Coping with Food Intolerances in France

by Karin Bates Snyder  

Do you have food allergies or other health conditions that prohibit your eating foods with wheat, dairy, nuts, or other ingredients? How easy is it to find food to eat in Paris for a food allergic or intolerant person? Here are some tips for traveling to or living in France from a food-intolerant person trying to find sustenance in the gourmet capital of the world.

After my first year of living in Paris, I developed some health conditions that led me to eliminate gluten and dairy, and reduce my use of cane sugar and some other ingredients in my diet. While this has not always been easy, in the process I have learned a lot about how to find food in Paris that I can eat and which won’t make me feel sick. I have also traveled to the south of France and discovered things I’ve learned in Paris apply there, too.

On scale of one to ten, with ten being the easiest place to travel or live with food intolerances, and one being the most difficult, I would rate Paris and the rest of France at about a 4 to 5 at the moment.  As elsewhere, food allergies and intolerances are on the rise in France, and I have seen improvements in awareness and understanding of food-related health conditions in even the relatively short time I have been dealing with these issues myself.

Culturally and historically, cuisine is very important to French people – maybe the important thing in the culture here. It is taken quite seriously. There is also a kind of cultural understanding that all things are fine for a body in moderation, and so the idea of eliminating something from one’s diet voluntarily is counter to how many people in France approach food and eating.

This is not to say that the French are inflexible about understanding people who have genuine health problems related to food. Since coming to France, I have met several people (French and foreigner alike) diagnosed with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that causes destruction to the small intestine when gluten is ingested. I also know lactose intolerant people, and vegetarians and vegans, who may not have a health reason for eating differently than the bulk of the French population, but whose deep personal convictions lead them to eat differently than most. All manage to eat well in Paris, but it does take some creativity, fortitude, and patience.

Here are the key issues.

First, assess your own situation. 

Do you have only one major food intolerance, it’s not that severe, and you have experience handling it elsewhere?

If so, you are probably going to have a good food experience in France. Finding food in stores and restaurants that eliminate a major ingredient such as gluten-based grains or dairy is pretty much a piece of cake. Health food stores carry gluten and dairy-free goods, including baked goods and snacks. The average café will likely have at least one meal you can eat, even if you wind up ordering salade Niçoise each time you go out.   I have and do eat out – it is possible. My favorite restaurants are vegetarian or macrobiotic ones where foods are often organic and made from simple, whole ingredients, and also places like Léon de Bruxelles, a chain that serves mussels and frites (French fries).

There is also good information in phrasebooks (my Lonely Planet French phrase book has an entire section dedicated to food allergies) and on-line about expressions you can use in French to ask about whether a dish has an ingredient to which you are allergic or intolerant, and tips on how to befriend your waiter and finesse the entire dining experience. (See links below for more information about how to eat out in Paris or France.)

On the other hand, do you have multiple food intolerances or severe reactions to certain foods?

If this describes you, I would highly recommend that if you are visiting Paris or other places in France, you find an apartment to rent and cook for yourself instead of trying to eat every meal in a restaurant.

French waiters and chefs do not tolerate a lot of what they consider “finickiness” from diners who require special preparation of dishes. In French cuisine, the prepared dish is seen as a work of art, and is not to be deconstructed into something else.  The idea that the needs and desires of the customer are always first and foremost isn’t part of the cultural milieu here; instead, diners are seen more as guests in a home.  Would you be demanding towards friends if you were visiting their home, insisting that they prepare you a special dish just for you, even after they already prepared an elaborate meal for all the other guests? Probably not. You’d either eat first, bring your own dish to eat, or pick and choose from what is already prepared that seems “safe” and hope for the best.   That’s the kind of attitude you need to dine out in France.

Moreover, if your issues are severe, you won’t want to take the risk.  Some people have such severe gluten intolerance that they experience severe cramping and diarrhea from even the slightest cross-contamination of a few crumbs of bread that got dusted onto their plate, or from the chef using the same pan to cook an item with gluten as the item without.

Plus you do not want to risk being out and about and having an intestinal attack: another thing Paris is infamous for is the lack of easily accessible and free public toilets.  Your visit is not going to be a good one if you are constantly in search of a toilet as you are touring, or holed up in your hotel room.

Second, take action.  There are a number of good Internet resources to help you experience Paris and the rest of France gluten free, dairy-free, or any-other-food-free. The tips can apply to eating vegan and vegetarian as well.

David Lebovitz on Eating and Dining Gluten-Free in Paris.  The information in this post is still very relevant nearly three years after its original posting. Even though it is written for people who need to avoid gluten, it is, hands down, still the best and most complete post I have ever read about eating and dining in Paris with food allergies and/or intolerances. The links at the end of the post are very helpful, and I note that new comments are continually being written on this post, some of which have additional helpful information.

