It can be a pretty dim moment when you accept the fact that you suffer from a nut allergy. The careless days of ordering anything on the menu are far behind you after realizing that if you and a nut were in the ring, you’d lose. There is some solace in that you’re not alone, though — in the US, an estimated 15 million people have an allergy of some kind. Another bit of solace is that a nut or other food allergy doesn’t need to hinder your explorations. You don’t need to become Bubble Boy.
I’ve been traveling the world for years with a severe tree nut allergy (which includes cashews, walnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds), and I’ve managed to not let my food allergy get in the way of my vagabond lifestyle. Sure, I have to take extra precautions, but no more than my lactose-free, gluten-free, soy-free, wheat-free, vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, kosher, halal, (etc., etc.) comrades.
That’s not to say that allergies can be taken lightly. During an allergic reaction to a food, the body’s immune system mistakes a protein in the food for a harmful virus or bacteria. Your body immediately sends out IgE antibodies, known histamines, to attack it. Histamines create sensations in the body that fend off bacteria and act as your body’s natural defense mechanism. The sensations can be itching, sneezing, nausea, anxiety, and, in severe cases, swelling of the throat, tongue, and nostrils. For some, the histamines can be triggered by even the slightest contact between the food and the person, meaning that prevention is of the utmost importance.
How to prevent an allergic reaction while traveling
Before you head off on an adventure, make sure you know your body and your allergies in order to prevent reactions occurring in the first place. Professional advice from either an allergy specialist or your doctor is best.
Be sure to purchase travel insurance that covers all medical costs should something go wrong and you have a severe allergic reaction that requires hospitalization. Pack your allergy essentials recommended by your physician, including anti-histamines and EpiPen auto‑injectors. Keep these with you at all times, including under your seat during your flight. Note that EpiPens have an expiration date, so if you’re traveling long-term be sure your supply will last throughout the duration of your trip.
A very effective travel tool is an allergy translation card that can be purchased online. These cards, available in hard copy or on an app, list your allergies in over 40 languages. An alternate option is Google Translate. If you’re not always on Wi-Fi, you can screenshot the translation and show it to the waiter and chef before you order.
Allergic reactions when eating international cuisines
Prior to embarking on your journey, do some research about the cuisines of the countries you will travel to. Places like Thailand, China, Brazil, and Mexico use a lot of peanut and peanut oil in their dishes. Chefs in India and Sri Lanka commonly use tree nuts, such as cashews, and add them in curries. Some dishes will be obvious about the addition of nuts (for example, a cashew nut stir-fry), but others may not (massaman curry cooked with a tree nut thickener).
I’ve had two incidents in India where I’ve asked the chef if there were cashews in a particular Indian curry, to which they replied “no” without informing me that there were cashews used in the thickening paste. If you’re uncertain about a meal, always ask to read the ingredients or opt for a completely different meal or restaurant.
Some foods to watch out for when you’re traveling with a nut allergy are curries; sauces; dressings; cereals and granola; baked goods such as cakes, brownies, and muffins; vegan foods; and stir-fries that could be cooked using peanut oil.
Nuts on the road
You’re likely to encounter nuts while on airlines and other modes of transportation. It’s still common for airlines to offer peanuts as a snack or serve foods that contain nuts or traces of nuts, however, some airlines are now banning this practice.
United Airlines doesn’t serve peanuts or food cooked in peanut oil. American Airlines doesn’t serve peanuts, but still serves tree nuts. Delta will take extra precautions and bring non-peanut snacks if you give it 48 hours advance notice, as will Southwest. It’s important to note, however, that most airlines can’t 100-percent guarantee that a flight is nut-free as there are other passengers on board.
Avoid cross-contamination by taking your own food on board. Often, airline foods don’t contain a list of ingredients and there’s seldom a staff member who can answer a question about food ingredients with certainty. If you do decide to dine on airline food, contact the airline before you embark and request a nut-free meal. Remind agents of your allergy again at the boarding gate and double check the meal before you eat it. You can never be too careful.