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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.


Enjoy Life Decadent Bars — Review

If you’ve read a good part of this blog you’d know that I have a younger sister known as Chef Flower and she is a student in Chef Froggie’s Gluten Free Culinary School. Well, the culinary school has been on a long break, but Chef Flower has still been learning. We come back to bring you a new post from the school, one where we especially needed Chef Flower’s help for. A product review.

Part of being a student at the culinary school involves not only learning baking stuff, but learning how to write stuff about what you bake and cook and taste. A few months back someone from Enjoy Life Foods contacted me asking if I’d like to try their new Decadent Bars and write a review on them. I told them that sadly, I’m allergic to one of the ingredients in them, but that my sister isn’t and she would be glad to try them. A week or so later I received this package and Chef Flower excitedly brought it to me and asked if she could open it. “Well actually, yes, you can open it because it’s actually for you.” She was more than thrilled and surprised and couldn’t wait to try the bars.


Unfortunately, she was sick at the time, so I didn’t let her try them till her taste buds were working normally again. And then our mom heard about the bars and insisted she wanted to try them as well. So, both tasted them, analyzing them, thinking about how to word the feelings coming from their taste buds, and then writing them up. Things have been crazy around here and I’ve had 1/2 of the text on one computer and the other half on another till today. So, without further introduction, I present you with Chef Flower’s analysis!

Cherry Cobbler:

It tastes like cherry pie with cinnamon. Though, after you let it sit in your mouth, you feel a grainy texture, kind of what gluten free pies taste like. [Chef Froggie’s note: not all gluten free pies taste like this… just she hasn’t had the really, really amazing crusts apparently… guess I’d better work on that!] Not does it just taste like cherry pie, but it smells like cherry pie! It does taste good but it’s not my favorite.

Chocolate Sunbutter:

I am not that fond of chocolate [Chef Froggie’s note: that was till a week after she wrote this, now she has fallen in love with chocolate unexpectedly], but this chocolate sunbutter bar is the best chocolate bar I have ever had! With the taste of sunbutter I also am not fond of peanut butter or sunbutter, but in this case, its delicious! With a nice and crispy taste!


Even though I am not fond of chocolate, I love S’mores. And even more, what is even better is Enjoy Life S’more bars. I like the chocolate taste with the crunchy graham cracker taste, though I don’t taste the marshmallow that much. I compared this to the Quaker brand that had artificial ingredients in it. I did not like it as much as the Enjoy Life ones. This chocolate marshmallow S’more bar is sooo good!

Cinnamon bun bar:

Very good, but it does not taste like a cinnamon bun. It tastes more like a cranberry bar. The texture is very different. This bar is good, but not as good as the S’more bar!

Now, remember our mom insisted she wanted in on the action. My mom doesn’t have any food allergies (nor does my sister), so they came at it from the view of some used to “regular” food.

Cherry cobbler

Overall, very good. And I don’t usually like cherry deserts. But the balance of ingredients is very good. When you start eating you can tell the cinnamon. Though when you finish eating there’s something like a grainy/powdery texture. But I would definitely go for more.

Chocolate sunbutter
I don’t like it at all, I can’t explain it, but it might be that it seems too dense for my liking.

I like the texture. I like the taste. I like the color. It’s perfect.

Cinnamon bun
Very good texture. Very good taste. Overall very good product.

In the end, Enjoy Life Foods, I think your ELFs did a good job and really made some amazing stuff!

Eating in a college cafeteria

I’m back home, and have 2 weeks to catch up on posts that I had meant to write while I was in North Dakota. Oh well. They’ll get written and posted over the next 2 weeks. Here’s the one on special meal requests that I had mentioned I was going to try waaaayyy back almost 2 months ago.

I mustered the courage to try out the online special gluten free meal request form for dinner one night, and then I just kept on using it. The cooks learned how to cook safely for me (there was certainly some fear and trembling at times as I am the first severely food allergic student they have ever fed), and it was realllllly nice to have a cooked meal that resembled a “normal” meal instead of random other things and sandwiches. So, here are a few pictures of my dinners over the first few weeks.

I did have some reaction to one meal, which we have no idea what it was, but other than that, everything went well. Though this worked well for me, depending on your sensitivity and specific allergens it may or may not work for you, so make sure to discuss it with your doctor(s) and consider all the options before deciding. However, my experience is that it IS possible to eat safely in a college cafeteria, IF they are aware of how to keep food allergic students safe and really do take extreme caution.

Review: Universtiy of North Dakota’s Cafeteria

I have had bad experiences with eating out before, to the point where I dread eating out nearly anywhere, as it’s really hard to really know what’s going on in the kitchen or anywhere that “my food” would be. I’ve dealt with a university cafeteria before (2 years ago, before I was really sensitive to dairy, and before I found out I had celiac disease and other allergies and sensitivities), and they did not know how to really provide safe food. They had good intentions and wanted to try to make sure I had food to eat, but they knew nothing about and when I explained what cross-contamination (CC) is only a few of the workers really understood. Unfortunately, the cafeteria head manager did not understand what CC was, and even less what “dairy” was.

