Exploring Healthy Food Cultures Outside the United States

Jan 16, 2024

The Foreign Food Journey

On August 5th, 2023 I left my home in Los Angeles, CA to embark on a once in a lifetime journey where I am proud to say I am an alumni of Semester at Sea Voyage 132. It was a transformative journey that redefined my relationship with food, health, and culture.
Stepping onto the ship in Antwerp, Belgium, I embarked on a four-month odyssey, balancing college courses as a second year with amazing cultural experiences in every port. Off the ship, in various ports, I immersed myself in the diverse cultures of each country, sampling local cuisine, using public transportation, conversing with locals, and more.
Prior to this adventure, I had no international travel experience, but now I can proudly say I've visited 12 cities in 10 countries; literally circumnavigating the globe from Antwerp, Belgium, to Bangkok, Thailand, with stops in Malaga, Spain > Valletta, Malta > Barcelona, Spain > Piraeus, Greece > Gibraltar > Las Palmas, Gran Canaria (Canary Islands, Spain) > Cape Town, South Africa > Port Louis, Mauritius > Penang, Malaysia > and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Despite numerous diversions due to global issues, every place we visited left me with incredible experiences. Before I get lost in the whirlwind of adventures, let me preface this: I underwent a significant shift in my physical well-being. Struggling with IBS and lactose intolerance back home and balancing a restricted diet, I was surprised to find that during my travels, I could indulge in a variety of foods, including dairy.

Cooking with Whole Ingredients

The bread, in particular, stood out, with its dense, fluffy texture and rich flavor. This newfound appreciation for global cuisine and how different geographical locations define “healthy” sparked a desire to share this knowledge about diverse food cultures with people back home.
One memorable experience occurred in one of the first locations on my journey in Amsterdam, where a friend and I ate a sandwich with ham, prosciutto, salami, provolone, and olive oil on focaccia bread. The freshness and flavor of the bread was truly unforgettable, setting the tone for the culinary discoveries that followed.

Worldwide Definitions for "Healthy"

Throughout my journey, I realized that the interpretations of the term “healthy” varied worldwide. While the United States often associates it with physical fitness, appearance, and disease prevention, in places like Spain and South Africa, it's more about being surrounded by loved ones and finding happiness.
Food plays a crucial role in bringing people together, as observed in the communal cooking of large dishes like paella in Spain and pap in South Africa. There were no colorings or artificial flavorings added to these dishes, just the pure ingredients found in their country around them.
Many cultures believe that a healthy diet solely relies on the food that is found around them. Rather than importing most of their foods, different cultures will cook with what is grown or found around them. Fishing, farming for grains, hunting for meat, and growing vegetables is very common. While this may be extra work, it helps to prevent consuming too many additives with every meal.
In the United States, we can shift our focus from buying the easiest, pre-made packaged foods, to buying fresh produce and cooking with it. While it's not growing our own vegetables in our backyard, it is a step to consuming less food additives and more whole ingredients.

Eating for What You Do

In a class I took onboard, the concept of "eat for what you do" resonated with me. I focused on understanding each country's lifestyle and eating habits, considering factors like transportation habits and cultural activity levels. I questioned why certain cultures eat more seafood than others or why certain cultures consume more carbs or grains. I then realized that outside the U.S, many cultures "eat for what they do." For example, if a culture was more active and spent their days walking everywhere instead of driving, their diet consisted of more carbohydrates or grains.

Cooking with Fresh Foods

In Greece, I discovered what is now my favorite food: gyros. It wasn’t until one of the last days in Greece that I smelled this small place while I was walking to the metro. I had been trying to find a local restaurant that didn’t target tourists by serving fries with their gyros. Three American dollars got me fresh meat, some spices, and crushed tomatoes wrapped in a warm and fluffy pita. Hands down the best food I tried while being abroad. A handful of locals were also eating at this small restaurant and one of them walked over to my friend and me. He asked us what we were doing there and how we found this restaurant. I told him I smelled it and he laughed. He explained that we were lucky to have found this place since they don’t market for tourists and this is a place only locals come after their work day in the port. I count myself very lucky as well to have found this place and went back two more times before leaving Greece.
In South Africa, I enjoyed their staple dish of pap, a ground maize porridge. A local restaurant my girlfriends and I found served one dish consisting of collard greens, coleslaw, protein (fish, chicken, or beef) with pap and a peanut sauce. The meal tasted like "real food," prepared with fresh ingredients in front of me, a stark contrast to processed options commonly found in the United States.

