Celiacs rejoice! Thanks to one amazing travel blogger.
Thanks to Jodi Ettenberg of Legal Nomads, now travelers with celiac disease and gluten-free diets can avoid getting sick while eating abroad with gluten free travel cards.
These gluten free cards for different countries will contain detailed information about foods and ingredients that celiacs must avoid in specific countries and will be translated into that country’s language so that travelers can show it to food vendors while abroad. Gluten free cards for Japan and Greece are available now, cards for many more countries are on the way!
To get more information, we spoke to Ettenberg herself about the gluten free travel cards and what it’s like to travel extensively as a person with celiac disease.
What are these gluten free cards that you’ve created and what information will travelers find on them?
I decided to create the gluten-free cards with detailed food names and information because I used existing cards and still got sick.
There are great gluten free translation cards out there, and I am grateful for them! The difference for mine is that they were written by someone obsessed with food, with the very detailed names of the ingredients and dishes.
Existing cards do contain some dish names, or simply that there is an issue with wheat, barley, and rye. The limitation is that in many countries, people are not remotely aware of what contains gluten or these three to-avoid ingredients. And celiacs often still get sick.
My solution was to really expand on what was mentioned in the card, as well as to include some of the dishes. For Japan, for example, noting that miso from rice is ok, but miso from barley is not. Essentially helping the vendor — and our stomaches — by being very specific.
I will also be including a list of foods that should be avoided for the country.
I am thrilled that sites have paved the way with their initial cards, and hope that these extremely detailed ones, written in English then translated by people knowledgeable about food, will go the long way to preventing illness in celiacs.
Where can travelers get these gluten free cards?
I am starting to roll them out, and right now Japan is available here, and Greece is here. Next up is Vietnam, Thailand, France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain.
Readers can also refer to my gluten free travel guides in the time before the cards are complete.
I plan to release them as a very simple app available online, once they are all translated.
How did you get the idea to create them?
The cards were born out of the very real sense of panic when I go somewhere new and cannot properly communicate the food restrictions to places I want to eat. I understand that in many cultures allergies are not as prevalent, but people are often quite helpful. The problem was getting across what I needed to, in order to avail myself of their help.
These cards were my attempt to make it easier for me and those with the disease by minimizing miscommunications and being respectfully firm about the need for avoiding gluten.
How difficult is it to travel as a celiac? Does being a celiac keep you from traveling to certain destinations because of their food cultures?
It is quite difficult, but some countries are better than others. You have to be vigilant about everything, and I think it surprises my fellow travelers when I have to ask not simply ‘does this have flour in it?’ but also to look at the sauces, whether foods were fried in the same oils, whether mayonnaise has wheat (it does in New Zealand, for example). It’s an anxiety-inducing experience sometimes, but I travel regardless because I think it’s very important to learn about a place by experiencing it. I can only travel in the body I’ve been given!
I have not returned to China as I found it particularly difficult both with avoiding wheat (soy sauce is prevalent as is flour and using gluten to thicken sauces) but also with people’s attitude toward the restriction, which was more blasé. I understand that I am the one visiting their country, so I cannot get angry. But as someone who writes about food it means that I choose other destinations where I can dig into food culture more easily despite having this disease.
What is your advice to travelers who cannot/do not eat gluten and aren’t familiar with a region’s food culture and/or language?
I think research is key, and helps you feel more in control. Not places to eat but the ingredients in the dishes found in the country. Armed with that knowledge you can often find something to eat, and know what to ask so you can avoid gluten. For example, a street food vendor can be asked not to include soy sauce by simply pointing to it and making an x with your hands — not ideal, but workable. Street food for me is an easier option because I can see the ‘kitchen’ and food is made on the spot so it often means I am able to modify a dish for a safer meal.
(For those concerned about street food safety, see my post on How to Eat Street Food Without Getting Sick.)
Jodi Ettenberg is a writer, photographer, and public speaker exploring the world full-time since April 2008. Her website, Legal Nomads, tells the stories of places she visits, often through food. She is also the author of The Food Traveler’s Handbook and recently won a Lowell Thomas Award for best travel blog. She has been featured in the New York Times, National Geographic, BBC Travel, and more. Prior to founding Legal Nomads, Jodi worked as a lawyer in New York for 5 years.