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Aug 8, 2010 10:28 AM

Dealing with food allergies in Italy

We will be travelling to Italy for the first time next month. Florence, Venazza in 5Terre and Lucca

Our problem: My wife has developed an allergy to soy and all soy products. It is quite a challenge when traveling and dining out here in the US, but even more so when the language barrier adds to the problem. You would think soy is easy to avoid but it is found almost everywhere. She is allergic to soybean oil, so anything fried or deep fried is off limits as most “vegetable” oil contains soy. That is easy to avoid. It is also relatively easy to avoid “processed” foods that almost always contain something soy. She is also allergic to soy lecithin. Lecithin is found in almost all commercial breads and unfortunately in almost all chocolates. If the bread is “homemade”, it is usually not a problem (you would never add lecithin to your own bread, right?). But even if something contains just breadcrumbs, we have to interrogate to identify the source of the breadcrumbs.

So when dining out we have to interrogate the server, or hopefully the chef, about what oils are used in the kitchen to avoid a problem. We usually seek small chef owned or chef run restaurants anyway, so if we can communicate directly with the chef, we can feel confident that all is safe if they tell us they only use olive oil or butter and not any “Veg” oil or margarine or shortening.

We expect that in Italy everyone would use only olive oil (other than for deep frying which requires oil with a higher smoke point) so we expect to have few problems finding restaurant food that she can eat. Is that a safe assumption?

The only thing my wife loves more than dark chocolate, that she has now been forced to give up, is dark chocolate gelato. Many gelato recipes use cocoa which is pure and safe and soy free. Many other recipes us actual chocolate, bars or chunks, that is melted down. Almost all chocolate contains soy lecithin that is used as an emulsifier for smoothness.

So, after this painfully long introductory saga, here is my question. Does anyone know if Italian gelato is usually made with pure cocoa or is it made with chocolate?

Do they ever use thickeners or gums that are also often soy based?

Also, When it comes to pizza dough or focaccio bread, is it common to use anything other than olive oil? Does anyone know if lecithin is as widely used in bread in Italy as it is here in US?

Thanks for any help on this or any general advice or experiences in dealing with food allergies in Italy.

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  1. Before you get on that plane, order food allergy translation cards in Italian from We used these with great success in France last year for our peanut and tree nut allergic son. They took them very seriously and we never had a problem. I cannot speak to Italy specifically, as I have only been there as a single person, but the cards have a picture of the allergen, and make it clear that it could make the person very ill or even kill them.

    My sense is that they use fewer soy fillers in Europe than in the US, but don't assume anything. You may also want to get help from the Food Allergy Network here in the US. They sometimes have good travel info. Regarding soy lecithin, my understanding is that it is actually safe for people with soy allergy (my son did have an allergy to soy that he has outgrown) because it does not contain any actual soy protein. So you may be safe if lecithin is as widely used in Italy as it is here. Don't take my word for it though, check with FAN and your wife's allergist!

    2 Replies
    1. re: Isolda

      Thanks Isolda,
      I have been to the select wisely site and was looking into a custom made card from them. Unfortunately soy is complicated, that is, a card that just says "I'm allergic to soy" is not that useful because most people are not aware of soy's many forms. I need a card that says I can't eat soy, soybean oil, margarine, veg shortening, soy lecithin etc.

      I will check out FAN.

      Unfortunately, my wife is definitely allergic to the ubiquitous lecithin.

      1. re: AWG

        How about this one?
        I haven't used their cards, but maybe they explain the various soy ingredients better.

    2. Id say you would be highly unlikely to find soy lecithin in artisanal bread, pizza, pasta etc .Industrial breads and pastries are another matter,
      For your gelato, you probably ought to stick with the high end places which make their own and develop enough vocabulary to ask the question.

      Not sure how much soy oil is used in Italy for deep frying etc. There are veg oils other than olive in use (for example sunflower) and in packaged products (look at some labels - the type of oil is usually specified.). Maybe some of our local participants can chime in on this.