Fast Food In and Out of the U.S.

During a visit to Mauritius, I had a conversation with a local nutritionist who expressed concerns about the impact of Western fast food on their health. She shared how since they are such a small island and were considered an underdeveloped country not too long ago, many people used to farm and fish for their own food. She highlighted how introducing fast food chains had led to cardiovascular diseases and gestational diabetes in the local population; two diseases that have a large role in their society. I had the privilege of enjoying a local Mauritian meal made from fresh, locally sourced ingredients including saffron rice, fish, fried banana pudding, collared greens, papaya coleslaw, and curry.
While fast food is not as prevalent in foreign countries as it is in the U.S., there were plenty of McDonald's in Europe and an infinite amount of KFC's in South Africa.
With that said, I learned that many of these fast food chains are not as heavily looked down upon like they are in the U.S. There were long lines in the McDonalds as people were simply getting lunch during their work day.
I tried McDonalds in a few of the countries I visited including Belgium and Spain. In Spain, I ordered a Big Mac and fries and was impressed as to how different they taste to the very few times I have eaten McDonald's in the U.S. The bread tasted like real fluffy bread. There were real veggies on my burger including onions, pickles, and lettuce. And of course the meat wasn't completely dried out but rather fairly juicy.
While McDonald's is clearly not the healthiest option, it is more commonly eaten outside the United States which I believe is due to it's much more enjoyable taste and fewer food additives.

Comparing Supermarket Snacks

Many of the places I visited had huge markets with so many options for fresh produce, fish, meat, nuts, and bakery items. While every place that I visited had supermarkets, most people went to these fresh markets to do most of their grocery shopping, getting only the packaged snacks at the supermarkets.
While exploring supermarkets in different counties, I observed variations in product labels. To start, many of their labels did not look like paragraphs of ingredients, unlike many of our options here in the U.S.
Unfortunately, some of the products I found did have “natural flavorings.” I didn't find snacks that had "artificial flavorings" but that does not mean they don't exist outside the U.S. There were plenty of packaged foods in the supermarkets that did have additives but it was easy to find snacks that didn't. Many of the snacks I bought were made of simple ingredients.
One of my favorite snacks that I found while being abroad was Nutella Biscuit Cookies which just hit the shelves a year ago. While not a Trash Panda Approved product, these cookies in Spain contain fewer questionable and potentially harmful ingredients compared to their counterparts in the United States.
Overall, my food journey on this adventure was invigorating. I felt energetic, happy, and, most importantly, free from daily stomach pains. I was so grateful that I was able to truly immerse myself in every culture, including trying all the local dishes.
This is just a glimpse into the transformative power of travel. If you're curious about my adventures, Semester at Sea, or global food cultures, don't hesitate to reach out to hello@trashpandaapp.com
P.S. Got your own travel tales or Semester at Sea memories? Reach out on Instagram! Let's swap stories and keep the culinary adventure rolling.

Meet Liv

From pirouettes to passports, my journey to becoming a pediatric Physical Therapist has been anything but boring! As a Colorado State University Health & Exercise Science student graduating in 2026, and a Trash Panda Intern, I'm obsessed with how food and movement contribute to vibrant smiles. After 16 years of competitive dance, I traded my tutus for tides this past year, sailing on Semester at Sea and discovering the world's tastiest wellness secrets. I'm here to share my passion for making movement fun, fueling bodies with real food, and proving that healthy can be a delicious adventure! Go Rams!
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