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How to manage food allergies abroad

Tags: allergy , food , holidays , gluten

how-to-manage-food-allergies-abroad-mainTaking a trip abroad on holiday is something many of us look forward to, but if you have a food allergy the prospect of eating unfamiliar food can be particularly daunting. Nutritionist, Lyndel Costain, explains how, by following a few simple pointers, your vacation can become a relaxing break rather than a constant source of worry.

Unfamiliar food

Navigating your way around unfamiliar menus and deciphering supermarket food labels written in a different language may sound like a mammoth task, but it needn’t be.

Safe and successful travel with a food allergy is all about identifying and being able to communicate your needs effectively – just as you would do at home.

A few things to consider when you’re away

  • Before leaving home, check you have your prescribed medication. Carry this in your hand luggage, NOT your suitcase. Check expiry dates before you travel.
  • If you have been prescribed adrenaline, take at least two kits with you. And, if you have one, remember to take your medical alert bracelet or talisman.
  • If you’re flying, check the inflight food provision before booking. Bring a variety of basic suitable foods with you, with some in your hand luggage to snack on while travelling.
  • If possible, stay in accommodation with a kitchenette so that you can prepare your own meals. If your accommodation has a restaurant on site, check it can provide suitable meals.
  • On arrival at your holiday destination, inform the holiday rep of your allergies and find out where the resident doctor and nearest Accident and Emergency Department are located.
  • When eating out, ordering simply-prepared foods without sauces can reduce your risk of having an allergic reaction, but the only way to be sure the food is suitable is to check carefully with the restaurant – ideally with whoever is cooking the food.  


Carry chefs’ cards with you. These small cards list your food allergies and state that your food must be cooked in a clean and safe area to avoid cross-contamination. You could make your own templates from the Food Standards Agency website or The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network website - or order pre-prepared cards online in the language you require by visiting Select Wisely, Allergy Translation or Allerglobal.

  • Write down key ingredients that you need to avoid as well as helpful phrases in the language of the country you’re visiting. Load a dictionary on to your smartphone or carry a phrasebook.
  • There are also apps such as those on the Gluten Free Passport website which provide detailed information on a range of dishes from different cuisines and highlight which may or may not be suitable for your particular allergy. You can then double check with the restaurant.
  • Check with your accommodation, friendly locals or websites for cafes and restaurants more geared towards catering for people with food allergies. You can hopefully contact these in advance to discuss your needs.
  • Food-labelling regulations in EU countries are the same as in the UK, namely, labels for pre-packaged foods must state if they contain any of the 14 allergenic ingredients specified in the legislation. A useful guide can be found on the Food Standards Agency website.  
  • You might want to avoid places where there is a chance that different types of food could come into contact with each other, such as buffets or bakeries.

What to look out for when choosing your cuisine

Foods that most commonly cause an allergic reaction include nuts and seeds, eggs and shellfish.

However, potentially, any type of food can cause an allergy. The golden rule is never to assume that a food is safe – you must check the ingredients.

Asian cuisines, from Japanese and Chinese to Indian and Thai, vary enormously in flavour but often contain many of the same ingredients – rice, shellfish, eggs, soy, coconut milk and nuts, as well as numerous spices.

In Africa, peanuts are often used in soups, stews and sources but may be called groundnuts.

In South America and Mexico, meals often come with lots of different sauces and these can vary in their ingredients. So it is always worth remembering to check before you try.

Middle Eastern foods use lots of plant oils, but also sesame seeds. And their sticky desserts, like baklava, which are drizzled with honey, may also be sprinkled with nuts.

In Italy you may be tempted by a traditional pizza or pasta dish, but again be careful to check the full list of ingredients in the toppings and sauces.

The same applies to eating meals in ANY country you visit, including your own!

Remember, if you’re in doubt – check it out.

For more information on allergies, visit our Allergy Centre or post any questions you may have on this topic to our medical experts and they will respond to you in a couple of days.

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