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.
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.
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.