Translating Soy While Traveling

Hello! Welcome to Beyond Soy!

One of the more obvious difficulties of traveling with a soy intolerance is that a language barrier complicates the process of asking for soy-free food or verifying that a particular product is soy-free. When we travel, Ashley and I typically research the word for soy in the language where we will be visiting. We do this before we travel so that we can visit a grocery store and look for that word on the back of packaging to check for soy. Once we have a good idea of which items in the area are typically soy-free, we can order food that is likely to be soy-free and check menus for the word “soy” that we researched ahead of time. When faced with a language barrier, we try to make decisions about ingredients ourselves instead of relying on communicating directly with the person making our food. This way, we can pick out soy-free food at the grocery store on our own and we aren’t out of luck if our restaurant server doesn’t speak English. If we have a chance to communicate our food requirements or ask questions of our server, we’ll definitely make use of it (while in England we asked our server about the oil and breading for fish and chips), but we don’t want to be dependent on others to eat soy-free.

 Research the word for soy before you travel - IMAGE VIA PEXELS

Research the word for soy before you travel - IMAGE VIA PEXELS

One of the tools that we’ve been using to tackle this language barrier is Google Translate. In addition to researching the word for “soy” in the local language before we travel, we also download language packs for offline use. These language packs allow us to check specific words on-the-go (i.e., when reading menus or looking at product packaging in the store), even when our phones don’t have connectivity. But even Google Translate has its limitations, and being able to identify soy in a translated ingredient list isn’t guaranteed. It's possible, for instance, that the local words for “soy” and “soybean oil” are completely different words. As a result, we might miss the listing of “soybean oil” on the ingredient list if we are only looking for the word “soy” (it is similar to the situation of not recognizing “soybean oil” as soy in English because you are looking for the word “edamame”). When checking food ingredients through a translation, we use these strategies to give ourselves the best shot of identifying soy in all of its forms:  

  1. Use the allergen warning. In many countries, including the US, food packaging is required to identify allergens. You’ll see phrases like “Contains: Wheat, Soy, Eggs” below the ingredient list on a separate line. It’s possible to identify these phrases on packaging even if you don’t read the language (look for the formatting!). If you find this phrase on a product, look up the allergen words listed until you find one that translates to soy. Then you can scan other allergen warnings for the same word to check other products for soy.
  2. Find chocolate. Since almost all chocolate contains soy lecithin (and chocolate usually doesn’t have that many ingredients), you can translate words on the ingredient list until you find the word(s) for soy lecithin.
  3. Research the bold words. In many countries around the world, food allergens are bolded within the ingredient list. By researching the bolded words, you can identify which word(s) translate to “soy”. This is a good way to identify if soy is identified by multiple words (e.g., soy lecithin and soybean oil might be different words, but if they both are bolded you will translate both to “soy” and see that you need to check for both).
 Use Google Translate if you can't type the words into your phone - IMAGE VIA PEXELS

Use Google Translate if you can't type the words into your phone - IMAGE VIA PEXELS

But what if you can’t type the word into your phone? What if the text in question uses different characters or has letter accents? Google Translate can handle that too! In a live feed from your phone’s camera, Google will replace the characters with English, so you can essentially read the text (translated into English) immediately on your phone. This even works offline and is incredibly helpful to begin to translate text that is completely unreadable. I used this extensively in China to read menus that were only in Chinese. For example, I can use Google Translate to get a sense for what the item is, and then make a decision about the likelihood that the item in question contains soy (i.e., I do not specifically look for soy as an ingredient, but rather made decisions about the food as a whole). As an example, I can use Google Translate to identify that a menu item is chicken with chestnuts, but I can not identify if it has soy-based sauce. Since I know what the dish is, I know that it was probably cooked in a soy-based sauce and can choose to avoid it. This live translate mode is incredibly helpful, but it isn’t a perfect solution. The text isn’t necessarily entirely translated, and the translations aren’t necessarily perfect (especially with a very complex language like Chinese). As a result, it can be difficult to identify soy as an ingredient, but this is the still a huge step in the right direction. Google Translate wasn’t able to give a straight “this contains soy” answer, but it was a huge help when I couldn’t even begin to look up specific words in China.

Through a combination of researching the word(s) for soy, translating specific parts of the ingredient list, and making decisions about menu items as a whole, it is possible to eat soy-free even with a language barrier. Don’t let soy take the joy out of traveling! With a little translation, you can have new experiences, try new foods, and live soy-free around the world!