Do you try local food when you travel? Most people are not devouringly curios and do it only if food looks like food. We normally don’t rush for a snack of fried bamboo worms or roasted locusts. As for myself, I am a very gastronomically cautious traveler. Even in everyday life, the list of things I don’t eat is quite extensive. It includes any seafood (other than fish), meat by-products, stakes that are less than "very-very-well-done-no-blood-please", sushi, raw onions, garlic and much more. "No cheese" is the phrase I know in languages of almost all countries I’ve visited.
Some think that being picky about food is a pathology (psychological, physiological, or even a disorder of energy flows). "Healthy people eat everything!" they say. Perhaps. But I think there is a reason behind subconsciously avoiding certain products. It seems like an echo of our primitive instincts, when a person’s life depended on being able to decide correctly what to eat, and what to avoid.
But what about traveling? Is food caution justified? Is it true that the probability of poisoning or contracting some evil intestinal bacteria is higher in exotic countries? What products and meals have the highest risk?
So far, my food selectivity has paid off rather well. I had no digestion problems in the Southeast and Central Asia, nor in the Middle East, nor South and North America. The nastiest thing - salmonella – I caught in Poland. The saddest, as it ruined my whole vacation, - in the waters of Lake Yastrebinoe, Leningrad region. And the most memorable - in Tanzania. That one made me think about the bad jokes our food prejudices play on us.
We just descended from Kilimanjaro and sat on a bench in a village, waiting for a transfer to the park’s gates. A trader ran to us and offered some dried fish, wrapped in an old greasy newspaper. "Oh yah, how disgusting!" - I thought. Try to imagine those ramshackle huts, dusty streets with romping kids and chickens, people, who never had a modern water supply or sewerage. All this just shouts in your brain: "Do not touch or eat anything here!" And what was my surprise when Larisa (another girl from our group) gave the trader some coins and become an owner of the newspaper with the piranha-looking fishes. And what was my horror when she began to eat them! And what was my resentment when all other group members joined her. I, of course, abstained from it. And throughout the rest of the trip compensated my loss of vitamins by eating green salads and fruit. Only one member of the expedition returned home with a hell of a diarrhea, which lasted a week and required antibiotics treatment. Guess, who was it? Not Larisa, and none of the men. It was I.
It turns out that there is a logical explanation. To cause poisoning, the food needs to be infected with harmful bacteria. The bacteria can either be planted on a product (by insects, rodents, dirty hands, utensils or surfaces), or it can self-grow, if the food is a favorable environment (and this depends on the moisture content). Therefore, the dryer - the safer! Larisa’s hideous fishes were less harmful than my “healthy” salad leaves and mangoes.
What can you can eat on a trip, and what should be avoided? Recommendations presented below are based on my personal experience and available statistics on food poisoning. Mostly they are relevant for the exotic destinations. But even in the so-called “civilized world”, there are many places with living conditions far from safe and ideal.
- Water. It gives life to everything on our planet, including harmful bacteria. Some natural water sources are safe for drinking. But unfortunately, these are rather exceptions. The majority of fresh lakes, ponds, rivers and streams are inhabited by simple organisms that can get you out of action for a long time. Not to mention the quality of water coming out of taps in tropical countries with poor sanitation. Use bottled water not only for drinking, but also for brushing teeth. Remember that ice in the drinks is also water and often unpurified. On a backcountry trip listen to your guide or instructor. He or she will tell you if the water is safe for drinking or not. And if you’re hiking without a guide, boil or filter.
- Green salad, raw vegetables and fruit. Washing doesn't kill or remove all hazardous microbes. Besides, you never know who washed your salad, and with what water. This healthy food is behind 46% of poisonings. Therefore, wash fruits yourself and thoroughly. Cut them yourself with your own clean knife. Fruit that require peeling are safer. For example, an orange would be better than an apple. When ordering fresh juices, ask that no water, crushed ice or milk is added. Do not buy fresh juices from street vendors.