For example, the most recent comment has a link to a gluten-free B&B in Paris – one where the host prepares gluten-free meals: Gluten Free Paris.

Celiac Chicks on gluten-free travel. A Gluten-Free Guide to Paris is another good read about traveling and dining gluten-free in Paris.

Compile a list of the French equivalents for all the ingredients to which you are allergic/intolerant so you can read labels on packaged foods.  Try these resources: 

  • Allergy Translations is a Web site dedicated to helping people find the vocabulary they need to avoid allergens.
  • Select Wisely has food and travel translation cards you can print up and carry with you.
  • Allergy Free Passport has multiple resources to help you out on their website.

Note that labeling of major allergens contained in foods and their possible presence does exist in France. Ingredients that may be problematic for people are clearly labeled, usually just after the ingredient list.  Also look for the catch phrases traces éventuelles de… and présence possible de… followed by the name of the allergen.

Know where to go to shop. Make lists (in French) of foods you can eat as well as those you can’t.

All of the major grocers have at least a section of aisle that is dedicated to organic or eating allergen-free.  Realistically, however, you will probably have to visit more than one store to shop for foods you can eat.

Monoprix is a popular grocery chain carrying soy milk, soy-based yogurts, some gluten-free baking mixes and ready-to-eat foods or snacks as well as nuts, seeds, and fresh fruits and vegetables.  Bring your list for reading labels, though. As with snack and prepared foods in the U.S., filler ingredients containing allergens are in some of these foods. Amidon transformé, for example, is modified wheat starch and is found in many snack foods.

Franprix, Leader Price, and Ed are discount grocers. They also have fresh fruits and vegetables, and the basics for preparing many dishes. Leader Price has its own line of organic products (look for the terms biologique or bio) including soy milks, rice cakes (which contain sesame, however), and jams made with organic cane sugar, among other items. These Leader Price items are sold in Franprix as well.

In the outlying suburbs of Paris, hypermarkets such as Carrefour and Auchan have large aisles of gluten and dairy-free baked goods and other foods.   Many of these stores also have ingredients for grain-free baking such as almond and hazelnut flours, but note that these products are not produced in allergen-free manufacturing plants, and may contain traces of gluten or other allergens.  I have not had much of an opportunity to shop in these stores, but know of people who find plenty of foods at these French equivalents of Wal-Mart.  

Overall, however, your best bet at finding allergen-free foods are at health food stores.  In Paris, there are three major health food store chains: Biocoop, Naturalia, and La Vie Claire.  (Check their Web sites for a location near you.) There are also independent stores in some neighborhoods.  These stores typically have dedicated shelves or areas for gluten-free products. (On the other hand, dairy-free equivalents (such as dairy-free chocolate-hazelnut spread, like the Nutella brand) are often next to their allergen-containing counterparts).  A quick read of the labeling will tell you which products are certified to be gluten-free, dairy-free, or free of other allergens. Much of the labeling is also multilingual, and some have ingredient listings in English, too.

Finally, if the prices at health food stores are too high, go to one of Paris’ districts where Asian communities have set up shop. The Marais (3rd arrondissement), Belleville (20th arrondissement), and the area around Avenue d’Ivry in the 13th have Asian-based markets and grocers where you can find rice flour, bean thread and rice noodles, and tapioca starch for a lot less than at health food stores.

I have yet to find ingredients such as coconut or sorghum flours, but new things are continuously showing up on shelves, and it seems I find something new each time I visit. Different stores carry different products, too, so exploring all of the chains frequently yields new discoveries.

I am fortunate in that my intolerances are fairly mild compared to some. Once in a while, I decide to try something that has an ingredient to which I know I will react, but the trade-off of trying something unique to France’s incredible cuisine is often worth a few of days of feeling unwell. Like anything, it is a choice. I hope, however, that if you have no choice in what you consume because of an allergy or intolerance, that you have found this information helpful.

If you have information to add or other questions, please leave it in the comments below. Or stop by my blog and leave me a note in the Contact Me section.  

Karin Bates Snyder never expected to wind up living in a place like Paris after turning 40. She also developed several food intolerances shortly after moving to the City of Light. These events have contributed to her feeling like a duck out of water, like An Alien Parisienne, the name of the blog where she writes to come to terms with being a stranger in a strange land.

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31 responses to “Coping with Food Intolerances in France

  1. Pingback: Vacances « An Alien Parisienne

  2. An extremely informative and astute article. Your observations are dead-on! Plus, the resources you provide for those with food intolerances / allergies are invaluable.

