Shopping for gluten-free food can present several challenges, especially when having to avoid gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and grains). Navigating these challenges can be difficult and anxiety-laden at best when you are in a place that you are already familiar with. But what happens when you're traveling and you are food shopping in a country or store where you don't speak the native language? Now you're getting into dangerous territory (knee-deep in the gluten weeds, so to speak).
For those of us who require a gluten-free diet, have food allergies, or have the buy one get one free deal (Celiac disease plus additional food allergies as I do), you can often feel that starvation may be a better alternative than trying to find safe food to eat. My allergies include avocado, hazelnuts, wheat, barley, corn, crab, and salmon so I understand the dilemma personally.
Education is Key to Eating Gluten-free
Once you have been gluten-free for a while, you will know and understand what ingredients and foods commonly contain gluten and you will have a better grasp of what you can and cannot eat. For example, did you know that gluten likes hiding in places such as modified food starch among other ingredients? Unless the package states explicitly that the starch is made from a grain other than wheat, one can't assume that the product is safe to eat. Soy sauce, many salad dressings, and soups have either barley added or use wheat flour as a thickener (soy sauce, unless it's specifically gluten-free soy sauce, contains wheat). Being educated on gluten-containing ingredients, reading food labels diligently and seeking support from gluten-free communities are all simple ways to find out what is safe versus what can be dangerous to eat.
Don’t let this dampen your travel experience! When you are out on your gluten-free adventure, one of the things that may help you stay safest can be to eat at a dedicated gluten-free restaurant or to make your own food at your hotel or Airbnb. Especially if you're new to being gluten-free, this alleviates some of the anxiety while eating away from home. That being said, what if you're in a location that doesn't speak your native language? How do you find safe, gluten-free food in supermarkets around the world or in ethnic supermarkets around the corner from your home?
Challenges with Shopping Gluten-free
Let me start by guiding you to take a deep breath and stay as calm as possible. Although finding gluten-free foods and gluten-free products at food stores can be challenging, it can be done! You'll want to be aware of these challenges to safely navigate them when shopping at home or when you're a gluten-free traveler.
Gluten-free products aren't as readily available as their gluten-containing counterparts, leading to a more limited selection. This can make it difficult to find specific items or varieties of foods that you want to eat. Although many stores now have an assortment of gluten-free pasta, bread and crackers, you cannot always depend on supermarkets to have enough gluten-free foods or gluten-free baking products. This is especially true if you are in a rural or low-density population area - unless you're in Italy! You'll want to find a local health food or natural food store such as Natural Grocers, Wegmans, or Whole Foods to get a better selection of gluten-free foods.
Cross-contamination can occur in grocery stores and food processing facilities when gluten-free and gluten-containing products share the same equipment or storage spaces. Look on the back of the packaging for statements of where the product is made. If it's made in a facility with wheat, barley, or other gluten-containing grains, I suggest that you consider not purchasing the product, especially if it is while you are traveling. You don't want to wind up knowing every detail about the hotel bathroom because you've spent many hours in that location from cross-contamination or poor food labels.
To ensure a product is gluten-free, even if the labeling states "gluten-free" on the packaging, you'll still need to carefully read the food label ingredients. Some gluten-containing ingredients may have less apparent names that you may not know, such as malt extract, modified food starch, and dextrose, making it crucial to know which ingredients to stay away from when you're food shopping.
While gluten-free labeling is regulated in many countries, there are still inconsistencies and variations in labeling practices. Some products labeled "gluten-free" may contain trace amounts of gluten that can harm those of us with Celiac disease. Unless there is a gluten-free certification (and I still always check the label), don't assume it is safe to eat. The Canadian Celiac Association has a Gluten-free certification, as well as the Gluten Intolerance Group, The Australian Celiac Association, and the Celiac Disease Foundation all offer gluten-free certifications. If a food item is a certified gluten-free food product, you know that the product is safe for you to eat.