- Mushrooms. Surely, normal people don’t go to Thailand for mushroom picking, but fungi are worth mentioning. Mushroom poisoning has the highest percentage of lethal cases. If you feel sick after eating mushrooms, don’t wait - run (or crawl) to the hospital! Furthermore. Even if you are an experienced mushroom hunter, refrain from this activity in unfamiliar regions (especially in the south). Many edible northern mushrooms are poisonous at other latitudes.
- Seafood. Well, if you're unlucky, you’re jackpot unlucky. Seafood and fish may contain extremely dangerous microorganisms that can cause incurable disease or death. So to all shellfish fans I highly recommend: eat them only in safe places, make sure they’re fresh and make sure they’re cooked.
- Undercooked meat. Same thing as with rare seafood. Just other species of parasites and bacteria. The latest food poisoning that occurred with a person close to me was caused by a medium done steak from an expensive European restaurant.
- Dairy products, eggs, cream cakes. These spoil very quickly even at room temperature. Besides, raw milk and eggs can transmit disease and parasites from their manufacturers. So, make sure you know the cow personally, or buy pasteurized!
- Salads with mayonnaise and yogurt dressings, meat pies. Again, they quickly spoil in the heat. In addition, mayonnaise salads and pie fillings are often made with leftover meat from yesterday.
- Any meals that are warmed up for you (and not just prepared). If the food was stored incorrectly and bacteria began to multiply, reheating will not kill it
- Food fancied by flies or served in a place that is likely to have cockroaches and rodents. These guys can “spread your bread” with things you haven’t dreamt of, from cholera to anthrax.
Some of you might say, "Hey, all this we tried and hadn't died!" Of course, I cannot guarantee you food poisoning from any of the above-mentioned products. I can only pinpoint areas with higher probability. And since the chances of starvation if you exclude all food are pretty close to 100%, let us turn to the list of products we can eat with lower health risk.
- Dry foods. For example, jerky, dried fruit, nuts, and even roasted cockroaches! Just make sure that their lively brothers aren't crawling on the ones to be eaten. Honey is safe due to its antiseptic qualities.
- Meals that you have prepared yourself with necessary hygienic precautions
- Dishes with prolonged thermal processing of meat (e.g. pilaf, soups, stews). But it is imperative that they are freshly made and not warmed up. Typically, these meals are prepared in the morning (for lunch), and it’s another reason to give up eating late
- Poultry. Chicken is found almost everywhere, so it’s more likely to be fresh. The meat must be well done and not reheated
- Dehydrated “just add water” foods like ramen noodles, mashed potatoes, soups, rice, instant oatmeal. Boiling water is required to bring these to life
- Large fast food networks (McDonalds, Burger King, KFC and others like them). Perhaps, their food is so lifeless that nothing grows on it, or perhaps they do have extremely high workplace hygiene standards, but there are virtually no cases of fast food poisoning. Please, note that I am referring to the large "big-name" networks, and not the various "uncle Sam’s burgers". The noxious Big Mac might be a healthier choice than a dinner at a local restaurant.
Here are a few other recommendations for travelers:
- Wash your hands regularly, and after using the toilet - always! It horrifies me, how often I see ladies that walk out of the restroom without stopping at the sink. I do not have the boys’ statistics. But it makes me feel better, that handshakes are not common for women in Russia (unlike Europe and USA)... If there is no water, use a sanitizer!
- Avoid swimming in enclosed fresh water ponds that are popular among locals. Apart from the risk of accidental water swallowing, there might also be skin disease agents and parasites.
- Have some ethanol with you. Use it to wipe suspicious cutlery, can tops and bottlenecks. Use a straw for drinking when available.
- Always have medical insurance valid for your destination countries. Be on the safe side!
- Always have a medical kit with absorbents, antidiarrheals, a broad-spectrum antibiotic, a drug to normalize the intestinal microflora, digestive enzymes. Please, consult your doctor about what medications are best for you and how and when to use them.
- If you are traveling in a group, please refrain from risky food curiosity. After all, your attachment to the potty will affect others.
In general, your chances of eating everything and getting nothing depend on only two factors: luck and immunity. The human body gets used to everything. After few months in Africa, you can safely eat street vendor pies with unknown meat. But if you’re going just for a couple of weeks, isn't it better to see a bit more and to taste a bit less?