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Great tips Karin! French people certainly don’t understand these kinds of issues but you’re definitely starting to see more gluten free and vegan options pop up – hopefully in time it will become a whole lot easier!

  4. Thank you for this helpful article. Do you know if the Franprix or similar markets sell lactose-free milk? Also, do the pharmacies usually carry the lactaid-style lactase enzyme tablets? Thank you.

    • Anna – I used to drink lactose-free and reduced milks in the States before quitting dairy. I don’t recall seeing any here in Paris, but I also have not shopped for them since I’ve gone dairy-free. Most milk is in boxes, stored on shelves since it is UHT (ultra-high-heat processed) milk. I have not seen anything labeled as such in Franprix, but Monoprix might carry it.

      Next time I am in the store, I’ll look for it and come back to comment if I see anything promising.

      This is an old posting; http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=58404

      But it was all I could find regarding whether or not lacatse enzyme caplets are available in pharmacies here in France. My Finnish friend who is lactose intolerant said it is hard to find lactose-free products here in France, and she tried lactase enzyme caplets in the US before, but found they did not help her at all, so she never thought to use them again while she’s living in France. It does not seem they are available, though.

      What most lactose intolerant people seem to do here in France is use soy, rice, almond, or other alternative milks (which are widely available as described in my article).

      If you are just going to be visiting, I’d stock up on Lactaid caplets and bring them here to France with you. If you’re moving here, then I’d find a friend or family member willing to send them to you. Note it is illegal to send drugs, vitamins, and other like items to France, so when the person labels the products for the customs form, maybe have them find a word to use that is not related to medicine. ;-)

      If I find out anything more, I’ll post it here!

    • P.S. Anna–

      I was just at this site, which is mentioned on that forum I linked in my previous reply: http://www.sanslactose.com/

      This looks promising! You might be able to order lactase enzyme from one of the companies mentioned on this page: http://www.sanslactose.com/pg,produits-de-lactase,lactase,0,1.jsp

    • All he Casino Geant hyper supermarkets in France sell Lactose free Milk, Yogurt, Butter and cheese (made from real milk). The brand is Valio.

      I am trying to find a lactose free yogurt without sugar but so far no luck.

      • Merci beaucoup, Pablo! I will search for the Valio.

      • I’m glad Pablo left such a nice comment here. I got a rather sarcastic and pointed email from him via my website. It’s nice he left brief, informative info here though. I just wish he would have left it at that…

        It always surprises me just how people think they have the freedom to say whatever they want to people they don’t know.

  5. Any recommendations for vegetarian restaurants in Paris?

  6. My son has a severe peanut allergy. Thankfully they label things now, so grocery shopping is just fine. We have still never taken him out to eat in a restaurant (except Quick and McD’s) and I can’t trust the Boulangeries to not have cross contaminated nuts. That said, I have found precooked baguettes in the store that we cook at home, and bags of croissants at Monoprix and bags of pain au chocolate at Franprix. Since he’s only 5 he doesn’t know what he’s missing. Thanks for this post. I’ll check out some of those websites.

  7. Update: February 26, 2011

    I just got a newsletter from Heather Stimmler Hall of Secrets in Paris. In it she states (as a lactose intolerant person who has lived in France for many years), “One of … the things I have to stock up on when I visit the US are Lactaid pills. There is no equivalent in France nor the UK (trust me, I’ve looked). “ However, she just discovered that at the Pharmacie Centrale du Bastille (3 Blvd Beaumarchais, 4th), some pills called “Lactolérance are now sold in packs of 45 pills for €24. It seems they are available for online order as well.

    I wanted to link in to a page on her site where she writes about this, but it is information only given in the February Newsletter. So hop on over to her site and sign up for it, if you want or need more information!

  8. Hello does anybody have any information concerning gluten free shops, restaurants maybe even a bakery that bakes gluten -free in Nice???
    Thanks

    • Florence, I just happened to stop by this post today to link it for another person and saw your question here!

      My best friend lives in Antibes, and we have gone into Nice before. There are no dedicated gluten-free bakeries there as far as we know. (Neither she nor her two daughters eat gluten, so she knows as well.) Pretty much in the 3-4 times I have been in the area, the same information applies in the South as in Paris. I know that my friend regularly goes to both La Vie Claire and to a local branch of Bio Coop in the Cap d’Antibes and Juan Les Pins. I am sure that Nice will have branches as well, and you can look at the online sites for addresses.

      Also, my friend has mentioned that the Carrefour Hypermarché nearest her has been expanding their gluten-free items! She has found some really good Carrefour gluten-free croissants, apparently! So by all means if you can get to a hypermarché, check out the health foods aisle where they stock these items.

