a city in southeastern Peru.  This is the city you are likely to visit if you are trekking to or planning to visit Machu Picchu.  Due to the popularity of Machu Picchu, Cusco is a city that is very traveller-friendly.  I spent two and a half days in Cusco as I acclimatized to the high altitudes. During my stay, I found I was able to eat out with relative ease with waiter or waitresses either able to speak English or by using my allergy cards. One of my favourite restaurants had to be a place that specialized in vegetarian/vegan dishes and used only organic ingredients grown in the sacred valley (and believe it or not, this was also probably one of my cheapest meals eating out!!).

After the two and a half days spent in Cusco it was time for some trekking!  The trail that I hiked is known as the Salkantay trail and is a 64 km hike over three days that leads you to the base of Machu Picchu, where on the fourth day you actually spend the entire day visiting Machu Picchu. The trek was everything I could have wanted and more. The days were tough first hiking up through the Andean Mountains until finally reaching the Salkantay Pass and then hiking down into the forested valleys below.  Every type of weather and degree of temperature seemed to be experienced and every form of clothing worn. The scenery and dramatic landscapes were absolutely spectacular and humbling at the same time, not to mention made every blister and worn out muscle worth it. Food wise, I always had food options I could eat on my trip. While the trekking company provided breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which I was able to eat, they also provided trekkers with a snack— which I found more often than not I could not eat. I definitely under-estimated how many granola bars I would go through while hiking 20+ km a day. One near miss at the end of my trip came after my trek was finished and when I was out for dinner and drinks with my fellow trekkers. Arguably the most popular alcoholic drink in Peru is known as a “Pisco Sour,” a cocktail consisting of pisco (brandy commonly found in Peru and Chile), lemon juice, and bitters all shaken together with a creamy froth added on top. It wasn’t until I had my glass and was about to take my first sip when a friend of mine listed the ingredients of this drink again and added that meringue was the finishing feature on top of the drink. This of course meant that the white froth I was about to slurp up was just beaten egg whites and would have lead to a less ideal end to my trek. So, instead of this drink, one of my fellow trekkers got an extra drink and I got to try the pisco sour minus of course any egg whites.

Silhouette of people near the mountain.

The rest of my travels took me to the Lake Titicaca region of Peru— this lake being the highest navigable lake in the world. I began my travels in the lakeside city of Puno, I visited islands on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, before following the coast down to Bolivia where I spent several days on the Bolivian side of the lake (I highly recommend giving a visit to the Bolivian side if you ever find yourself visiting Lake Titicaca!) Now being away from the popular traveller city of Cusco, it was definitely a rarity to come across locals who knew English and I either relied on using my allergy cards when eating out or fellow travellers who happened to be able to speak English as well as Spanish. I also was out of my packed snacks not long after my trek was finished.  When it came to purchasing allergen-safe snacks, I quickly learned that bananas and avocados not only taste a million times better in South America but stay ripe for days longer and pack well without bruising as easily as they do in Canada. I also ate way more Pringles then I care to admit. With all of that, I am happy to say that I did avoid any allergy incidents at all of the restaurants that I visited and was still able to indulge in some fantastic Peruvian cuisine! For anyone visiting Peru/Bolivia my top food recommendations have to be their Ceviche quinoa soup and for anyone super adventurous perhaps some Alpaca steak!

Anyone with food allergies knows the extra hurdles that come with travelling, but that’s not to say allergies should be a barrier to getting out and exploring the world a little more! Comment below with your favourite travel destinations and what you did to ensure you stayed safe while travelling with allergies!

– Caitlyn P.

Kiwis (not the fruit), Hobbits and Rugby – Travelling to New Zealand with a Food Allergy

Kia Ora (hello in the language of the native Maori people of New Zealand)!

Milford Sound in New Zealand

I recently had the pleasure of travelling to the amazingly beautiful country of New Zealand where I spent 3 weeks driving all around the North and South Island discovering this exotic land.

