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Home » Celiac Disease » Traveling abroad with food allergies and celiac disease… [part 1]

Traveling abroad with food allergies and celiac disease… [part 1]

…in the land of Milk and Cheese.

[note: this post was originally written back in September of 2011, not sure why, but I just never posted it… till now. I’ll try to eventually get the following posts to the series written up and posted as well]

I never expected to find myself traveling as much as I have been in the last 2 years, and especially not with severe food allergies and celiac disease. But, I can tell you, it is possible to do it… it’s not easy, but it is possible… even on relatively short notice.

I just spent 10 days in The Land of Milk and Cheese, aka, France. And I am happy and relieved to tell you that I’m still alive, and didn’t use the EpiPen on this trip. It wasn’t lacking in adventure though! I had less than 2 weeks warning I was actually going to go on this trip, and the thing that loomed in my mind was that I was going for my cousin’s wedding. And if you don’t know about French culture, well, food is central, and not just that but it lasts for hours! And I’m not kidding. But

I was honestly quite surprised at how much allergy friendly food I found there! We found some gluten free stuff at a Bio coop store, not expecting to find that kind of stuff in a regular grocery store. But surprise surprise! We found a whole isle of diet stuff in Auchan! Not the complete isle was safe for me, but I was still surprised at how much there was in that isle, and throughout the rest of the store.

And then there was finding “MC safe” stuff in my grandmother’s kitchen. That was interesting. But it wasn’t anywhere as bad as dealing with the wedding. So, over the next week(s) I’ll share some tips I learned from this experience, and some things that did and didn’t work for me.

1. Surviving a trans-Atlantic flight. I’ll cover this better later. For now, let’s just say, pack your own food, and be super careful. I had no problems on either flight, though on the way back I had an interesting dialogue with one of the flight attendants. I had brought my own food but forgot to bring some kind of utensil. Fortunately they had plastic-ware that was in a sealed bag. They also were serving water bottles with lunch. I was nearly served a meal that would have required the EpiPen in-flight, and quickly told the flight attendant that I have severe food allergies, and asked if I could just have a bottle of water and packet of sealed plastic silverware. She didn’t understand at first what I wanted, though I thought it was simple. I asked her again explaining again that I have severe food allergies and brought my own food. She then told me, “well, I don’t know what I can give you… I could give you a packet of butter.” “um, I’m allergic to all dairy products.” “oh. Umm…” And then she understood I just needed the sealed silverware and water. After that they remembered better that I couldn’t have the airplane food, and she was the one who kept another flight attendant from nearly serving me pizza loaded with cheese!

2. Jet-lag. NEVER EVER EVER try to read ingredient labels while dealing with jet-lag, especially if you’re not familiar with reading them in a different language. I’m fluent in oral French as I’ve grown up speaking it, but I’m not as great with reading it. I’m getting a lot better at it though. However, ingredient labels in Europe look a lot different than in the US. Some over in France are just in French. Others are in 2 or 3 languages. And still others seem to be in nearly every language under the sun! Finding either the French or English section on those products was quite a challenge! Oh yeah, and some of them were in tiny print, so you might need to bring a magnifying glass with you!

But here’s my reason for why you should NEVER read ingredient labels while jet-lagged: We thought we had found a safe soy-milk. It even tasted decent. Except that I didn’t feel right afterwards. I wasn’t sure what it was from. It took 2 days for me to figure out it was the soy-milk. I re-read the ingredient list and saw one of my most hated ingredients listed: maltodextrin. I never really know if this comes from gluten, corn, or some other source, and it wasn’t explicitly stated on the label. But laying on the couch curled up in a ball for 2 hours after drinking the soy-milk made it pretty clear that there was something in the soy-milk that was not safe. Thankfully the reaction wasn’t too bad, and only lasted 2-3 hours each time.

3. When in doubt, leave it out.
You’ve probably heard this saying before, and I live by it a lot. If something isn’t clearly indicated, then put it back on the shelf and look for something else.

When we were in the Bio coop store I saw a package of supposedly “guaranteed gluten free” musuli. Curious, I picked it up and read the ingredient label. The first one had banana in it, which I’m allergic to, so I put it down pretty quickly with a sigh. I spotted another one next to it. Hoping it didn’t have banana I read the ingredient list… only to find that it had rye in it. HUH!?? A product that claims to be guaranteed to be gluten free and has rye in it, and any celiac should know that rye=gluten. The person working in the store insisted that it was gluten free, but I wasn’t going to believe her. I know that Europe has a “low gluten” thing that I still am getting confused between the “no gluten” thing, but um, since when was rye not gluten??

5. Have your own towel set aside.
I do this allll the time at home, and naturally, I do it when I go somewhere else. If you live in a house where other people eat your allergens, then I’d recommend using a separate towel. People don’t realize when they’ve just eaten glutenous bread, or even cheese or butter or who-knows-what-else, then instead of washing their hands, they just wipe them on the kitchen towel. So, in my house, I usually use paper towels, unless I’m baking, then I’ll keep a towel out in the dish rack for me to use where everyone else knows it is only to be touched with clean hands.

Finding a place to put such a towel in my grandmother’s kitchen though was a bit of a challenge. In the end, her solution was to put some wax paper up on top of a small shelving unit, and I kept a separate towel up there. When it got too wet to really dry efficiently, I’d switch it out for a new clean and dry towel. I would have rather had the towel hanging somewhere so it could dry better, but really, there was NO safe place to hang the towel where other people wouldn’t mistake it for the “normal” towel, nor where it wasn’t going to be in close proximity with gluten and/or dairy.

6. Be prepared.
Do your research before going. I had less than 2 weeks, and in reality, the prep time was way less than that because I spent most of those 2 weeks doing homework so I could get ahead in order for my profs to let me go on the trip. But, thankfully I’ve been to France before (before I found myself with food allergies and celiac disease) as I have family there and I also am fluent in French so I could read labels there easily and was familiar with how to explain to people about things related to food and my allergies.

7. Bring your meds.
Bring all of them, and extra EpiPens. Any other med you might need. I got 2 extra EpiPens before the trip, which brought the total of EpiPens I have to 5. I’m not sure about whether or not they should go through the x-ray machine at airport security as EpiPen has a warning about it on their website. But after asking around everyone I heard from said that they all have it go through the x-ray, I decided to keep doing it too. The EpiPen my friend used to save my life just over 2 months ago worked fine despite having gone through I-have-no-idea-how-many x-ray scanners. Probably around 10-20 times… If you have a different perspective, let me know! I’m still not sure what to think and haven’t yet gotten the chance to remember to ask my doctors about it.

I’ve never had a problem with my EpiPens and airport security. If they’ve had a hesitation about what this thing is going through the metal detector in the US, as soon as they’ve seen what they are, they just let them go through. In Belgium though the security guy took a good long look at them before deciding they were fine and didn’t need to be further inspected (I think it’s that they’re not used to seeing that brand of epinephrine as it’s usually seen in the US and Canada only). But had there been a problem, I had a letter from my doctor giving me “official” permission to carry EpiPens and self-administer them in case of anaphylaxis.

All in all, it IS possible to travel safely with severe food allergies and celiac disease. But it isn’t easy. I have plenty more to share about this trip food-wise, so be on the look-out for more follow-up posts here! Aside from the issue with the soy-milk for the first 2 days, I was pretty much fine the whole trip.


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