      In addition, I know when I was in the South this past summer, I got to eat Socca! It was terrific! The place where we had them listed all the ingredients and specifically noted they were totally gluten-free — no added flour as a binder. :) So find a Socca place there in Nice — I have heard there are some good ones, and enjoy!

      Karin
      (an alien parisienne)

  9. Thank you so much for this info! We will be traveling to Paris in August and our daughter has multiple food allergies, including soy – I’m wondering if soy lecithin is the emulsifier widely used in French chocolates?

  10. Thank you very much, your post has been of much help! We will be traveling to Paris next July and so far I found a dedicated GF restaurant there and want to share the info “Des si et des Mets” -63 Rue Lepic -Montmartre. Looking forward to the experience! I also found an interesting site for traveling http://www.specialgourmets.com which informs about GF and alergy friendly or dedicated restaurants around the world.

  11. Pingback: HiP Paris Blog » Intolerance in Paris: The Plight of the Dairy-Challenged

  12. Thank you so much for all this wonderful information, Karin. I am planning a family trip to France from Australia this summer with a 5 yr old with severe egg and dairy allergies. You have given me some hope that it won’t be as stressful as I had imagined.

    • Hi basia,just wondering how you got on with your trip, we are going to France in September with my 18moth o,d daughter who has severe dairy and egg allergy?

      • We had a brilliant trip with no hitches in France. We didn’t really risk it with eating out with my son though. We prepared food ourselves during our stay. Regular supermarkets usually had a good supply of soy, rice and nut milks and other staples. We used google translate to help us decipher ingredients along the way as our French language skills are minimal. We also had a Select Wisely card on us at all times when it came to buying bread etc… We occasionally found products that even had ingredients listed in English. All in all, I would do again tomorrow! No where near as difficult as I imagined.

  13. Nice post! I went to Paris when I was four years old and my dad speaks French. We ate at Chinese Restaurants and my dad got me pasta from a deli with no dairy and steak and veggies at other places. We are going back soon! Yay!

  14. Karin, thank you for your very informative and thorough coverage of what is, to travelers like me, a very important subject. I traveled to Paris two years ago, and while I did pretty well, with the help of my wife, in finding food to eat, it was nevertheless a challenge. And as someone who is highly allergic to dairy, I felt cut off from the heart of French cuisine – no sauces or mousses for me!

    I have one minor quibble – your analogy that eating out in France is like being invited to someone else’s house to eat is a little off from what I have experienced. While I will bring food with me that is dairy-free when I am invited out for dinner, friends who know me well will frequently prepare a separate dish that is dairy-free or make one of their main dishes dairy-free. For example, for Thanksgiving several years ago I was invited to a friend’s apartment, and he made a separate Cornish hen for me (because the turkey was basted with butter).

    Once again, thank you very much for this very informative and helpful article!

  15. So glad to have found this! I’m a little over 3 weeks in to living in Paris and it has been a challenge. I’m pretty sure my son has not been feeling the best from some of the foods so now that we are getting settled, I am on a mission to clean up any contamination he might be getting! I wanted to mention though that I was at a little bio market yesterday in Antony and they had coconut flour! I was so surprised because I have not seen it anywhere yet! Maybe you’ve found it by now but if not, you could check out the little market!

  16. Karen Williams

    I am allergic to all members of the allium family, including in powdered form. What are some traditional/typical French dishes/foods that don’t usually use onion or garlic, so no modifications would have to be requested? I do love cheese! :-)

  17. Hi Karin, I have several friends who have gluten & dairy intolerances so these resources are handy for when they visit.

    For those who simply try to limit lactose, goat & sheep milk products are an option. Goat (chevre) and sheep (brebis) yogurt are available at almost any supermarket.

    For the past 6 months I’ve also been avoiding lactose and gluten for health reasons. I actually did a whole30 elimination diet in the spring, and found it way more do-able than I expected. What helped:

    * Like you said, Asian grocers are good sources of affordable wheat & dairy alternatives. There are also two good ones in the 5th, both on rue LaGrange near the place Maubert (and down the street from Notre Dame).

    * While it’s definitely not cheap, Retour a la Terre is much brighter, cleaner, and more spacious than typical health food/organic grocers in Paris. The staff is also friendly. There’s one near the Pantheon and another on the right bank. And it has coconut flour!

  18. My husband and I are in the midst of organising a trip to Paris with our two sons, one of whom has a severe allergy to eggs. Does anyone know where we can find some good vegan French pastries? I hate the thought of him missing out on something so wonderfully French.

    Thank you

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