How to Find an Ethical, Authentic Food Tour

Food tours are a popular activity on vacation—but not all are created equal

Street taco in Mexico
Jon Lovette / Getty Images

We’re dedicating our September features to food and drink. One of our favorite parts of travel is the joy of trying a new cocktail, snagging a reservation at a great restaurant, or supporting a local wine region. Now, to celebrate the flavors that teach us about the world, we put together a collection of tasty features, including chefs’ top tips for eating well on the road, how to choose an ethical food tour, the wonders of ancient indigenous cooking traditions, and a chat with Hollywood taco impresario Danny Trejo.

Rocío Vazquez Landeta takes a small group of travelers through the colorful, dahlia-lined streets of Jamaica, the local flower market in Mexico City, after loading up on café de olla and pan dulce in Condesa. They sample carnitas, fruit, corn, freshly made tortillas, mole, and warm chicharrón while taking in the perfume-scented streets and lush bouquets spilling from the market's stalls.

Vázquez Landeta's tours feature indigenous food, like mixiote, a pre-Hispanic dish from the state of Hidalgo that is made wrapping goat and beef with agave leaves and seasoned with chiles. It is a family recipe from local indigenous cook Don César. Guests might try insects that belong to Mexico’s Aztec heritage and quesadillas from Lerma made by Doña Bertha, an indigenous woman who has managed the same stall for 45 years in La Merced market. The aforementioned coffee on the tour comes from a tiny indigenous community in the Oaxacan mountains.

“Our food in Mexico is a mix of Indigenous and Spanish ingredients; we cannot separate both cultures, explained Vázquez Landeta. "Chicken, beef, pork, [and] goats all came from Spain, and both cultures are mixed together to create our dishes, so basically, the food we eat today was created in the 1500s and 1600s after the conquest,”

Tours like Vázquez Landeta's have become a fun and popular activity for travelers to book on vacation, offering a chance to discover a new place through its cuisine. But not all are created equal—how do travelers know they're booking a food tour that provides an authentic look at the destination's food scene while also refraining from whitewashing a destination's colonial past?

For travelers who want to be mindful and learn ways they can avoid booking food tours that are inauthentic (or run by companies that are not highlighting or giving back to native communities), we spoke with local food tour operators on examples of red flags, things that travelers should watch out for while on a food tour, and signs of an unethical experience—but also who is doing it right.

Do your research and ask questions—but also read between the lines.

Try to find locally owned tours from small companies. Although this may require a little bit of digging, it’s worth reading the prospective food tour’s owned website, check their information and social media platforms if available, to see if they are actually doing what they say they do, and any published press. Also, send them an email and ask questions outright.

If you do choose to send a message, what questions should you ask? Ask if the owners and the vendors on the tour are local to the area and what their ethical practices are. Now is also the time to ask about anything important to you.

“Asking questions is key, and you’ll find a lot of unethical companies don't even take the time to reply or reply with evasive answers,” said Vázquez Landeta.

Avoid booking through large travel platforms.

While super convenient for booking flights and hotels, avoid booking food tours through platforms like Expedia or TripAdvisor.

Brian Bergy of Lost Plate food tour company (who runs tours in Portland, China, and Cambodia with his wife who is native Chinese) says: “Don’t book on third party sites like TripAdvisor where you can’t really see what the company is all about." (All of Lost Palate's tours in China are led by Bergy’s wife and their guides, who are all Chinese.)

“They usually take 30 percent commission making it very difficult for companies to make a profit, pay good wages and give you quality service,” Vázquez Landeta added.

Read the reviews.

If available, check out the reviews the way you would a restaurant or a movie. You can learn a lot from previous guests’ experiences. Bergy suggests looking at the photos that guests post on those reviews and at the food portions—it will be pretty easy to tell the difference between simple samples and the real deal.

“Lots of food tour companies visit big popular restaurants or local chains, and many only provide a small sample at each restaurant. This means they are probably getting the sample for free from the restaurant in order to encourage guests to come back later (or post about them on social media),” said Bergy.

Instead, you want to look for food tours that visit small, locally-owned restaurants—the kind where the owners are there every day and are likely the ones making and serving the food.

Check the price.

Checking the price of your food tour before booking is a tell-tale sign of whether or not your food tour is playing fair, Vázquez Landeta explained.

"Really cheap tours tend to be abusive with the community, rely on discounts or commissions from the vendors, and they need to have big groups to make a profit," she told TripSavvy. "Big groups are very damaging for the places you visit; they disrupt local life and create conflicts within the community."

Think locally-owned and operated, versus big international companies.

While many companies may seem local online, the owners may be from another country or belong to a bigger international company. Investigate to see where your food tour operator and the vendors on their planned tour come from.

Everybody from Vázquez Landeta's Eat Like a Local is local to Mexico or Mexico City. Vázquez Landeta was born and raised in Mexico City, as were her mother, father, grandparents, and the entire Eat Like a Local team. She only hires women from Mexico City specifically, and all the vendors she visits are locals—the majority of which are second- or third-generation indigenous immigrants from elsewhere in Mexico who came to the city seeking better opportunities.