After 24 hours of travel to get to New Zealand I was not only exhausted but was also starving! I started out my discovery of what the local cuisine was and began navigating my allergies while travelling. Overall, the food in New Zealand is very similar to food in Canada and North America as a whole. I wasn’t sure if they would have any bizarre delicacies or not have food I normally eat at home but I found eating with my allergies to be very easy while there!

Having a common language was probably what made travelling the easiest as I had no issues communicating my allergies with servers or chefs while eating out. Allergies are quite prevalent in New Zealand, so most people are aware of what it means to be allergic to a food.

Oysters on stone plate with ice and lemon

Seafood and shellfish are fairly common items I found on menus when eating out so if you are allergic to any of these items, you will need to be careful. However, there are lots of other options such as chicken, beef, lamb, pork etc. that can help you to avoid eating any fish. For those allergic to kiwis make sure you say kiwi fruit as the term Kiwi is often used to describe a person from New Zealand. I made this mistake a few times when referring to the fruit and was always chuckled at by a local (I’m sure it happens all the time).

One thing I would be careful of is ensuring you always have a good store of auto-injectors on you. There is often a fair distance between towns and cities throughout New Zealand. We spent most of our days driving anywhere from 4-6 hours with most of that spent on the side of a mountain or in rural farm land. Often there is not cell phone service and you can be quite far away from a hospital or a doctor. So it is important that before you leave, you stock up on auto-injectors so that you have enough to last you in case you have a reaction while travelling between places.

Overall I found New Zealand a very easy country to navigate with my allergies. They have some chains of restaurants and fast food places that we have here in Canada so you can almost always find something safe to eat!

– Lindsay S.

Travelling to the Land Down Under with Food Allergies

Kangaroos crossing.

G’Day Mate! Travelling to Australia is an amazing vacation and a beautiful place to visit. I took my first trip to Australia recently and had an amazing time seeing kangaroos, koala bears, beaches, and the outback. Of course for any trip I take, being extra vigilant about my food allergies was something I made sure was a priority.

Since they do speak English in Australia, handling my allergies was a lot easier than it has been when travelling to places where there is a language barrier. As you quickly learn though, Australians have lots of different terms and words that we don’t use in Canada. For example, green peppers are called “capsicum” and cantaloupe is called “rock melon.” To make sure people understand you when you are asking about your allergies, do a quick search online to make sure that they don’t use a different word to describe the food you are allergic to!

I wasn’t sure what to expect from “Australian food” as I didn’t know if their cuisine was substantially different from North American cuisine. Overall, they do eat a lot of similar foods that we eat here. They have some unique local dishes like kangaroo, emu, and camel (but don’t worry there are lots of other meat options for you to choose from!) Aussies also love their beet root and will often put it on burgers and in salads. Being completely surrounded by water, the coastal cities often have lots of fish on the menu as well, some of which are not found back here in Canada. So if you have a fish allergy, make sure you are careful about what you eat. They also have lots of fish and chip shops but it is important you ask about what oil they are frying the fish in as I did come across some places that used peanut oil.

Fruit and Vegetable Markets

Overall the concept of food allergies is quite well understood in Australia so if you tell your server about your allergy they should be able to easily understand and accommodate your dietary restrictions. I did find that food in the country tends to be a little more expensive than back in Canada – although tax is included in the price and they do not tip servers there. Therefore, I ended up buying a lot of food at grocery stores which have a wide variety to choose from at more affordable prices. I also found lots of peanut and nut-free snacks available so it made shopping a bit easier. Allergens are often labelled on any food product making label reading a quicker process!

I found Australia to be a really allergy-friendly place to travel as things are well labelled, no language barriers exist, and food allergies are quite prevalent in the country. If you are ever willing to make the long trek to the land down under, I would highly recommend it and would have few worries about travelling with your allergies!

– Lindsay S.