To eat ethically when traveling, leave your food rules at home

Yes please.
Yes please.
Image: AP/Sakchai Lalit
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A few months ago, my husband and I took a four-day tour of the mountainous Matagalpa region of Nicaragua. The itinerary, which was designed to immerse us in the local culture while benefiting the community, included almost no restaurant meals. Our Nicaraguan guide brought us to the homes of small-scale farmers, where home cooks would emerge from their dirt-floor kitchens, a plate in each hand filled with some variation of freshly made corn tortillas, plantains, rice, beans, salty white cheese, and chicken, with a side of fruit juice.

If I were back in Brooklyn, I would have said no to the chicken, or at least launched an inquiry into where it came from. I might have even asked whether the cheese was organic and grass-fed. But at that point, we had been traveling through Latin America for three months, and I had long ago realized that my American-made, cityfolk food morals were not only irrelevant; they were severely limiting our opportunities to engage authentically with locals.

So I tossed my food rules out. And I tucked into these homemade plates of food with gusto and gratitude.

Vegans on vacation

For some, such flexibility with eating rules is impossible for health or religious reasons. And not everyone’s willing or able to ditch their usual eating rules. “In every group, we have at least one or two vegetarians,” our guide Freddy Membeño told us over dinner at an eco-lodge in a cloud forest. “And it’s getting common to have vegans.”

Can’t hurt to try it.
Can’t hurt to try it.
Image: AP/Esteban Felix

It’s no wonder that 6% of Americans identify as vegans (up from 2% in 2012) when factory farming is so pervasive in the US. Recent government records leaked described shockingly unhygienic conditions in US meat processing plants, and there’s no shortage of stomach-turning animal abuse videos being smuggled out of these facilities, the kind of videos that can make you swear off meat forever.

At least half of all the meat produced in the US (actually, probably more at this point) comes from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), commonly known as feedlots—and CAFOs now produce 72% of poultry, 43% of eggs, and 55% of pork worldwide. Though this system was founded in the US, it has spread to some countries in Europe, such as Germany, and is now being taken up in Asia to serve the burgeoning middle class’s demand for meat.

And of course, in this post-Michael Pollan age, veganism and vegetarianism aren’t the only way conscious urbanites try to eat without guilt. We buy organic, local, free-range, grass-fed, antibiotic-free, palm oil-free, low-waste. We avoid water-thirsty crops (like almonds) and crops related to violence (avocados). And we’d like it all served without single-use plastic forks, plates, or straws, please.

These are all reasonable goals and practices, and some have measurable benefits for our health or the environment. Many of us also adhere to diets or eating systems—paleo, keto, low-carb, gluten-free—that we feel are important to our health (or aspirations to health), or we aim more generally for “clean eating.” 

But it’s worth at least considering whether to take a break from our eating rules when we’re in other countries—where they can be a real impediment to connection.

Sharing authentic, traditional food with the locals doesn’t have to mean leaving your ethics at the airport. But it does require some soul-searching about whether the calculus you apply to your food choices even makes sense when you’re on the road. “It might be important to ask yourself why you’ve chosen to be vegan,” says Marco Bollinger, the co-founder of the Los Angeles-based Lokal Travel, an agency that puts together culturally immersive experiences that support local communities and protect nature. “A lot of veganism is a warranted reaction to an industrialized and horrifying animal food system. But you should know that the whole world is not under the yoke of that industrialized food system.”

Traveling to developing countries makes it clear how crucial animal agriculture is to much of the population in the developing world. Backyard chickens are a common sight, and cows, goats, or sheep often wander the streets even in cities. As a tourist in those circumstances, swearing off animal products isn’t sticking it to the man; it’s withholding your money from individuals and small-scale farmers who are just trying to get by.

On a purely practical level, the restrictive eating that’s increasingly popular among wealthy urbanites is difficult to maintain in countries whose coffee shops don’t provide four types of non-cow milks at the counter. Some countries don’t have government organic certification systems, and even in those that do, organic certification is more likely available to large (and sometimes foreign-owned) farms rather than the small cooperatives and producers that dot the countryside.