So, this summer, I was nervous about going back to be an on-campus student for the summer, even though it was at a different university. I was told by someone who has been here before that the cafeteria has dealt with gluten-free students before, and that helped some, though I was still nervous. At church on Wednesday night a few days before I left for ND, the last verses on the notes handout was from Matthew 6:25-27 (NIV)

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

Ok, God, I think I get it. So I relaxed some, had some backup food in my luggage for the first days and was ready to start trying to work with the cafeteria when I got here.

Well, I got here almost a week ago, and I didn’t eat the first 2 meals in the cafeteria because I hadn’t yet talked with the dietician, but every meal since (14 meals), I have eaten there, and I’m still alive and haven’t gotten sick, yet. Hopefully it will stay that way. EpiPen stays with me every time I’m in the cafeteria and with me around campus, and we’re all hoping that EpiPen stays in my pocket and/or backpack for the whole summer. The last week has been really busy, with classes and homework pretty much all day every day so far, yet I’ve had many conversations with kitchen staff, and we still are working on solutions to things as they come.

Monday afternoon the other food allergic student (whom I’ve become good friends with) and I met with the dietician…. for 1 1/2 hours discussing food, food, and more food. We talked about different concerns, especially CC. We also talked about different brands that we were used to and what we had found worked at home. He gave us a tour of the different areas of the cafeteria, especially the “special diet needs” fridge. He introduced us to some of the head cooks (and I’ve met more since).

When we started talking about brands and he knew what brands we were talking about, that was a good sign for me. He knew what gluten free meant, he knew the difference between “lactose-free” and “dairy-free” (they do NOT always mean the same thing) and he was very very familiar with food labeling terms. But the most surprising thing? He has spent time to develop a complete listing of all the foods and the ingredient labels and different foods! ALL ONLINE!!!! AND!!!! he also showed us the special online GF food request form(on the right)!! I haven’t yet used the special request form, but I intend to look at it more closely this weekend and start using it next week. I just haven’t had time yet. However, I’m looking forward to using it. I’ll let you know how that goes.

For this last week I’ve eaten plenty of veggies/salad and fruit.

I’ve also had sammiches (gluten free sandwiches) and they even got a new toaster so that the gluten free bread could be toasted(I totally wasn’t expecting that)!!

The GF toaster in the "Gluten Free Zone"

(sorry the photo is a little blurry. The green sign has since been moved to be ON the toaster instead of next to it. It says “gluten free zone” and has a GF symbol similar to Udi’s Gluten Free symbol)
They have looked for foods we can eat, and I’ve also been introduced to French Meadow Bakery‘s GF breads and treats (their brownies are reallly good), and also So Delicious’s Coconut milk (it’s actually pretty good, though a bit different from what I was expecting), and more.

I communicate with at least 1 of the head chefs every day, several times a day, and I’ve gotten to know 2 of them, and they are awesome! 🙂 🙂 I trust them with my food as they really understand what I can’t have and are careful with my food and do everything they can to avoid CC. A few things have come up that I’ve been uncomfortable about, so they’ve found a safe solution for me 🙂

Fruit: I love fruit. However, I’m allergic to strawberries… and I’ve come close to needing to use the EpiPen at home a week and half ago because of strawberries. So, needless to say, I’m really uncomfortable getting fruit when it’s next to strawberries… especially after I saw a strawberry in the melon. The solution? They cut up fruit that is not strawberries nor bananas and put it in the special diet needs fridge for me before meals.

Sliced meat: I’ve watched people serving themselves, and there’s rampant CC between bread/buns, cheese and deli meat. The solution? They slice up turkey for me and put it on a plate in the special diet needs fridge each day.

There are a few other things that we’re still working out and trying to come up with a safe way to do them, but that should come in the next week as I keep working with the cafeteria.

Though I’m getting more comfortable eating in the cafeteria with accommodations and adjustments and such, I must still remain vigilant, because I’ve learned that every time that I am not careful is when I get sick, and I can’t afford dealing with that here with my crazy packed schedule of classes and homework.

So, in the end, I really have to say that the UND cafeteria has been doing an AMAZING job of feeding me safely so far, and their goal is to do whatever they can to keep me well-fed and safely-fed. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first got here, but they have gone way above what I had ever thought they might do. So, way to go UND!!! And a HUGE thanks for all you do. I can’t thank you guys enough for all you’ve done so far in the first week of the summer and all you guys are working with me to do and feed me safely!!!! There is more I could say about how good a job they’ve done already so far, but that would take too long and I have homework to do still.

Note: I was not paid to do this review of the University of North Dakota’s Cafeteria, and all opinions in this review are entirely mine. My goal is providing this review is to help others with food allergies/intolerance to find safe places they too can eat.