      1. The gelato makers GROM have a store in Firenze (Florence). They are maniacs about displaying the ingredients in their gelati in their stores and on their website, and include a page on their website that shows which of their products you should not eat if you have food intolerances. They say only their cones, not their gelato, would cause a problem for those intolerant of soy:

        However, I do note that on their ingredients page they say they use DOMORI chocolate for their gelati. Here is what DOMORI says about soy in their products:

        Domori Couverture Line
        Domori offers their incredible chocolate to chefs, in the home and professional alike, giving the opportunity to make confections, pastries and desserts with the finest of chocolate ingredients. Among the offerings are chocolates of Domori's Cru as well as their wonderful Blends and White Chocolate. Each couverture bloc is 500g/17.6oz net wt., repackaged by Chocosphere.

        Important Information about Domori Couverture. Domori's couvertures are made differently than their similarly-named consumer bars. Couvertures are made with soy lecithin so the chocolate flows more smoothly, while the consumer bars are made without lecithin. (Customers with soy allergies should know that equipment is shared in the production of all Domori chocolates, making trace soy presence possible in the consumer bars.) Also, the dark couvertures are all 75% cocoa, while the similarly named consumer chocolates vary in cocoa percentage. The result is that a particular couverture could have different characteristics than the consumer bar with the same name.

        So you need to find out from GROM which line of Domori chocolates they use -- consumer or couvertures They have US stores.

        One of their stores in Genova is only a 5 minute walk from Genova's Brignole train station. It would take you an hour to get there from le Cinque Terre, but if you are interested, I could give you directions from the station.

        David Downie's recent guide book "Food and Wine of the Italian Riviera and Genoa" is entirely devoted to finding people who use the purest techniques and food of the land. His book might really help for the le Cinque Terre area -- lots recommendations for eateries, bakeries and gelaterie -- and if you have questions, he has a webiste with a contact page:

        15 Replies
        1. re: barberinibee

          Thanks for the tip on Grom, It looks promising as they seem very proud of the purity of their ingredients and they show the chocolate as being soy free. I am familiar with Chocosphere and they sent me the ingredients list for a few Domori bars including the "Teyuna" that is listed on Grom's site, and indeed they are lecithin free. Unfortunately there is no listing for the "Ocumare" type that is used in their cioccolato fondente, which is what I am really after.

          I called Grom's NYC store and they didn't have the answer, although the person there was pretty sure that they did not use consumer chocolate bars. (But maybe, just maybe they are still lecithin free) I got the name of the US Grom guy in charge, and he just answered my email by telling me that he forwarded it to someone who would know the answer. I am awaiting his reply and dreaming about cioccolato fondente.

          1. re: AWG

            Good luck, AWG! You might try working this the other way: calling DOMORI, and seeing if they will spill the beans about what they sell GROM, or if nothing else, what is is their "Ocumare" line of chocolates.

            By the way, La Spezia and Genova are also centers of artisinal chocolate making in italy. If you get David Downie's book, he lists some shops in both cities. These are the kind of places where you can walk in and talk to the person who actually made that day's chocolates and knows exactly what's in them. They may not sell gelato (and you may not care after you eat their products) but you may be able to ask them who in town makes a chocolate gelato your wife can eat -- if you both can cross the language barriers!

            (Since the GROM website is in both Italian and English, maybe that will help you convey technical terms for "soy intolerance" in Italian).

            I realize chocolate is the name of the game here, but in truth, if you get the right gelato maker, you can be surprised at how seasonal fruit and nut gelati trump the chocolate flavors -- and I say that as a self-confessed chocolate addict who never eats chocolate gelati anymore........( well, sometimes a really good After 8).

            1. re: barberinibee

              I just heard from Guido Martinetti from Grom. He said that Domori makes for them "Cocoa mass" that is 100 % cocoa with no lecithin or anything else added. It is great to see a place that takes such pride in its ingredients.

              I'm sure we'll try and enjoy many other flavors but my wife will now be able to get her fill of cioccolato fondente while we are in Florence.