And engaging with locals over a table of the food they eat daily—even if it’s food you wouldn’t touch at home—is one of the great privileges of travel, as the late, great food journalist Anthony Bourdain pointed out. “I think when you travel as much as I have you — I don’t want to say I’m more humble, but I think you become aware of how other people live, how hard their lives are, how big the world is,” said Bourdain, who used food as a conduit to truly understanding marginalized cultures and people, in a CBS interview in 2016.

To truly live that truth, try on some of these guidelines for size:

Learn about the local food—and not just by Googling it

You need to know what you don’t know before making rules for yourself. You can easily (and yummily) satisfy your cultural learning requirements through the lens of food in any country you visit. Read up on the local cuisine before you set off, and plan to engage with the food on a deeper level than tourist-trap restaurants allow when you’re there.

What better way to connect than over a pan of paella?
What better way to connect than over a pan of paella?
Image: AP/Marjorie M. Miller

It’s easy to line up cooking lessons and farm tours in almost any tourist destination, from Indonesia to Istanbul: In Medellin, Colombia, there’s a city walking tour focused solely on exotic fruits. An organic farm in San Miguel de Allende sells rabbits to local restaurants and gives horseback riding tours up the mountain to for intoxicating cups of the local pulque.

These experiences are the perfect time to ask questions about the local food system. What are the traditional farming methods in this area, and are they still practiced? Do factory farms exist here, and how pervasive are they? Is anything over-harvested or overfished? Are there heritage breeds that we should try? Asking these questions on food tours has yielded much better and more nuanced answers than hours of internet research on the same topic.

Eat at locally owned restaurants

There’s a well-known phenomenon in tourism called “leakage” in which the money spent by tourists is expatriated back to international corporations, instead of staying in the country you’re visiting. It varies from country to country (from an estimated 11% in the Philippines up to 56% in the all-inclusive resort haven Fiji) but eating like a Westerner absolutely exacerbates this problem.

If you choose your travel destinations based on how well they can serve your ideas about the “correct” way to eat, you’re limiting yourself exclusively to either large cities, or to expat-dominated (and tourist-saturated) communities like Tulum and Bali. And the restaurants you’ll end up in will likely be foreign-owned, serving people who mostly look and think just like you, and funneling money back to foreigners. That’s not a great way to get to know the locals.

Instead, seek out locally-owned restaurants, food stands, and markets, where the money goes back into the community. That doesn’t mean you can’t splurge on a high-end meal. Mexico’s A-list chef Enrique Olvera, for example, has several organic and farm-to-table restaurants scattered across Mexico, including the outstanding Pujol in Mexico City. (Try the crickets, a sustainable and traditional protein source, if you get a chance!) In Lima, innovative Peruvian chefs work with indigenous communities to source native species from the Andes to the Amazon.

Don’t be lazy

It’s actually quite easy to be mostly or completely vegetarian as your travel. Most cultures understand that there are people who don’t eat meat, and offer alternatives. In much of the world, meat isn’t the “center of the plate” as it has traditionally been in the US, and in many poorer countries meat and fish is a luxury to enjoy sparingly. It’s even possible to be vegan outside of cosmopolitan cities—as long as you take the time to explain what vegan really means to your host or restaurant, so they can make you a proper plate.

But all this takes a bit of explaining, and that’s extra work that some tourists want to avoid, opting instead for destinations where the words “vegan” or “gluten-free” are all that needs to be said. “If you are choosing destinations based on what already offers vegan options on the menu, you are limiting yourself based on your own laziness,” says Bollinger. “If you are going to bring the standards of your culture to a place that isn’t aware of it, part of your integrity is to take the time to make them aware of your life choices and the importance of that to you.”

Eat local and traditional 

Last summer I had dinner with a friend at a vegetarian restaurant in Manhattan that had little tented table signs explaining that they wouldn’t serve avocados—in order to not contribute to cartel violence and deforestation in Mexico that harms the migrating monarch butterflies. Fair enough, since 80% of avocados eaten in the US are from Mexico, mostly of the Hass variety. But when on the islands Kauai and Maui for our honeymoon, I gorged on some of Hawaii’s 200 plus local avocado varieties. And avocados of all sizes and shapes—not just Hass—are grown throughout Latin America. You can eat them without guilt.

