Traveling with food allergies – the good, the bad and the very ugly

WARNING: Graphic content (and she says grinning – NO pictures)

Tuesday, March 29th ~ Hue, Vietnam

The thin door separating our bedroom from the bathroom could not muffle the moans of pain. I knew what he was going through and felt helpless to do anything. When it hits, it is merciless, brutal and wracks him to the core. 

Imagine a bad case of the flu, doing a colonoscopy prep and then combining food poisoning and you will have an idea of what happens when a severe reaction occurs. Your body just wants the poison out of your system and will violently do its best to cleans itself with a combination of nausea, extreme stomach cramps and explosive diarrhea.

Thankfully, we know what it is and what causes it. We are also grateful that most of the time when it hits, he is miserable for a short time (1-2 hours), and then it eases up. We know that it will run its course and within a few hours it will be completely over, leaving him exhausted, sore, dehydrated and spent – but OK.

But this time it was one of the BAD ones, and it went on most of the night and into the morning, causing us to stay behind for an optional full day excursion. Thankfully this was not a travel day, and a day here at the hotel to rest and recover will be welcomed.

So if we know what he is allergic to, why doesn’t he just avoid eating it? If only it were that easy!

You see it is not just one item. In fact it is many, many items and has to do not just with an ingredient, but the actual processing of all food as well.

And what is this ingredient???

FREE GLUTAMIC ACID (the key word here is FREE)

And just what is this FREE glutamic acid anyway? For one of the best articles we have seen that puts it into simple understandable terms, click here.

I will try to hit a few of the main points:

“There are two common forms of glutamic acid, L-glutamic acid and D-glutamic acid. L-glutamic acid found in protein is referred to as ‘bound’ or ‘protein bound’ glutamic acid. In real, natural foods amino acids are rarely free. Rather, they are linked or bound in long chains to other amino acids in peptides or proteins.

D-glutamic acid ‘outside of protein’ or ‘free glutamic acid’ is artificially and chemically produced outside of the body. This is what is known as monosodium glutamate or MSG.” ~

Being called MSG (Monosodium Glutamate), is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, as it can go by a LONG list of names. Here are most common names it can go by and what ALWAYS contain FREE glutamic acid (MSG): (Source

Glutamic acid (E 620),   Glutamate (E 620), Monosodium glutamate (E 621), Monopotassium glutamate (E 622), Calcium glutamate (E 623), Monoammonium glutamate (E 624), Magnesium glutamate (E 625), Natrium glutamate, Anything “hydrolyzed”, Any “hydrolyzed protein”, Calcium caseinate,  Sodium caseinate, Yeast extract, Torula yeast, Yeast food, Yeast nutrient,  Autolyzed yeast, Gelatin, Textured protein, Whey protein, Whey protein concentrate, Whey protein isolate, Soy protein, Soy protein concentrate, Soy protein isolate, Anything “protein”, Anything “protein fortified”, Soy sauce, Soy sauce extract, Anything “enzyme modified”, Anything containing “enzymes”, Anything “fermented”, Anything containing “protease”, Vetsin, Ajinomoto, and Umami

Sadly it does not end there. This list of items OFTEN contain or produce processed free glutamic acid during processing:

Carrageenan (E 407), Bouillon and broth, Stock, Any “flavors” or “flavoring”, Natural flavor, Maltodextrin, Oligodextrin, Citric acid, Citrate (E 330), Anything “ultra-pasteurized”, Barley malt, Malted barley, Brewer’s yeast, Pectin (E 440), Malt extract, Seasonings

Please note:

(1) Glutamic acid found in unadulterated protein does not cause adverse reactions.  To cause adverse reactions, the glutamic acid must have been processed/manufactured or come from protein that has been fermented.

(2) E numbers are used in Europe in place of food additive names.

And this is just the starting point. The following are ingredients suspected of containing or creating sufficient processed free glutamic acid to serve as MSG-reaction triggers in HIGHLY SENSITIVE people:

Corn starch, Corn syrup, Modified food starch, Lipolyzed butter fat , Dextrose, Rice syrup, Brown rice syrup, Milk powder, Reduced fat milk (skim; 1%; 2%), most things “low fat” or “no fat”, anything “enriched”, anything “vitamin enriched”, anything “pasteurized”, Annatto, Vinegar, Balsamic vinegar, certain amino acid chelates (Citrate, aspartate, and glutamate are used as chelating agents with mineral supplements.)

