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  • Writer's pictureAli

Can you eat gluten-free in South Africa?

Since I mentioned going to South Africa recently, I've had a fair amount of interest from people asking if it's actually possible for coeliacs to eat there without issue.

When booking the holiday, I wasn't actually that concerned about food. There were far more important things to be doing, including seeing a certain mountain and taking in the local sights.

Ali horse-riding in Swellendam

If it's not abundantly clear from this photo, going horse-riding was brilliant!

Doing the activities I'd planned was absolutely fantastic. I'd like to be able to say the same about eating out as a coeliac.

I'd like to.

But I've always been honest with you and, how do I put this? It's like going into a time machine to 2010.

Remember when allergen labelling wasn't brilliant in the UK and it was really hard to find places that knew what gluten-free meant? That's basically South Africa in a nutshell.

Don't get me wrong: I had a brilliant time, and I would still have gone if I had only been able to eat beans. But there were several things that happened that I wasn't prepared for.

1. Incorrect allergen labelling.

Bushberries mini corn snacks

There's the "naturally gluten-free" sign on the front of the pack...

Back of packaging

...and there's the "made in a factory that uses wheat (gluten)" warning on the back.

There were 2 different problems that arose with allergen labelling. The main one was that food clearly containing gluten had no mention of gluten (although sometimes there'd be a warning that it had been prepared in a factory that handled nuts). The second problem was with food that was labelled as "naturally gluten-free" but then had a "may contain gluten" warning on the back. Admittedly, I've seen this in the UK, but it still wasn't right.

2. Gluten? What's that?

Not one waiter seemed to understand what I meant when I said I needed gluten-free. Thankfully, the chefs did, so with much to-ing and fro-ing from the kitchen we seemed to get by. But nowhere seemed to have gluten-free written on the menu. That is, apart from one place...

3. The gluten-free restaurant that didn't understand what gluten was

I got super-excited when I went to a health restaurant in Cape Town that boasted of its gluten-free and vegan offerings. But when I mentioned I needed to avoid gluten out of medical necessity, suddenly everything turned grave. They kept asking questions and bringing out tubs with ingredients on. Were hemp seeds ok? Should they omit them from my meal? It didn't inspire much confidence, I can tell you, but since I ordered a naturally gluten-free meal, I was pretty sure I'd be ok.

Sushi with gluten-free soy sauce

In the end, I went for super-obvious gluten-free options. Every so often, I'd get a treat, like the time I was given a gluten-free soy sauce when I went for sushi.

If you're wondering, I did actually try to find gluten-free places before I went out. I even found a couple of recommendations to go to the same place on the V&A waterfront (one by a blogger, one by a person on Trip Advisor). But when I went, the place was really unsure about a lot of things and I ended up with a meal I could have picked without a menu - i.e. fish and salad. It was tasty, but not worth the search.

In conclusion, if you're super careful about what you eat, only go for naturally gluten-free food and concede you may need to go hungry sometimes, you'll probably be all right. I realise that doesn't sound particularly comforting, especially if you're trying to feed a coeliac child or have severe allergy issues. But for myself, there's so much that's worth going to do and see, I wouldn't fret about the food.

What's your experience of South Africa? Do share your thoughts below!

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