              Next mission is to find a similarly great gelateria in Lucca for our 4 days there!

              (Incidentally, I had the same idea about using their web site to help with translation, and it is definitely not translated exactly. On the english site on emulsifyers it specifically says "no mono and of glycerides or soy lecithin" and on the italian version it simply says "emulsionanti, coloranti--sia naturali che artificiali" meaning natural or artificial. Could it be that there is no Italian word for mono and di glycerides? I find that encouraging! It is likely that only Americans would think to "improve" something as pure and wonderful as ice cream by polluting it with chemicals.)

              1. re: AWG

                Hi AWG,
                I introduce myself: italian, live in Rome, work in the restaurant business. I have been following this blog for a long time and decided to intervene as I am very sensitive to allergy issues. Yours in Italy will be a heck of a problem because Italians, except for few, are new to dealing with allergy problems. One the things you might want to right down and make sure that is the first thing you say (or show) whenever you enter a restaurant is "Mia moglie è altamente allergica alla soia e a tutti is suoi derivati. Assicuratevi che nessuno dei piatti serviti ne contanga traccia. Grazie!". If in doubt, don't eat, of course. But just to burst your bubble...actually italian legislation on product listing is not as clear as you might immagine...and majority of ice cream parlours or shop sell icecream which contain emulsifiers, mostly soy based products, and most of pizza places add to their dough soy based "preparati" (sort of flour mix that helps out make your pizza crunchy). Many soy based products fall under the category of "emulsionanti" and you'll never know if that pizza or icecream is actually soyfree. Only if they declare the opposite, such as "this ice cream contains ONLY eggs, cream and ...", then you'll know it's true. GROM was a great hint.

                Just few days ago there was this article on a well known blog which talks about artisanal icecreams:

                that could help you as you can contact the icecream places directly. Hopefully this will help.

                1. re: cristinab

                  Thank you cristinab for the input and the Itakian worded phrase.

                  What is the exact translation of the second sentence? "Assure that no dishes served contain traces?"

                  My wife is very smart about this issue and when in doubt , she does not chance it. She is thrilled that we found Grom, so even if we do not find any other artisinal gelateria that will be able to give us a complete ingredient list, at least she can get her fill of gelato in Florence.

                  Thank you also for mentioning the pizza dough. Bread is usually an even bigger issue for us than ice cream, eventhough the discussion here has centered on gelato. When we dine out, at home or abroad, my wife won't even consider trying bread unless we are assured it is made on site and we can talk to who made it about the ingredients. Same for pizza dough. We usually are inquiring about what oil is isued in the bread or dough, but the "preparati" you mentioned makes it even more complicated.

                  Could you kindly give me a translated Italian sentence that asks a pizza shop what ingredients are in the dough? What would be a good way to ask if emulsionati are used in the dough?

                  Now that we "solved" the gelato problem with Grom, we need to work on finding out is she'll be able to enjoy focaccio, especially when we are in Liguria, and of course, pizza would be quite a treat.

                  Thanks again for the translation.

                  1. re: AWG

                    Hi again! The translation you made was correct. When in a pizza shop, your wife can ask "Potrei sapere tutti gli ingredienti usati nell'impasto della pizza? vorrei una pizza che non contenga soia o suoi derivati in quanto sono altamente allergica. Grazie.". Consider also that if you go to an artisanal pizza place, a real one, you'll find no oil whatsoever in the dough. A real pizza is made with lievito madre, flour, water, salt. That's it. Oil is added, if any, afterwards.
                    Unfortunately, for focaccia in Liguria, I can't help. Had it been in Rome, I would have been able to mention at least a couple of places but Liguria...sorry!

                    1. re: cristinab

                      Thanks again for the translation. I guess we will follow up with a question about the use of "emulsionati". The problem we often encounter at home, even with no language barrier, is that people hear "soy" and don't understand all of its forms. So we have learned that it is useless to just say "I'm allergic to soy" because we here "No problem soy free" and then when pressed we find out it contains "veg oil" or margarine or shortening or lecithin etc... So we have learned to ask detailed questions.

