Travel presents us with many opportunities to try exotic and unusual dishes and ingredients. We do not discourage you from expanding your palate, as this is one of the greatest joys of travel. But there are very simple measures you can implement to make sure the joy does not get spoiled by illness.
On some occasions, upset stomach or intestinal distress can be caused by unusual (too hot, too acidic, too hard to digest) foods or overindulgence. However, there is a risk of contamination that can be much more serious and cause a variety of reactions from travelers’ diarrhea to parasitic diseases and toxicosis.
Which Food Is Safe Or Not Safe To Eat?
Some countries are much safer than others. For example, the standards of meat safety are extremely high in EU countries like France or Ireland, and countries like Japan that are very food-safe in general. You can try even raw meat dishes without much concern. But travelers to developing countries (for example, rural India and Middle East countries) are at a much higher risk, so they will find the advice below especially useful.
Hot food (boiled, thoroughly steamed, and piping hot when served) is generally safe to eat.
High heat kills the germs that cause traveler’s diarrhea and many other ones. However, you need to be careful about the food that was prepared a while ago and was allowed to cool down on the stove or buffet tops. A warm broth, for example, is a perfect environment for bacteria to breed in, so it can get re-contaminated.
Dry and packaged foods are generally safe, as long as you open and handle it yourself. A high content of salt or sugar also helps. Most bacteria need moist environments, so foods that you can definitely identify as dry (like potato chips) can be safer.
Raw foods can be risky and should be avoided or handled with special care. Raw fruits and vegetables can be safer if you wash them in safe (disinfected, not tap) water, dip in boiling water for 30-60 seconds or use soap to clean them. Fruits you can peel are better but wash them beforehand anyway. Otherwise, you will transfer the external contaminants yourself. Definitely avoid cut-up fruits, like platters or salads. You have no idea whether the hands preparing them were clean, and whether the dish was sitting next to raw meat for a while.
Raw Meats And Street Food Dangers
Avoid raw meat and seafood in developing countries! Apart from germs, you have a high chance to get exposed to microscopic parasites, and those exotic ones can cause a lot of trouble. Seafood also gets spoiled extremely fast, especially in warmer climates. No matter how tempting, that dish is not worth the risk. Enjoy them in some safer US states, Europe, Japan, or South Korea and not in developing countries.
Bushmeat is a variety of wild animals meats, such as bats, monkeys, rodents, snakes, etc. These meats can carry animal-origin diseases, such as Ebola or SARS, so it is better to steer clear.
Street food is peaking in popularity, but the food in those shows comes from select vendors, and the crews do get sick, they just do not show it. In developing countries, many of them find it hard to maintain a sufficient hygiene standard (which can be lower than in the US overall). Apply common sense: if you watched the dish prepared, it is steaming hot, the vendor does not add cold ingredients after handling raw meat, it would be safer. It is generally better to avoid foods like cheese with mold and unknown fungi.
What Drinks Are Safe Or Not Safe?
Carbonated drinks in cans are generally safest, as long as you wipe the lid before opening. The bubbles will tell you that the drink was not opened and resealed, and tins are generally way harder to refill and reseal.
Hot coffee and tea should generally be ok; be mindful about adding cold ingredients that could be contaminated (sugar or cream). Sugar usually is safe enough. Pasteurized milk from factory-sealed containers is less risky, but do not drink raw milk offered by a kind farmer or milk from open containers. This includes cream served with your coffee. The same applies to products like yogurts and cheeses.
When it comes to alcohol, strong drinks are typically enough to kill germs, but beer is not. Beer in developing countries is often brewed with the breach of standards overall. Avoid adding local ice to your drinks.
Tap water in most developing countries, even in the cities, is nearly always not safe to drink. It is not only about bacteria, but also heavy metals, spores, toxins, and other contaminants from old and rusted pipes. In some areas, like India, you want to disinfect your toothbrushing water as well, by boiling, filtering, or adding special disinfection tablets, or both. Avoid all fountain drinks as they are nearly all made with tap water. The same goes for ice and ice pops: it is most likely made with the same tap water (and some reconstructed juice or syrup).