Gluten-free: going beyond the label

Heba Dafashy

It seems that a new dietary term has swept through restaurants, menus and grocery stores. On commonly purchased food items, it is no surprise to see a label that says “gluten-free.” As items from gluten-free bread to gluten-free humus become widely available, it is easy to roll yours eyes at the label and dismiss it as “just another dieting gimmick.” However, that label could actually mean the difference between life and death.

Eating gluten-free is not a trendy diet plan. It is a response to celiac disease. Also known as gluten intolerance, celiac disease is a genetic disorder that affects at least one in 133 Americans. Gluten is a protein found in wheat and is often used in certain foods as a flavor additive. The only treatment for celiac disease is to abstain from consuming gluten.

Hundreds of students are likely intolerant to gluten. These students are limited to foods without gluten, so many student staples such as sandwiches and pasta are off-limits. During a typical organization meeting during which the group may order pizza, students with celiac would not be able to eat because pizza contains gluten.

The University plays an important role in helping celiac students live normal and healthy lives. Last year, the Division of Housing and Food Service made significant changes to University dining halls and markets in an effort to make these campus dining locations gluten-free friendly. In Jester, DHFS designed and opened “Jesta Healthy Store,” a new market featuring a wide variety of all-natural, gluten-free vegetarian and vegan food options. In the fall of 2011, DHFS began a new campaign to label its foods according to dietary restrictions including those based on religious and personal reasons; one such label is for gluten-free foods.

These initiatives are beneficial, yet some have doubts as to whether this effort is truly making a difference for celiac students. Leslie Ethridge, an international relations and global studies senior who was diagnosed with celiac two years ago, feels that such efforts are only the first in a series of necessary changes. Though foods may say “gluten-free” on them, they still run a high risk of contamination.

DHFS should ensure its employees know that gluten-free products must be handled carefully to avoid contamination and should be readily available for those who request them. If dining halls advertise gluten-free products but do not avoid contaminating them, it would be better not to claim offering such foods at all in order to avoid inadvertently sickening a celiac student. As students, we need to be aware of our peers who have this disorder and try to accommodate them when possible.

Gluten-free diets are not the latest fad but are a serious response to a disorder that affects hundreds of students on campus. Once we recognize this fact, perhaps these students will receive the support they need.

Dafashy is a Plan II senior.