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photo of gluten-free food

The immaculate little room looks like someone’s well-kept kitchen.

The walls are painted the color of fresh butter. The space is outfitted with a refrigerator, freezer, microwave, toaster and toaster oven. An impressive variety of baking mixes, noodles, soups and rolls fill the freezer and pantry. A sign on the wall reads: “Keep calm and eat a cupcake.”

for all

NDSU Dining caters to needs
of allergy-sensitive students

The difference is that this isn’t a family’s kitchen, but a special, gluten-free room at NDSU’s Residence Dining Center. The baking mixes are made from ingredients like chickpea flour. And anyone who eats cupcakes in here will keep calm only if they know they don’t contain a speck of wheat.

NDSU added the gluten-free room in 2011 in response to students who had specific dietary needs. It’s just one example of the 21st-century college dining center, which offers wood-fired pizza ovens in a restaurant-like setting and a more inclusive attitude toward students with food allergies.

The university’s dining division has actually taken a fairly progressive step in declaring the entire Residence Dining Center as an “allergy-sensitive” and “peanut/tree nut-free” facility. And the staff takes its gluten-free mission seriously. The center’s gluten-free room is accessible only to the 27 of the 3,000 students on NDSU’s meal plan with diagnosed gluten allergies; they must use a special keycard to gain entry.

Even most food-service staff can’t enter the room, lest a flour-covered apron contaminate the wheat-free zone.

While “gluten-free” has become a bit of a buzz phrase, people with severe gluten allergies view it as anything but a fad. When someone with full-blown celiac disease eats gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley), his or her body kicks into an immune response that attacks the small intestine. In the process, the villi — the finger-like projections lining the small intestine — are damaged, which causes malabsorption and nutritional deficiencies.

Some people are so allergic to gluten that they must avoid anything that contains the tiniest trace of it, including toothpaste, lipstick or glue on an envelope.

Others may have a gluten sensitivity, which means the protein can still trigger unpleasant or downright painful symptoms. The difference is that people with gluten sensitivity don’t seem to experience intestinal damage. Roxanne England is the licensed registered dietitian who is responsible for ordering the room’s provisions and counseling students with dietary issues like allergies.

Part of England’s job is to meet with students to discuss their allergies and help them develop a meal plan. She also is willing to meet with parents before their student starts school. Some students have multiple allergies, which can make their food choices especially complex.

England works to ensure that even the most food-sensitive of students has options. The good news is that the gluten-free market has exploded — estimated to grow from $10.5 billion in sales in 2013 to $15 billion in 2016 — so the variety of products keeps growing.

The room’s pantry, freezer and refrigerator are stocked with gluten-free soups, cereals, pasta, chicken strips, cinnamon rolls, tater tots, ice cream cones, waffles, pizza crust and pumpkin pie. The sandwich bar uses the same bread used in national sandwich chain Erbert & Gerbert’s gluten-free subs. “It’s delicious,” England says.

Students can heat up a ready-made treat or use the toaster, microwave, toaster oven and frying pan to make their own meals. A white board offers a place where they can jot down special food requests.

“This is probably better than home,” England says, smiling.

— Tammy swift

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.