                      We will only be in Liguria for 3 days in 5Terre but we have been anticipating great focaccio and we have been dreaming about focaccio alla formaggio-- and even used this picture as my computer desktop for a week ;-) you must click to enlarge the photo to enjoy fully enjoy the oozing stracchino!

                      Since our next trip might be Rome, could you share your Roman bakery places?

                      1. re: AWG

                        Ligurian focaccia is not really bread, and there is no reason on earth for them to add lecithin. Classically, it is made with nothing more than flour, salt and water, although some places do add oil. And it is baked on an oiled surface. Olive oil won't be used - it has too low a burning point - so they will use vegetable oil: olio vegetale. If you're worried about the oil used for the dough or for the baking, ask to see the container; if it is made from or contains soy (soia), the labelling should say so.

                        1. re: zerlina

                          Thanks for the input zerlina.
                          Veg oil is often our biggest problem because 99% of the time (at least here in the US) it is a blend with soybean oil. We often ask to check labels on oil containers unless we are told that it is pure olive or canola or peanut oil.

                        2. re: AWG

                          Hi AWG,
                          Absolutely correct about the "soy" problem. It is always a good idea to ask whoever made what you are just about to eat the list of the ingredients used. If it is a reputable place, they will be knowledgeable, if not, turn around and leave.

                          About the yummie photo, that is a "focaccia (ripiena)al formaggio". The word focaccia generally indicates a dough with a thicker white soft part in the middle called mollica. Infact you'd never hear an Italian saying "oh tonight I am going to eat a focaccia". They'd say they are going to eat a pizza. Good pizza, I reiterate, should not contain any oil in the dough and it is cooked in a brick oven with no oil whatsoever (would ignite in a second for the high temp).

                          In Rome there are several places where you can enjoy great baked products: Roscioli for bread (Roscioli forno) but also the best cheeses and prosciutti in Rome (Roscioli delicatessen), then there's the very famous Gabriele Bonci, reknown for his pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice) and his breads, Pino Arletto for his pizza al taglio and 00100 for its Trapizzini (a sort of pizza and tramezzino stuffed with typical roman dishes such as Oxtail roman way). If you're looking for a Pizzeria, a place where they serve round pizza in a plate with different condiments, your choice might be among Sforno, La Gatta Mangiona and Bir & Fud. At Bir & Fud you can enjoy other specialties and a great variety of artisanal beers.
                          Hope this helps. Ciao!

                          1. re: cristinab

                            Grazie mille for the Rome pizza tips. I will file them away for next trip.

                            So if oil is not used in a brick oven pizza, we should be OK as long as we watch out for the dough "preparati".

                            How would I clearly ask in Italian about the use of soy laced Preparati or dough conditioner?

                            1. re: cristinab

                              Christinab is suggesting pizza places with a thick dough, which is not the traditional Roman way. For thin & crisp roman pizza, try da Remo or Ai Marmi.

                              1. re: vinoroma

                                Vinoroma, you are correct...I was suggesting very well known places and they all happen to be not Roman style, but very good anyway! Maybe the only one that is the closest to Roman style is Sforno. I forgot in my list, by the way, La Fucina....

                                I have never been Da Remo or Ai Marmi as I was always suggested by Romans not to go. They say that they are attended by too many "burini" (translation might be " white trash").

                                @AWG: yes, just ask if they pour a little oil AFTER cooking the pizza and which one, so you can verify everything you need. Again, to find out about the use of soy, you can ask: "vorrei sapere che ingredienti avete utilizzato per la pizza e in particolare se avete usato soia o suoi derivati. Avete usato dei preparati? Se si, ho bisogno di sapere gli ingredienti.Grazie!"

                                1. re: cristinab

                                  Hmm, da Remo and Ai Marmi have people from all walks of life, I'd never tell anyone not to go because of that.... And I have been recommended to go there by Romans, funny!
                                  Sforno, Fucina and Gatta Mangiona are good (though we were not too crazy about the last one [and talk about burini!]), but, as I said, thick dough. Which I like, every once in a while, but prefer the thin & crisp version. Just a personal choice.

