Travelers on Special Diets Face Many Problems, Few Options

Jul 15, 2019

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On a trip out of Kennedy Airport (JFK) in New York, Adam Kotkin, former chief of staff at TPG, faced a predicament familiar to many other travelers with dietary restrictions. He was hungry, stuck in an airport and couldn’t find anything substantial to eat that fit into his meal regimen. As a staunch participant in the Teddi Mellencamp diet, which has strict rules against consuming meat or dairy in its beginning weeks, Kotkin settled for a bowl of butternut squash soup he found in JFK’s Cibo Express in Terminal 5. It was under a sign for vegan options.

Vegan it was not. Kotkin found that the soup contained cream. “The product was labeled correctly, but a free-hanging sign was incorrect. We apologize, and we are working to make sure the mistake never happens again,” Eric Brinker, VP of Communications at OTG, which owns Cibo, told us in an email.

Fortunately, Kotkin read the nutrition label, so he skipped the soup  — mistakenly put under a sign labeled vegan — that would have blown his diet.

Image courtesy of Adam Kotkin

We asked the TPG Lounge if travelers with dietary restrictions have experienced similar problems. Sixty people responded with comments about airport and airline food options that don’t measure up. Their diets are driven by a range of things: celiac disease, food allergies, and more.

“I could write a book,” wrote Lounge member Jody Roberts, whose daughter has celiac and requires a gluten-free meal. Since 2005 the airlines have “screwed it up” and given her a different dietary meal or didn’t provide one at all. On one occasion, the airline gave the meal to another person who requested it at the last minute, she wrote. The final straw was when her daughter was given a small salad as a meal on an eight-hour flight. “She now brings her own food to the airport and on the plane as a backup,” she added.

Lounge member Erica Kumor, who has a tree-nut allergy, said that her experience is that airlines are not good at taking precautions for people with allergies. “I’ve had several close calls and have had to take Benadryl on a few occasions,” she wrote. “I recently flew with Air France and literally every course had nuts. One dish had pistachios on top, and that wasn’t even listed on the menu!”

There was also a handful of Lounge respondents who said they received the right meal, but what they got was less than satisfactory. Verena Erhart shared a photo of a vegan sandwich that looked, well — at least they tried?

photo by Verena Erhart
Photo courtesy of Verena Erhart

Vegan and vegetarian travelers agreed that over-spiced meals, or basically any type of curry, have become a meme. “I have perused the vegetarian and vegan options on several airlines and decided not to order any,” said Lounge member Laurie Queens. “Most of them try too hard to make up for what they feel is a ‘boring’ (i.e., no cadaver parts) meal by overly spicing. It’s always curried this or chili that. I can’t tolerate heavy spice. They also seem to think hummus/chickpeas are required staples of a vegetarian meal (even in the salad), and I’m allergic,” she said.

Many group members offered a simple solution: Bring your own food rather than waste time looking for food at the airport or settling for something you don’t want.

The biggest issue for travelers with allergies or other dietary restrictions, celiac specifically, is that it isn’t enough that individual items are gluten-free. How they are cooked and prepared is also important, said user Stacy Price. “Cross-contamination is the devil. If you have allergies, the safest thing to do is pack your own food,” she said.

This isn’t always possible or appealing. Layovers, delays, TSA — there are a variety of factors that can hamper enjoyment of a home-cooked meal. It can also be boring, says a frequent traveler and longtime vegan, Kate O’Neill. In fact, she insists, just because you are vegan, it doesn’t mean that every meal you have while traveling has to be a sad one.

“I think it’s true that bringing [your own food] would obviously make things the simplest,” said O’Neill, who’s been a vegan for 21 years. “But it’s so boring, you want to be able to experience whatever is available, especially in other cultures and other areas. But, certainly, soup would be something I’d be extra-careful about,” she added.

O’Neill further explained that soup often contains butter, beef or chicken stock, or cream, which is not an option for vegans. As a frequent traveler, she relies on certain airport restaurants such as DeColores at Chicago Midway Airport and knows that certain situations require research, especially if you’re in a different country.

“I think it’s helpful to have a certain familiarity with the types of things that would typically be the trip-up,” explained O’Neill. “In Mexican food, for vegan diets, you want to know whether there’s chicken stock in the rice, or if there is lard in the beans. It isn’t always helpful to ask, let’s say, an employee at a Mexican restaurant in an airport, if something is ‘vegan,’ but it is helpful to ask, ‘Is there chicken stock in this rice?'”

More often than not, it’s about asking the right questions, based on the culture of the place you are visiting.

On a recent trip to India for her job as keynote speaker at conferences, O’Neill found there was an abundance of vegetarian options, but a bit of confusion about vegan ones. “They’re so reliant on ghee (clarified butter), so I would ask before eating, ‘Does this have ghee in it?’ It’s an easier question to be very clear about, because ‘vegan,’ as a term, isn’t used very much in India,” she explained.

O’Neill admits that, even if you’re deeply informed about food ingredients and what ‘vegan’ could mean in a different part of the world (or at Cibo Express at JFK), there is no fool-proof way to avoid mistakes. However, with the help of social media and some outspoken celebrity voices in recent years, knowledge of dietary restrictions is becoming more widespread.

“It’s always tricky but it’s gotten a lot better in the past few years,” said O’Neill. “And for that, I always say, ‘Thank you, Beyoncé.'”

Featured image by krblokhin via Getty Images.

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