List of hidden names for MSG – (be sure to check out the “reminders” section found on the lower half of this page – helpful information.)

Short of reading EVERY label on EVERY ingredient in EVERY dish that is prepared, it is rather a crap shoot (pun intended), on whether or not it is safe for Tim to eat.

How do we handle this while traveling to so many different countries, especially where we don’t speak or read the language?

Well, it is a very big challenge, and when we are not successful, sadly Tim pays a painful consequence. At home, here is what we try to do:

  1. Eat as fresh and raw as we can. Think organic fruits and vegetables, peeled, washed in clean water. Salads with homemade dressing. Huge variety of raw, baked or grilled veggies.
  2. Steamed food with no seasoning. He will add salt and pepper at the table.
  3. Whole fresh eggs are safe, as is brewed coffee, most wine, and herbal tea (note: NOT decaffeinated coffee and NOT egg beater type mix that comes in a carton as they are processed).
  4. Fresh fish grilled with a small amount of oil, lemon, salt, pepper.
  5. Fresh herbs and whole spices are wonderful and safe. I avoid most spice blends.
  6. Dishes that are made with ONLY whole ingredients. That means almost NOTHING processed, or out of a box or a carton.
  7. Most baked pastries and sweets are OK, but not ones that contain gelatin.
  8. Some soft drinks do not have MSG, but many do. He can not have anything “diet”, no 7-up, no beer (fermented). He drinks a LOT of water 🙂
  9. Some cheese is safe, some is not. Some dairy OK, some is not. We have learned what works through trial and error, reading labels and avoiding ultra pasteurized and “low or no fat” items.

This may sound boring, but the reality is that most recipes can be created using whole ingredients. Some of my best resources are old cookbooks that are based on recipes from before we had all of the processed foods, and of course the Internet is full of choices and information.

When we are traveling with a tour group, we ask our guide for assistance in translating for us if needed at a restaurant. We research online to find dining recommendations that are more “healthy” or vegetarian leaning. When all else fails, Tim may settle for two fried eggs, over well with no seasoning and a plate of fresh fruit.

On a cruise ship, we solicit the aid of our maître d’ when we first get on board. Some times we have very knowledgeable and experienced staff who make sure Tim gets excellent care. They have even had him see a menu the night before each meal, let him choose his selection and they will custom make it for him avoiding anything processed, or offer an alternative.

It they don’t quite “get it”, the buffet line often allows enough choices that Tim can find items he can eat with minimal problems. He avoids sauces, gravy, soups, casserole type dishes, marinated foods.

(A special shout out to Uniworld Cruise line for two weeks worth of happy, healthy cruising with NO reactions!)

And although I do not get the same painful reaction that Tim does, due to the mountain of research we have done trying to keep him healthy, we firmly believe that free glutamic acid is poisonous and harmful to the system and something everyone should avoid. That being said, I try to follow similar eating patterns with Tim.

Here are a few resources for more information:

Free Glutamic Acid (MSG): Sources and Dangers

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about MSG

The Toxicity/safety of processed free Glutamic Acid (MSG)

Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills

GRATITUDE MOMENT: Today I am grateful that we know what Tim is allergic to and can (most of the time) avoid it. We are often asked how we figured it out. After years of daily bouts of severe cramping and diarrhea, going to several top doctors and specialists, numerous tests, with diagnosis ranging from Irritable Bowel Syndrome to a bleeding ulcer to nerves and stress, it was actually my mother who simply asked, “Could you be allergic to MSG”, and that started our research, trail and error, diet changes and eventually a solution. Thanks Mom!

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About Tim and Joanne Joseph

Hi and welcome! We are Tim and Joanne Joseph and we have just embarked on our latest adventure. We hope you will join us!
This entry was posted in Reflection and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Traveling with food allergies – the good, the bad and the very ugly

  1. says:

    I have been fighting these kinds of problems for twenty years, and the level of awareness where I live and travel just isn’t getting any better. No gluten, for example, here means not breaded, but not that there aren’t crutons in the salad or breadcrunbs inside a meatt portion or floour in the sauce. And MSg makes all reactions worse. I feel for you both, I found recently that the so-called Paleo diet gives me a bit of relief, since it also strengthens the immune system between times. Love your blog.


