By Jennifer Pocock
In September, my mom will be doing something we used to find unthinkable: she’ll be traveling to Italy.
What makes this trip such a monumental achievement?
She has celiac disease, which means she can’t eat gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye.
That’s a tall order for a traveler to the Land of Pasta!
Six years ago, my mom was rushed to the emergency room when her resting heart rate skyrocketed above 220. The situation was so dire the medics were afraid she’d have a stroke on the way. All of this (not to mention 20 years of digestive problems) just from eating wheat.
How bad is celiac? One teaspoon of cake could damage her stomach lining for years to come.
After she left the hospital, she faced an alien food landscape. What was life without pasta, pastry, cereal, and beer? Even sushi — itself gluten free — was complicated: the main ingredient in soy sauce is wheat!
Eating out can be a nightmare — from chefs who don’t believe you (“Oh, who cares — it’s a fad diet!”) to cross-contamination (“Just use that batter spoon to stir the soup.”), those “evil little wheaty germs” (as my mom calls them) can creep in just about anywhere.
And communicating all of this in a foreign language?
Seems almost hopeless!
Fortunately, that’s not really the case.
Dr. Alessio Fasano, leader of the University of Maryland’s Center for Celiac Research, says nearly 1 percent of the world population actually has celiac, but some places are more attuned to it than others.
Countries with an increased sensitivity to the disease provide hope for wheat-averse travelers who want to indulge their wanderlust and eat like royalty.
According to Fasano, all of the Scandinavian countries are all well aware of the disease, as are many Mediterranean nations.
In Italy, for example, the government screens for celiac in children by the time they reach school age. Those who test positive receive subsidies to help pay for expensive gluten-free groceries.
That’s right—Italy. Turns out that Pasta Paradise, that Pastry Peninsula, is actually a Celiac Sanctuary!
Fasano also pointed to France, Germany, Spain, and England as places where “awareness is high.”
If you’re still worried, there are travel operators out there that will cater to gluten-free customers. Bob and Ruth Levy established Bob & Ruth’s Gluten-Free Dining and Travel Club in 1995, not long after Bob was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease. They have since traveled all over the world with thousands of hungry celiacs.
The trick, Bob Levy says, is to negotiate with restaurants ahead of time and find out which ones are willing to go the extra mile.
“We won’t just settle for any food,” says Levy. “They always try to give us ‘conference food’ — dry chicken and rice and a salad. It’s safe and easy, but not worth the money we’re paying for these trips. We don’t want to just eat, we want to dine.”
And if you’re on your own, rest assured: the kind folks at www.celiactravel.com also offer downloadable restaurant cards in 51 languages that travelers can take with them when they’re heading abroad (the cards are free, but they accept donations).
Expert Tips for Gluten-Free Travel from Dr. Alessio Fasano and Bob Levy (though these work for any food allergy):
- “Do your homework,” Dr. Fasano warns. “Don’t be naïve and think, ‘I’ll figure it out when I get there.’ And always pack snacks with you, no matter what.”
- “Be patient, and be careful. And, when in doubt, don’t eat it.” says Levy. “I’ll get up and walk out of a restaurant if I don’t feel comfortable.”
- “See if there is a support group in the country that will provide assistance,” Dr. Fasano says. “In Italy, there is the AIC, which provides a list of every restaurant, trattoria, and gelateria in every region that knows about celiac.”
- “At a restaurant, always talk to the chef directly; never the waiter,” says Levy. “Stay in a quality hotel with a chef who knows all the ingredients and methods of preparation.”
- “Finally,” says Dr. Fasano, “be adventurous.” “We are in the global village of travel and culture. I would strongly recommend to not decide where to go based on gluten-free diet needs — the environment needs to adapt to the people. Make the destination accommodate your needs.”
Jennifer Pocock is a research fellow at National Geographic Traveler. Follow her story on Twitter @Jenn_Pocock.