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Food allergies: A traveller's guide

For people with serious food allergies, the usual travelling peeves and niggles can be hyper-magnified into matters of life or death. But, if you approach it with the right attitude and are prepared to prepare, the world can still be your oyster

Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:16 BST, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 11:56 BST
Sri Lankan curry

Sri Lankan curry.

Photograph by Getty

As a journalist and seasoned traveller, few things faze me. I've reported from war-torn Afghanistan, made night-time forays across deserts in the back of a pick-up truck, and locked horns with hardened commercial CEOs. My profession has made me resourceful. So why does the prospect of a family getaway cause me so much apprehension? The answer is: food allergies. Both of my children have them and, put simply, the consequences can be fatal.

Many kids grow out of allergies when they're young, but for those that don't, full-blown anaphylaxis is a real and constant threat. As a result of being wrongly given a glass of milk to drink at nursery school, my daughter Issy, now 13, has a serious life-threatening allergy and has to carry EpiPens containing neat adrenalin with her at all times.

Anaphylaxis, brought about by exposure to even tiny particles of certain foods, is a growing global problem — the number of sufferers has risen seven-fold over the past decade. In Britain alone there has been a 615% increase in hospital admissions. So, for the travel industry, catering for food allergy sufferers is an increasing challenge.

When at home, it's possible to be vigilant, as food is mostly prepared and cooked in the safety of our own kitchen. In foreign restaurants, however, where language and culture can appear to be impenetrable barriers, extreme caution is essential for both restaurateur and guest. And for the airline industry, the problem is even more acute. Anaphylaxis at 39,000ft and halfway across a large ocean is potentially deadly. No wonder then that for many would-be travellers, the risks are seen as simply too great. However, with careful planning and sensible precautions, it's possible to travel to even the most far-flung corners of the globe in relative safety.

My wife and I are determined to expose our children to as many cultures and experiences as possible. After Issy's initial diagnosis, we became far too cautious to travel anywhere outside the UK, but that has gradually changed. Having turned down an invitation from two zoologist friends to stay with them at their private lodge in the Serengeti — and regretting it ever since — we decided we'd no longer allow this hidden disability to prevent our children from experiencing the world.  

We dipped our toe into the water with car and ferry trips to France, Austria and Italy, and it didn't take long before our horizons broadened. The Austrian Alps were soon superseded by rural Transylvania, which was followed last July by an overland trip across Sri Lanka.

Planning is key, though, especially as the travel industry's attitude to food allergies varies widely. In the UK, hotels and restaurants are legally obliged to clearly label allergens on all menus. But not all countries adopt this policy.

Airlines appear to adopt widely differing policies, with some, such as Singapore Airlines, offering to provide specific menus, while others refuse to guarantee their ingredients. We recently flew with an airline which promised to individually cook allergen-free meals, but found that its good intentions didn't translate into meaningful actions. Despite a letter from our GP and filling out a comprehensive medical questionnaire, Issy's breakfast consisted of just a small, unappetising bowl of overly chilled melon cubes. And the crew were unable to vouch for the ingredients of the accompanying bread roll. 

Arriving at an unfamiliar airport in the wee small hours, with a hungry child in tow and having to find her something suitable to eat, was one test we hadn't bargained on. Eventually, after walking through the cavernous transit terminal, we stumbled upon an empty Italian restaurant. The only thing they could assure us was 'dairy-free' was a bowl of plain French fries. But after a few bites, my daughter announced that they tasted strange. What appeared at first to be rock salt granules hidden underneath the top layer of fries, turned out to be tiny shavings of parmesan cheese. As her body started to shut down, I shouted for urgent medical help and the EpiPen
was administered.

When things go wrong, they can do so spectacularly. While the airport paramedic was on site within minutes, bureaucracy proved far harder to deal with. As we all rushed to the ambulance, my son and myself were taken aside and told that without business class tickets, we couldn't 'fast track' through immigration and would need to join the long queue. The inability of air staff to make a decision regarding our connecting flight without higher authority proved utterly exhausting.

But, we've also been pleasantly surprised, too. On our recent trip to Sri Lanka, we were met by our driver, Manjula, in Columbo, who greeted us with the words, "In Sri Lanka, it will be no problem." How right he was. The next 10 days were delightful, easy and relaxing. Sri Lankans understand the issue and have adopted a flexible, commonsense approach. They dished up some of the best food we've eaten in a long time.

Travelling with food allergies can be daunting, but taking extra precautions and with the right choice of country — and airline — it certainly needn't be taboo.

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Follow @adrianequine

Published in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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