    • I’m sorry to hear that you too have struggled with similar problems. And you are right, the level of awareness is sadly minuscule in much of the world. But perhaps starting the dialog, even over and over, may someday reach the right ears or eyes of someone who can offer help and be a strong voice for change. Thank you for sharing your story.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, poor Tim! Hope he feels better soon, and how cool that you were able to take a day off and take it easy. I’m sensitive, though thankfully not allergic, to MSG and get terrible headaches. Sometimes my whole face aches, even my teeth. Terrible stuff. (Makes me wonder how many people with IBS and other digestive problems really have MSG allergies.) Had no idea it was in so many things, either. Scary. Cheers and take care.


  3. John Love says:

    Well I say it is a testament to how much Tim must love you, otherwise you would not be able to pry him out of a kitchen at home where he knows the food is safe! Semper Fi Tim!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mr. Mrs. says:

    Joanne, Sorry to hear that Tim has had a rough time with the MSG thing. Hopefully he will get over this and not have to go through this again while you are gone. Otherwise, it sounds like you have had a great time with everything else. Stay safe and enjoy. Love you,Mom


  5. Mila says:

    I wish a speedy recovery from what Tim has had experienced .
    I admire you as a strong, brave, supportive couple and feel the great respect for both of you!
    With your blog You opened the WORLD to those who also eager to see and learn more but unable of doing so due to different circumstances. Dear Joann, your story sound much interesting and LIVE than most information one can get out of Encyclopedia , etc.
    Please stay well and go on safely!

    p.s. the only thing that I can’t enjoy your blog fully because I don’t have a Java script and can’t see many photos .


  6. Ginny Schaw says:

    I copied your eat at home list so we can feed Tim safely when you come to visit again.


  7. mike alesko says:

    Good luck with this you two p,

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Uncle Mel says:

    My daughter suffers from food allergies so I understand the challenge of finding safe eats. Knocks the stuffing out of your body for quite some time. Hope he feels better soon.


  9. That makes living as a vegetarian in burger country seem easy in comparison! Thanks for all the information. It is difficult to piece together what is what regarding our food these days. Take care!


  10. Merrill says:

    Wow, it’s amazing he travels at all. We’ve had a very hard time knowing what’s in our food since we only go by photos and can’t read or speak the language. I can see how traveling in a tour group with a good tour manager must be a tremendous assistance.
    Our daughter has several auto immune disorders, is wheat (gluten) intolerant and eats strictly paleo, Travel is hard unless you do your own marketing and cooking.
    Happy travels to you both!


    • Some countries are more challenging than others. MSG is used in just about everything here in Vietnam. In fact, if you are visiting N. Vietnam area from the south, a “hostess gift” most appreciated is to bring a big bag of the “good” MSG.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. mommermom says:

    Oh wow, that must be traveling so difficult but you guys are real troopers! What a commitment to each other and your travels.


  12. Our commitment to each other never wavers. But, it does put a little damper on our travel bug every now and then 😳🚽


  13. ardysez says:

    I can sympathise with your situation. Most of the things you do to eat are what I do as well. I have a number of food sensitivities, none as violent as What Tim experiences but very unpleasant when it happens. I have to take a break from travel sometimes because it is such hard work to get simple, unadulterated food if you are in a strange place and don’t know where to go, or worse, don’t know the language. Good for you to press on! Thank you for enlightening me about yet another issue taking place with our food!


    • We are frustrated at times. Thankfully, most of the time we are able to find safe foods for Tim to eat. It can be plain and get boring for him eating a few select things he knows are safe, I.e. Fried eggs and fresh fruit. Vietnam was especially difficult since they use MSG as a staple seasoning like we use salt and pepper. We are somewhat optimistic that we won’t have as hard of a time finding safe food for him in Morocco.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. usfman says:

    Sorry to hear that your trip was cut short. Thank you for your explicit descriptions of Gate 1 Travel. My wife and I just booked a 10 tour of India on Gate 1 and it is reassuring to know that the company cares about its guests in times of emergency.


  15. Pingback: We Have Some Very VERY Brave Friends | A Note From Abroad

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