Living in Chile with an allergy is tough.
I’ve been told by Expater friends that the same applies for much of Latin America.
My two year old suffers from an intolerance to dairy products (a delayed cow’s milk protein allergy, a.k.a. CMPA to be precise).
Sadly people here don’t seem to get the ‘allergy thing’. I wonder if the people here just don’t get the allergies like we do in the UK, or if they’ve just wasted away into oblivion after being fed inappropriate foods?
At restaurants we’ve been told for sure that the bread was dairy free, only to see my little boy’s cheeks flare up as fast as you can say ‘contains milk powder’. I’ve had waiters assure me that the cake was dairy free, and as then as he took his first gulp, well ‘maybe just a little bit’. Mothers cooking cakes to share at his nursery assured me their cooking was milk free, not understanding that butter, milk powder and if you want to get really technical, casein are all off limits for my son.
If you have a dairy allergy or intolerance, or indeed any other allergy, here are my tips for surviving in Santiago, Chile.
- Read labels extra carefully. Allergens are not listed in bold, so if you don’t already know all the alternative names for the allergen in question, get googling now. Take a print out with you for the grocery shopping, when dining out etc. For example I know that lactic acid is safe, but casein is not.
- Prepare to spend. Allergen free foods are generally much more expensive than standard products. I often find it easier to avoid a product altogether and find a different alternative. So instead of a chocolate treat, he gets a chewy sweet. We don’t bother with cheese and just use avocado to add creaminess. Vitamins are ridiculously expensive compared to the UK. Calcium fortified milk alternatives are double, triple, even quadruple the price of that in the UK. Stevia is everywhere, chia seeds are priced normally, quinoa is relatively cheap, but you may need to remortgage your home for some buckwheat flour.
- Specialist shops. Even ‘normal’ grocery shopping is a city wide gymkhana. If you’re shopping for specialist foods, be prepared to spend more time on your shop. In my view, Jumbo supermarket stocks the best range of allergen free food stuffs. The local vegetable markets ‘feria’ are generally fantastic. For dried fruits and nuts, as well as some more specialist products (seaweed, coconut oil, matcha), look to your local ‘tostaduria’ (small pay per weight dried foods shops across the city). Aldea Nativa store stocks a decent range of the rest, including products such as hemp powder, tamari and more specialist oils. La Vega is a bustling maze of shops and stalls where you can find much more, and at a decent price, but leave your jewelry and kids at home – this is no place for a casual stroll.
- Research online. For our child’s cow’s milk protein allergy we stumbled upon a great resource at www.sinleche.cl. There are also numerous Facebook groups for allergy sufferers and specialist blogs dedicated to restricted diets.
- Cautious, personal tests. In time you’ll no doubt discover many products which are in fact safe, but not necessarily labelled as so. The basic ‘marraqueta’ white loaves, oreos, Frac chocolate cookies are all fine for my boy and yet are not labelled as dairy free.
- Keep it simple. The only really safe way to ensure the food is allergen free is to prepare it yourself, using simple non processed ingredients. Sorry. There are a lot of processed foods on offer here, and few of them are safe for my boy. Foods do not undergo the same tests as in Europe and I’m cautious about the level of cross contamination. If your allergy is life threatening, I would be very cautious about dining out and ordering take away and check for personal recommendations first.
- Check with your health insurance. Some policies cover alternative foods, for example specialist baby milk, as well as dietitian consultations. A local dietitian can no doubt point you in the best direction of foods, products and stores to ensure your diet contains all the nutrients you need.
- Beware of the trace element. Many products claim to contain mere trace elements of an allergen, but I reckon the definition of trace varies to that of other countries. A margarine which did not contain any milk products within the ingredients list still caused a nasty reaction in my boy.
- Be patient. No doubt you’ve been living with your allergy for years, and maybe in a society which understands them. Here in Chile, allergies are new, so to speak. My nanny with 20 plus years of experience had never met a child with an allergy before. It can be frustrating to keep explaining, but better safe than sorry. You will need to explain exactly what your allergy involves, how to avoid cross contamination (sharing serving spoons is a national past time here in Chilean restaurants it seems) and keep explaining patiently. The vegan diet is more commonly understood than a dairy free diet, so when checking if something is dairy free I also check if it is vegan (‘yes it’s milk free, but not vegan as it contains cheese…’)
- Check your medical supplies. I’ve heard from mothers with allergic children who have run out of Epi Pens, inhalers and pills. Healthcare (private anyway) is fantastic here in Chile, but I have known of supplies running out, so best to plan your medical supplies well in advance.
- Beware of translations. I’ve asked my husband time and time again how to say ‘dairy allergy’ in Spanish and we still aren’t sure. (My husband is Spanish for the record). In Spanish, ‘lactosa’ is the general translation of ‘dairy’ as well as ‘lactose,’ it seems. My son cannot tolerate lactose free cow’s milk in any format and this mix up has often landed my son with a reaction.
- Exaggerate. OK this may seem immoral, but hey if it keeps you alive and healthy, who cares? The medical term for my son’s condition is an allergy, but in many ways it’s more like an intolerance. He’s now past the stage where a trace amount of baked milk products equals a trip to the hospital. But it still hurts him and I hate the twenty times daily nappies changes. People tend to be quite relaxed about allergies, not fully understanding the issues or consequences. I err on the side of caution and make it sound worse than it is.
- Look to specialist schools and institutions. If you have a child with a serious allergy, you’ll need to be extra careful when you choose your kindergarten or school. Some schools flat our refuse to accept children with allergies, others are happy to, but are not set up for accommodating them. Many nurseries share food round, and unless your child is old and wise enough to know it can be hard to avoid a reaction. International institutions tend to fare better, but not always. Even the most understanding establishments may well require you to bring in food products yourself. We provide our son’s milk and snacks at his nursery, for example.
- Pack your bags. I don’t mean leave the country. Well I do, but only temporarily. Stock up on your favourite allergen free goodies next time you leave for the US or the UK – chances are they’ll be much more readily available and cheaper over there. There’s a ban on importing seeds, fruits, nuts and plants into the country, and with sniffer dogs doing the rounds at the airports, don’t even think about bringing in contraband. A hefty fine or arrest for some linseed just ain’t worth it!
You may also like to read my tips on travel with an allergy and how aromatherapy helped one child to ease her symptoms.