Food Safety While Traveling as a Digital Nomad- Podcast 028

In this episode B and Jack talk about food safety while traveling as a digital nomad. They provide over 20 best practices in which you can implement in your travels to eat safely around the world.

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The information on this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. We are not doctors, thus you should always double-check the information provided here concerning mosquito-borne diseases with an expert.

1. Summary

1.1. The topic of food safety while traveling within the Digital Nomad Life System

  • The Digital Nomad Life System is a 6-step meta-system created by us at Nomad Tactics that aims to explain how someone can go from living a non-nomadic normal life to living an optimized digital nomad life.
  • The fifth step of the system is called “Nomadic Living”. This is the broadest of all steps in the system. It basically can be understood as all the advice that would be relevant to a digital nomad when he is living in a base. This is of course very much context-sensitive depending on the specific situation of the digital nomad. Food safety while traveling is something you will consider once you are living in a base, therefore it makes sense to place it in this step.
  • To have a general overview of the Digital Nomad Life System you should listen to this episode.

1.2. Observations about food safety while traveling

  • This episode should not feel like a discouragement to try the local food. You should always try the local food, in fact, we think that trying the local food of different countries is one of the most important things to try to really experience a place. So the point here is that you should do that in a safe and smart way.
  • Obviously you don’t need to worry about all those best practices to do with food safety while traveling in all the places you might go to eat. If you are staying in a developed country and/or eating in a good restaurant these are practically irrelevant. Thus, the things that we are about to mention only make sense when you are eating in developing countries and/or cheap places and/or street food.
  • This might sound kind of obvious but, don’t treat what we are about to say regarding food safety while traveling as a checklist. After all, food is all about pleasure. We are just stating these principles for you to have a general idea about food safety while traveling. Yet, if you obsess over these things you might lose the joy of trying the local food. Just keep have these loose principles to do with best practices related to food.

