You might be on vacation, but that doesn’t mean you can relax your gluten-free diet. We share our top tips for maintaining your gluten-free diet when away from home.
WORDS: CARA BOATSWAIN
Travelling to new places can be exciting, but for people following a gluten-free diet it can come with added stress. The good news is that with a little advance planning and preparation, not only is gluten-free travel possible, it may even broaden your culinary horizons. By following a few key tips, you can feel confident enjoying your trip without risking your health.
You’ve probably spent time researching different destinations, but when planning a holiday, many overlook the journey to get there and for people following a gluten-free diet, getting there is rarely half the fun.
Finding something to eat at airports, on planes and trains is typically more difficult than eating at the final destination. If it’s been a while since you’ve travelled and let’s face it, who’s been anywhere much in the last few years, your go-to food outlets at these transport hubs may have changed. Before heading out, check online for current F&B options and review menus.
With staff shortages an ongoing challenge within the F&B industry, there’s no guarantee an outlet will be open when you want to visit. Always be prepared with non-perishable gluten-free food in case you are unable to find food that is gluten-free or the outlet isn’t open. Some ideas for backup food include protein bars, trail mix, chips, cereal, fruit and pre-cut vegetable sticks. Remember, if you’re leaving your state or country, you may not be able to take fresh items with you.
If you’re travelling by air, request a gluten-free meal when you book your flight. Remember to confirm with the airline when checking in to ensure it will be on board for you.
If you’re cruising, notify the cruise line beforehand to let them know your dietary requirements. Most cruise lines have a division that handles allergies and meals, so make sure your request is forwarded to them and remind staff again when you board.
As much as we love spending time away from the kitchen, sometimes having the option of eating a meal at home can be a relief, even on holidays. For this reason, self-catering accommodation can be a great option. You don’t have to prepare all the meals there, but it ensures you have options if you can’t find dinner to suit your needs or preferences (or those of the kids).
While recent studies have found that gluten cross-contact is unlikely from toasters, you may still prefer to prepare toast under the grill, between sheets of baking paper in a sandwich press or by using toaster bags (available online).
When visiting the nearest supermarket to stock up on gluten-free supplies, also consider adding a new chopping board to your trolley. Knives can cause cuts on the cutting boards’ surface, which are hard to clean. If using a cutting board to slice, cut or dice gluten-containing items, gluten can get stuck in these crevices and transfer the gluten to your food. Not knowing how things have been used (or cleaned) in shared accommodation is a risk, so it’s best to err on the side of caution.
If you prefer to stay in hotels when on holiday, the good news is that things have improved thanks to great awareness of coeliac disease and the gluten-free diet. Some countries even have hotels that are 100 percent gluten-free. Sadly, to our knowledge, nothing like this currently exists in Australia, but that doesn’t mean you have to miss out.
- Do your research
Once you’ve selected the destination of your dreams, jump online and look for reviews from fellow coeliacs who have stayed in the area. Did they have a particularly good experience at a certain hotel? While staff and menus regularly change, this is an excellent way to make sure you’re choosing the right place to stay and that there will be no surprises when it comes to food.
- Let the hotel know in advance
Thanks to the growing awareness of the gluten-free diet around the world and improved availability of gluten-free products, I’ve always had great success when I let the hotel know of dietary needs at the time of booking and by following up a few days before.
I’ve feasted on freshly made gluten-free bread in Tokyo, poolside in Malaysia and even had an unexpected gluten-free cake delivered from the hotel to celebrate a special birthday. Communication really is key.
- Be wary of buffets
Travel has changed since the COVID pandemic began and increasingly hotels are moving away from buffet-style meals. This is good news for people with food allergies as buffets are an easy place for cross-contamination to occur.
If the hotel you are staying at still offers a buffet, be sure to get there as soon as it opens, so you can select from foods first. Alternatively, ask the hotel if you can order direct from a menu instead of selecting food from the buffet.
LEARN THE LINGO
Travelling to a non-English-speaking country can be daunting. However, armed with a little information in advance, you can make the experience much more manageable. Knowing the words ‘gluten-free’, ‘wheat’ and ‘barley’ can come in handy when you’re trying to decipher menus and food labels.
If you need more confidence that you’ll be able to pronounce the words correctly, you can use GoogleTranslate on your phone. Or, better yet, print out gluten-free translation cards before you leave home. Hand them to your waiter and, if needed, they can show the kitchen staff too.
Research gluten-free blogs and support groups for travel tips on the areas you plan to visit. For example, International Gluten-Free has created an excellent travel guide for people visiting Singapore. On-the-ground advice from people living gluten-free in the places you plan to visit is invaluable.
REVIEW THE REVIEWS
Online reviews are great and I always find it helps to have a list (or marked-up Google Map) with recommended venues, but remember, so much can change between visits and what one person considers coeliac-safe may not match your own standards.
Always do your due diligence before accepting an anonymous person’s word for whether a restaurant is safe. Double-check the venue’s website and social media pages and have a look at their menu in advance.
If you’re making a booking, always let the restaurant know your dietary requirements when you make the booking. The more time you give the staff to prepare for your arrival, the better.
And remember, if in doubt, walk out. If you’re ever feeling uncomfortable at a restaurant, don’t hesitate to ask for a manager. I know it can be awkward, but you don’t want to get sick on vacation. If it still feels unsuitable or unaccommodating, leave. You’ll have a better time and enjoy your meal elsewhere.
Gluten-Free Around The World
When it comes to gluten-free food labelling, Australia and New Zealand are the strictest nations in the world. Food labelled as “gluten-free” must not contain any detectable gluten or oats. Brands must declare ingredients derived from gluten-containing grains on the label, however small the amount.
You may be surprised to learn this is not the same the world over. In the US and UK, gluten-free products often include wheat-free oats and are considered gluten-free if they contain 20 parts per million (ppm) or less of gluten.
20ppm is the equivalent of 20 milligrams of gluten per 1 kilogram of food. To put this into context, a slice of gluten-free bread (approx 28g slice) containing 20ppm would contain 0.57 milligrams of gluten.
When determining the safety of the 20ppm threshold in the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) argues that it is the lowest level of gluten that can be consistently detected in foods using valid scientific analytical tools.
In addition to meeting the 20ppm requirement, for packaged goods to meet the FDA standards in the US, food labelled “gluten-free” must not contain any of the following:
- an ingredient that is any type of wheat, rye, barley or crossbreeds of these grains,
- an ingredient derived from these grains that has not been processed to remove gluten, or
- an ingredient derived from these grains that has been processed to remove gluten, if it results in the food containing 20 or more parts per million (ppm) of gluten.
All packaged foods in the EU and UK must list all deliberate ingredients in the ingredients list, regardless of the amount used. Manufacturers must emphasise the particular grain, for example, wheat, rye, barley or oats.
Travelling after adopting a gluten-free diet can be difficult, but it’s definitely worth it to experience the world in a whole new way! While there are certainly more challenges that come with gluten-free travel, it is also the case that gluten-free travellers can find unique and delicious food experiences that are not available to them at home.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are many people out there who are willing to help gluten-free travellers navigate the complicated world of food restrictions.
This article first appeared in Issue 38 of Australian Gluten-Free Magazine as 'Gluten-Free On The Go'. For more tips on maintaining a gluten-free diet and lots of delicious recipes, subscribe to AGFL Magazine today.