Using the European Food Codex
If you're traveling around Europe, there is an amazing allergen chart called the European Codex. This chart will tell you which allergens are in the food prepared for you. If you see G, it has gluten in it and is not gluten-free. This codex can be found at many restaurants in Europe. This is a consistent allergen labeling process amongst most European countries, making it a simple way to identify which allergens are in your food. While the European Codex is very helpful, finding the food that you need at supermarkets and restaurants can be challenging when traveling to another country.
Not all Gluten-Free Foods are Created the Same
One aspect that you need to know about other countries when you are a gluten-free traveler is that products manufactured in the United States are not necessarily the same ingredients used in other countries. Even if it's the same company, they can use different ingredients which may contain gluten. Just when you thought you understood your gluten-free foods, the "same" product from the “same” company where even the food looks exactly like the “same” as the US product, may not be identical and may not be safe. The same company may very likely have different manufacturing facilities, which throws many different variables into food safety.
You need to be very careful when you are food shopping outside of your home country, especially when you're traveling in a place where are not fluent with the language. You don't want to ruin your vacation after making the assumption that one company is going to process food and have the same food ingredients from one country to another.
Ultimately, if you travel outside the country, never assume the ingredients will be the same. Even if you are in the same country, never assume that two products will have the same ingredients from the same company. For example: there's a brand of corn chips that look exactly the same and have the same exact shape. One of them has gluten and the other does not. Always label-read when you are shopping for food. Just because it says gluten-free on the outside of the package, you cannot presume it is gluten-free, especially if you are Celiac or have an allergy to gluten.
If you're gluten intolerant, you may be able to get away with simply assuming that if it says gluten-free on the front, you'll be okay. But suppose you're Celiac and it says gluten-free on the front of the package. In that case, you need to flip the package around and look for a warning such as "made in a factory with wheat, barley or other types of grains or products with gluten”. You definitely don't want to eat that food product, especially on vacation.
When I'm on vacation, I'm hyper vigilant about my food. Ensuring that everything is as safe as possible is imperative so that I don't get sick and ruin my vacation or miss out on any part of it. For the decade that I have been traveling gluten-free, I've been very sick only twice on vacation. Once, on a Virgin Atlantic flight, which gave me unsafe food even though I ordered gluten-free food well in advance. The second was this past summer when I had food poisoning on a Celebrity Cruise to the Mediterranean. There's nothing like spending six to eight hours in the bathroom getting sick when you're at the port and you're missing out on that cultural experience.
Shopping for Gluten-Free Foods with Equal Eats Cards
What do you need to do when you want to be extra safe and read the labels but don't speak the language? Take your Equal Eats cards with you and bring them to the grocery store. It’s as easy as:
- Finding the foods that you think look relatively safe and that you are interested in eating and putting them in your cart
- Find a staff member in the store and show them your Equal Eats cards in their language (it will explain what you can and cannot eat)
- Point to your Equal Eats cards and point to the ingredients list on the package of each of the food items that you have in your basket
- You can also hold your Equal Eats cards next to the food ingredients list, point to the ingredients, and use a language translator on your phone to ask them if that food is safe to eat
Of course, you always want to bring your Equal Eats cards to restaurants when you are eating out, especially if you have multiple food allergies like mine. Whether you're in a local store that do not speak your language or you are in a country that you do not speak the native language, it is an excellent idea to have your Equal Eats cards with you. I always carry my Spanish/English version with me because I love Mexican and Latino foods. Many times, authentic restaurants don't have staff who are fluent English speakers. Using my Equal Eats cards eliminates any uncertainty and makes it easier to dine safely.
Having peace of mind when you're eating with food allergies will lower your food anxiety and lessen the chances of getting cross-contamination or glutened. Keep yourself safe when shopping for food while you're at home or traveling with Equal Eats.
Elikqitie loves to eat and travel! What better way to combine both of her passions than in a podcast? She produces Travel Gluten-free Podcast and is the author of The Guide to Traveling Gluten-free. Elikqitie gives the gluten-free traveler the tools they need to enjoy their gluten-free vacation. She enjoys sharing her knowledge of fabulous Gluten-free restaurants, foods, and her amazing world travel experiences!