1.3. The best practices to do with food safety while traveling

  • Get vaccinated with food-related illnesses
    •  You can get infected with some very serious diseases by eating infected food. The good news is that some of these diseases already have a vaccine against them. So a good start is to get vaccinated against those. These are diseases like hepatitis A, typhoid and cholera.
  • Preferably go for hot dishes
    • The dish can be fried, cooked, or baked food. It doesn’t really matter.
    • As far as temperature goes food needs to be one of two ways to be safe, hot or cold. If food is below 5 degrees Celsius then food bugs won’t grow. Above 70 degrees Celsius they are likely already dead. Typically street foods (with the exception of fruits and a few others, covered later) are served hot. Therefore, how hot is the key to food safety, the number you need to remember is 70 degrees Celsius.
    • It is impossible to really measure the temperature, so you will need to second guess it. A good rule of thumb to use is that if you can eat straight away after the food is cooked then it is probably not hot enough.
  • Only eat fruits that you can peel
    • By peeling a fruit you will eliminate the contact of the seller with the food you are ingesting, thus eliminating most of the risk.
  • Avoid uncooked eggs
    • Uncooked eggs might have salmonella, which is a nasty bacteria to get. Always go for fully cooked eggs when you eating in dubious places.
  • Avoid cold salads
    • There are two reasons why it makes sense to avoid cold salads. First, the vegetables might not have been washed well thus amoebas (which can cause disease) being a possibility. On the other hand, if it was washed, the tap water used might be contaminated. Therefore cold salads are a no-no.
  • Be mindful of your food allergies and restrictions
    • The trick here is to research beforehand the popular dishes and see if they have anything you don’t eat and/or you are allergic to
    • Beyond that, you can research the relevant terms to do with your allergy and food restrictions in the local language to ask the seller directly if these are used as an ingredient before you eat a dish.
  • Preferably choose places to eat with many people
    • When choosing randomly a place to eat, give preference to crowded restaurants especially if you see many locals eating there. This is because if a place is popular it is unlikely to be unhygienic (or at the very least make people sick) otherwise people would stop going there. The other benefit is that since the place is busy it has a high turnover of the food, which means fresher food.
  • Avoid meat, but if you want to it then have it well done
    • Any kind of meat is a very common type of food to be spoiled.
    • You should avoid meat if it is not stored in appropriate conditions (e.g. refrigerated) or if it looks or smells strange.
    • In case you intend to eat meat any way you should always make sure it is well done. By cooking it thoroughly most of the potentially harmful things will die. This is especially important in the case of pork since raw pork might cause cysticercosis which is a horrible disease.
    • One trick to make sure that the meat is well cooked is to have it cut into small pieces or thin slices.
    • In some places, the best alternative is to go vegetarian (granted that the vegetables should be boiled, cooked or grilled)
  • Be careful with sauces
    • Be mindful of sauces, especially if these are stored at room temperature. The reason for that is because things at room temperature can breed bacteria over time.
    • Be also extra careful with mayo due to the possibility of bacteria that causes salmonella
  • Preferably go to eat in normal eating hours
    • By going to restaurants during normal eating hours you will avoid eating food that is left there for long, thus less likely to be spoiled food. This is because the turnover of food will be high in busy hours, there will be many people in the restaurant so they are constantly cooking new food.
  • Avoid pre-made meals
    • What I mean by pre-made meals are meals that are already made when you to the street food stall or restaurant. You should always prefer eating things that are freshly cooked. Pre-made meals are more likely to be there for long thus more likely to be spoiled.
  • Avoid dairy products or milk
    • Sometimes the milk used for dairy products or the milk itself used in foods/drinks might be “unpasteurized” milk (i.e. milk that haven’t been previously heated to kill pathogens). Unpasteurized milk and dairy products can carry dangerous bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria
  • Take advantage of open kitchens
    • By choosing a restaurant with an open kitchen (i.e. a kitchen that you can see) you will be able to better assess the hygiene standards of a place, which is obviously a desirable thing.
  • Avoid unfiltered water and ice
    • Tap water quality varies from region to region. The safety of the drinking water at your destination depends on context-specific factors such as the local supply and the distribution system as well as the monitoring and enforcement of water quality standards. As a rule of thumb, you should assume that tap water is not safe in the place you are since it might contain pathogens. The same goes for ice that is made with tap water.
    • This means that you should not only be careful with tap water and ice, but also be careful with juices with tap water and food that was washed in tap water and not cooked afterwards
    • Preferably only drink water or ice made with filtered, boiled or bottled water.\
    • A great way to check the quality of tap water is by using the website nomadlist.com
  • Evaluate the general hygiene practices of a place
    • The best way to check the hygiene standards of a place is by simply observing for a while how is the food made. This is obviously easier to be done on open kitchens or street food stalls
    • The things I would watch out for are the following:
      • Are ingredients stored individually? Raw meat should always be kept in separate containers to other ingredients.
      • Are the foods and ingredients free of insects and bugs?
      • Are the vendors following basic hygiene practices like wiping tools and surfaces?
      • Are the food stored in appropriate conditions? Many kinds of ingredients and foods should be kept at a low temperature.
      • Do they handle ingredients and handle money at the same time?
  • Avoid food prepared in cloudy oil
    • Sometimes cloudy oil (i.e. oil with a more opaque and cloudy appearance) is used for things like deep-fried dishes. The cloudy appearance of oil indicates that the oil has been used multiple times. Reusing cooking is harmful over the belong term to your health, thus, you should avoid dishes prepared with it.
  • Ask for recommendations to locals
    • Simply ask a local you know (e.g. friend, Airbnb host, etc.) about some restaurant recommendations. It is hard to go wrong with a local’s recommendation both in terms of food safety and taste.
  • Carry with you hand sanitiser
    • It is important to carry hand sanitiser with you, especially if you intend to eat street food. This is because usually, street food stalls do not provide you with anything to clean your hands. Also not only can you clean your hands with hand sanitiser but also the cutlery if necessary
    • Alternatively, you can use sanitiser wipes
  • Be mindful about the cutlery
    •  Sometimes people are so concerned about food safety that they forget that cutlery might also be a vector for disease. Be very mindful about the cutlery you use. If the cutlery is not well washed or washed with contaminated water you might have trouble.
    • One trick (though not very environmentally friendly) is to get plastic cutlery in a convenience shop or fast-food restaurant nearby to use with your food.
  • If it doesn’t look, taste or smell right then don’t eat it
    • Trust your gut and if doesn’t seem right just don’t risk it, it is simply not worth it. Our evolutionary past gave us the ability to sometimes even unconsciously know if food is spoiled. Listen to that. The only exception to the rule would be, of course, if the thing you are about to eat is known for being unappealing
  • Consider researching about the place you intend to eat beforehand
    • This might be kind of a turn of to some people but if you are really not sure about a place you can always research beforehand the reviews about the place on websites like Tripadvisor or Google Maps to see what other people are saying.
  • Have supplements for gut health
    • Supplements can help you with your gut health overall. Consult with a doctor before taking those.
    • The most important supplements that I take with me are the following:
      • Activated charcoal and ginger: To alleviate digestive discomfort
      • Probiotics and oral rehydration salts: In order to rebalance my body (both in terms of its microbiota as well as essential minerals) if I vomit or have diarrhoea.
  • Carry medications related to gastrointestinal conditions
    •  These are medications that can help with gastrointestinal conditions. Remember we are not doctors here at Nomad Tactics, so this is no substitute for professional advice. Always consult with a doctor before taking medications.
    • Diarrhoea medication
      • Sometimes we might eat something that doesn’t go down well when we are a digital nomads. It doesn’t happen every day but as a traveller once in a while we will go to a place where the hygiene standards are not that great or the food is spoiled, thus this leading to diarrhoea.
      • Sometimes the medical advice is to actually allow yourself to actually have the diarrhoea in order to try to eliminate whatever is bothering you inside your body. Nonetheless, sometimes you might not be in the appropriate place to do so (e.g. public transport) so the medication comes in handy.
      • You should not take this type of medication before talking to a doctor if you have a fever alongside diarrhoea.
    • Anti-nausea medication
      • This kind of medication is useful to alleviate symptoms of food poisoning. In the same say that sometimes we eat something wrong and it might hit the intestine, thus causing us diarrhoea. It might also hit our stomachs, thus causing us the urge to vomit. Nonetheless, sometimes you are not in an appropriate place to do so (e.g. public transport) so the medication comes in handy.
      • This kind of medication is useful to alleviate symptoms of food poisoning. More specifically the drug I usually use is called metoclopramide.
    • Traveller diahea antibiotics
      • As we were talking about when we were talking about anti-diarrhoea and anti-nausea medication travellers diarrhoea or food poisoning are quite common problems for travellers like digital nomads. In very extreme cases these conditions might require you to take some antibiotics. There are different antibiotics that can be taken for travellers’ diarrhoea. Yet one antibiotic for this condition that I saw to be recommended time and time again is azithromycin.
    • We talked about this as well as other medications you should bring with you as a digital nomad in episode 27.
  • Have health insurance
    • You should not forget that food-related illness can in fact be very serious and even, in extreme cases lead to death. So it is important to have health insurance for an emergency.
    • According to the medical advice I have been provided you should look for a hospital if you feeling one or more of the following symptoms:
      • frequent vomiting (for more than two days)
      • severe diarrhoea (for more than three days)
      • blood in your vomit or diarrhoea
      • high fever (39°C or over)
      • extreme abdominal pain
      • signs of dehydration (such as dizziness or a dry mouth).

2. Transcript

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3. Resources