Colleges deal with Gluten-Free 101

  • Article by: KEVYN BURGER , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 7, 2012 - 3:13 PM

It's a challenge to work out dorm life and dietary restrictions, but more colleges are stepping up to the plate.

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Max Timmons with his parents, Leo Timmons and Kate Havelin.

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When Max Timmons began looking at colleges, he boiled down his requirements.

"I wanted a good school in a big city with public transportation and lots of cheap Asian food nearby," he said.

The food preference was not just because Timmons, 18, expected to crave Moo Goo Gai Pan in the middle of the night. The recent St. Paul Central graduate is gluten-intolerant; his celiac disease was diagnosed when he was 13. Timmons gravitates to Asian food because it is likely to be free of wheat and other grains that he avoids.

When Timmons' mother and brother also learned that they have celiac disease, the whole family altered their dining habits. They order gluten-free pizza delivered from Pizza Lucé, stock the pantry with gluten-free baking mixes, pasta and crackers and have a list of ethnic buffets posted on the refrigerator. A gluten-free cake from French Meadow Bakery was the centerpiece of their Mother's Day celebration.

Eyeballing the cafeteria figured into every campus tour that Timmons and his parents took.

"They all have a salad bar, but Max is a teenage boy. He's just not going to do that," said his mother, Kate Havelin. "When all else fails, he eats ice cream. I wanted to see the options."

Dietary implications

Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disorder that affects at least 3 million Americans. For the gluten-intolerant or -sensitive, ingesting grains, including wheat, barley and rye, can produce intestinal distress. But more is at stake than a miserable midsection. Those with celiac disease can develop permanent intestinal damage if they do not adjust their diets. The website for the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center warns that untreated celiac disease can lead to osteoporosis, infertility, neurological conditions, cancer and other autoimmune disorders.

In the past decade, there's been a sharp rise in celiac disease diagnoses and corresponding development of thousands of gluten-free products. In addition to gluten-free breads, cereals and snacks, grocery shelves are now stocked with gluten-free seasonings, sauces and salad dressings; standard versions often contain traces of wheat.

A growing number of restaurants, both chains and independents, offer gluten-free menu items.

But avoiding gluten is not always possible. Timmons, captain of the Central High quiz bowl and science bowl teams, recalled searching for vending machines during all-day tournaments when trays of sub sandwiches arrived for lunch. "Sometimes eating this way is inconvenient," he said.

Higher education takes note

More colleges are boosting their offerings for students with gluten intolerance. A meal plan that accommodates dietary restrictions can be a make-or-break issue for parents who have struggled to solve a child's digestive difficulties and then managed their gluten-free diet.

"Some parents are really nervous when they send them off to college," said Kimberly Driesch, who oversees food service at Macalester College for Bon Appetit, a national higher-education food service company that manages programs at Northwestern, St. Olaf and Carleton colleges in Minnesota. Every meal includes "Made Without Gluten" options that are labeled on menus and marked on dining hall signs.

"We have students meet individually with our chefs. One-on-one communication is key to meeting their needs," Driesch said.

In the past, students with dietary restrictions often sought an exemption from the Macalester meal plan, which is mandatory during a student's first two years. Keith Edwards, director of campus life at Macalester, said the increased number of gluten-free options allows more students to find what they need in communal dining.

"We have one dining hall on campus. That's where students, faculty and staff intersect. It's a pivotal part of the Mac community," Edwards said. "If students aren't here, they miss more than a meal. They miss a critical part of campus life."

Many students manage their food intake for the first time when they leave home for college. For the past two years, Max Timmons has taken classes at the University of Minnesota and has learned how to survive on campus while adhering to a gluten-free diet.

He'll be eating at the dining hall at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., in the fall.

"I'll send care packages, but I will not be a helicopter parent," said Havelin. "He might not always be able to eat what he's craving, but he'll figure it out. He'll eat."

Timmons is confident. "By the time they come for Parents Weekend, I'll know the best Asian restaurants."

Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis is a broadcaster, podcaster and freelance writer.

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