                                  1. re: vinoroma

                                    @Vinoroma: I will give it a shot next time. I live in Trastevere so Ai marmi should be fairly easy. What happened to you at La Gatta Mangiona?
                                    Last night I went to Al Grottino Pizzeria, in San Giovanni area, and if pizza, thin and crispy, was not that bad, appetizers were forgettable.

            2. For the benefit of anyone else out there with a soy allergy following this discussion: I just received another email from GROM as a "clarification". They said that the cioccolato fondente is soy free, but the stracciatella and cioccolato extranoir contain chocolate chips that do contain soy lecithin. ( I wrote back suggesting that they update the food intolerance chart on their website)

              1. Update: Grom has not yet changed their web site per my suggestion, but I did just receive an email with this response copied here:

                " you’re perfectly right: I’m working since this week with my chocolate supplier, Domori, to avoid lecithin presence also in our chocolate chips.

                Thanks for your request and suggestion: your question will help us to improve a little bit more our quality!

                My best regards and… thanks, thanks, thanks!

                Guido Martinetti "

                It is great to find a company that cares so much about the quality of their ingredients! -AWG

                5 Replies
                1. re: AWG

                  I too have an allergy to MSG and also need a low sodium diet as well. We are going to Rome next week and then on to Venice. Can anyone tell me if Italian food has MSG. If so, what would I be safe eating considering the low sodium as well. I have cards (in Italian) to notify the waitstaff and chefs of my allergy and my need for a low salt diet. I also plan to check a bag and carry some snacks for me to eat. When I get too much MSG my blood pressure goes to very high levels and I just don't want to get sick while on vacation. Any help is greatly appreciated. Thank you

                  1. re: terrij

                    Im not aware of any use of MSG in Italian restaurant cooking, but it is always possible. I would expect it more in industrial processed foods so you may want to stay away from packaged snacky stuff or read the label carefully.. Some cooked dishes will contain salt, and pasta and rice are normally cooked in salted water, but if you choose simple quickly cooked dishes and use your card when you order, you should be able to manage the situation. Italian bread is much less salty than American - you will notice the difference when you get home and all the bread tastes like salt.

                    1. re: terrij

                      As with the soy discussion above, MSG is often hidden in many forms. If you are sensitive to MSG, you are probably already aware that you also need to avoid MSG that is hidden as 'hydrolyzed soy protein' or 'hydrolyzed vegetable protein' or 'autolyzed yeast' or even sometimes in the benign sounding 'natural flavors'. (incidentally, much/most MSG is produced from soy)

                      I doubt that a chef at any restaurant that cares about the quality of their food would intentiionally add MSG, but it could sneak in unintentionally. If, for example, someone used a packaged broth or condiment of some sort. (Of course a good restaurant would make their own broth) Or hidden MSG could show up in a ham or salami or sausage, but you should be avoiding that anyway because of the high salt. You may need to ask about ALL of the ingredients in your food. I did notice that you said "too much MSG" so maybe you can handle trace amounts and this won't be as much of a problem as it is for my wife.

                      1. re: AWG

                        Thank you AWG and Jen Kalb for your replies. AWG you are correct. I can tolerate a little such as ranch dressing and such. Again, thank you so very much for your response. Also if anyone else knows of anything in particular I should avoid, advice is always welcome. Thank you

                        1. re: terrij

                          a lot of the classic roman pasta usecured meats (guanciale, pancetta, etc) and pecorino cheese, which are quite salty so be aware of this as you choose your meal. Even people who like salt can find some Roman dishes salty. Stews also may be difficult to control since they are already cooked/flavored, My recollection (we are not big grilled meat orderers) that sometimes in Italy a steak will be served with lemon rather than salt -Likewise, salads are generally not dressed - you will be able to dress your own salad at table. Be sure to use your card to enlist the waiters in choosing a wise meal.