Don’t say no to this goose from Guangzhou, China.
Don’t say no to this goose from Guangzhou, China.
Image: AP/Nicole Evatt

The same goes for local coffee, chocolate, fruits, and animal products that are traditionally cultivated and adapted to the area you’re visiting. Eating them supports biodiverse farms and healthy food traditions. It’s when you get into monocrops and industrial food that is produced for lucrative export to the US—corn-finished steaks, oversized and unblemished fruits, cheap chocolate produced using child labor—that you start running into the ethical and environmental problems.

Watch out for wild species

Before you arrive to a country, check to see if it has robust fishery management, and laws protecting endangered species.

In my zeal to experience an authentic local delicacy, I once trusted a waiter at an Icelandic restaurant when he said that minke whale is only harvested for scientific research purposes. False. Tourists are actually just about the only people who eat whale in Iceland, which has flouted the moratorium on large-whale hunting since 1986 to hunt the endangered finback whale. Japan still engages in whale hunting and shark-finning, and is fishing bluefin tuna to extinction. And across Southeast Asia, you can get a farm-to-table meal of various endangered species like tiger and pangolin.

But just because the oceans are overfished, doesn’t mean you should pass up the chance to have a grilled sardine or two in Portugal, where fish stocks rebounded after the government successfully implemented and enforced  fishing quotas. And if you ever see wild boar on the menu, try it. Not only is it invasive and destructive in the US (including Hawaii), it still flourishes across its native habitat in Europe and is a species of least concern when it comes to conservation. It also makes for a tasty alternative to beef burgers.

Mind the deforestation

We do need to talk about steak. Even though CAFOs are not so much a thing in South America, deforestation certainly is. Clearing land for cattle was responsible for 71% of deforestation in South America from 1990 to 2005.

That doesn’t mean beef is an unalloyed evil – more evidence is piling up that well-managed cattle can actually serve as a carbon sink. And in some areas with naturally arid scrub and grasslands, like Sub-Saharan Africa and an indigenous community called El Chile outside of Matagalpa that we visited, raising ruminants like cattle is actually the most efficient and sustainable way to produce calories for people.

If you do eat beef, do so rarely and mindfully, preceded by a lot of questions about its provenance.

Stick to your important health rules

I’m not, of course, advising eating items that give you an allergic reaction or mess with your health. I broke my personal health rule against added sugar to try all the traditional sweets in Mexico City, and my gut health suffered. I didn’t make that mistake again.

Celiac sufferers should stay away, no matter how delicious it looks.
Celiac sufferers should stay away, no matter how delicious it looks.
Image: AP/Mosa'ab Elshamy

If you’re lactose intolerant, don’t drink the milk. If you’re a Celiac-sufferer, don’t eat the bread. And so on. But if you’re interested in “clean eating,” well, see if there’s some indigenous food wisdom you could glean from your travels. After all, wealthy Western urbanites aren’t necessarily the best nutritional experts. And indeed, one of the famous Blue Zones—areas where people regularly live past 100—is located in Costa Rica.

You may even bring home some healthier attitudes about food. Quartz travel writer Rosie Spinks has described how travel cured her of long-held anxieties and a compulsive “relationship” with food—an increasingly common problem in wealthy countries, where a fixation on “pure” or “clean” foods has morphed into the behavior known as “orthorexia,” which some say should be considered an eating disorder.

Finding balance “took several years and a lot of shared meals all over the world,” Spinks wrote, and that shift came by way of a revelation many travelers will find familiar:

The very diet we seem to revere and aspire to in the West—local, fresh, clean, whole—seems ubiquitous on the fruit- and veg-stacked carts of Saigon and elsewhere in the developing world. At the same time, though, no one is obese and no one, from what I can tell, has a ‘relationship with food.’ You don’t sit down to a dinner table or restaurant and ask your fellow diners ‘So what do you not eat?’ You just eat whatever is on offer.

Above all, be open-minded

The point is, there is no hard-and-fast global rule about eating morally, especially when you venture outside the borders of your hometown in search of new experiences. The best thing you can do, instead of making black-and-white rules and twisting yourself (and your hosts) into knots trying to follow them, is to do some research ahead of traveling to your destination, and ask a lot of questions when you get there.

This strategy is more work, yes, but it’s also more fun—and you get to learn something new, and be a good global citizen and traveler while you’re at it.