Local vendors are an absolute requirement for Vázquez Landeta, who aims to keep tourism money within the community. Since most of the stalls in the markets are owned by indigenous people, Vázquez Landeta naturally leans towards them.

Find a tour that gives back.

Eat Like a Local charges extra fees to pay to their vendors above their products’ price, social programs for girls from the markets, English lessons, sex education, career programs, cultural programs, and gastronomic programs. Vázquez Landeta's tours also feed homeless people from the area—whoever approaches while on tour gets to eat what the group is eating.

While most tour companies rely on discounts, free stuff, or kickbacks, Vázquez Landeta believes tourism should be a source of economic growth for the city. “If a product is worth 2 pesos, we pay 20 pesos," she said. "This way, tourism money goes straight to the community, improving their lives and incomes. But we don’t give away money—we teach them that their time, knowledge, and service are worth something, and we are paying for that on top of their product price.”

Eat Like a Local gives back to the community in more ways than financial support. Pre-pandemic, they hosted free tours for local senior citizens to interact with others and get to know the city better, and Vázquez Landeta also collected money to rebuild several vendors' stalls at La Merced market after a devastating fire.

Long-term vendor relationship development is important.

Ask your prospective food tour how long they have worked with the selected vendors or artisans featured in their tours.

"Most of the vendors have been in my life for a long time, way before I started doing tours," explained Vázquez Landeta. "We work with a limited number of vendors because we believe making a deep impact is better than giving a little here and a little there. We want to actually change their income and their way of living by providing extra money constantly each month."

Bergy added that many food tour companies don’t even know the restaurant owners at the places they visit—they just show up. Or, other times, they visit during off-peak hours and negotiate with the restaurant to provide free samples, so the tour company doesn’t need to pay anything for the food.

"A small owner-operated vendor is very unlikely to be able to provide services like this," he added.

Give a self-guided tour a go.

Don’t love being with a bunch of strangers, feeling like a tourist, or spending a lot of money on a small amount of food?

There are many (legitimate) reasons why travelers might want to opt for a self-guided tour instead of a group tour, said Adria Saracino of The Emerald Palate, a Seattle-based, woman-owned travel planning and food tour company that offers self-guided Seattle food tours.

Similar to reasons echoed by Bergy, Saracino advocates going to restaurants directly so that there is no middleman cut, requests for discounts, or doing anything to put them at a disadvantage, like having to give small samples.

"It's a problem in the food tour industry of tours trying to get discounts from restaurants for 'driving business,'" explained Saracino. "This is one of the reasons I went the self-guided route. Especially during the pandemic, this kind of behavior is really hurtful to an industry with already small margins."

A planned self-guided tour, like the ones offered by The Emerald Palate, takes the best parts of a food tour—a local's perspective of what to eat, stories of the businesses, and an itinerary—and remove the least desirable parts of a group tour.

"That means people can explore each neighborhood at their own pace, avoid tourists, and pay the restaurants directly while feeling confident they're learning about the best spots, not just the ones open to hosting a large group,” she said.

Here's what to watch out for. 

The signs of an inauthentic tour go beyond playing digital detective. After you’ve super-sleuthed to the best of your abilities and selected your tour, interact with the vendors during your experience, observe, and ask them questions.

Checking to see how the food vendors treat you is a good indicator. Does your tour operator know the names of the vendors and introduce them to you? Are they familiar with them? How are their interactions? You should be allowed to interact with the vendors and locals during your tour: Many unethical tour companies don't like local people or vendors talking and approaching the tourists, explained Vázquez Landeta.

“If they seem happy to see you but put in all the stops to try to sell you something, that's because they are not getting paid and need to make an income from sales,” she added. Conversely, if your guide takes you to places for shopping, this usually means that they don’t get paid enough and need to make money from craft shops.

Another indicator is to see how many tourists are at the places you are visiting: “If you only see tourists, you are at a tourist trap made just for travelers, and that probably has unfair practices.”

Saracino says to look out for whether the tour is getting a commission or some benefit for bringing you to a certain place, giving guests an inauthentic experience.

“Some tours only work with stops that are easy to work with, whether that's catering to larger groups or being easy on the palate," she explained. "This is another reason I opted for self-guided, as I wanted people to get my honest recommendations without any kickbacks, not my third-tier recommendations based on operational factors."

Finally, be nosy! If you speak the language, ask the vendor (or the guide themselves) how they get paid, how they are treated, and if the company they work for is fair to them.

Vázquez Landeta explains that vendors or tour guides won't spontaneously talk about the negative things, so your curiosity is key. Ask them, and you´ll find out if the company you booked is ethical or not.

"When we visit the markets and the stalls, we talk about their story, how they arrived here, the origin of the dish they sell, and how difficult it is to make it, in a way that people understand their background," she said. "For me, understanding is crucial to have a more tolerant, sympathetic society.”