Dietary restrictions solved on campus

August 07, 2019

The days of students figuring out allergen-free meals on certain college campuses might soon be over. Some universities in the U.S. are now offering allergen-free dining halls and other special facilities to their students with food restrictions.

Finding food alternatives on campus has always been a headache for those college students with dietary restrictions, especially when schools don’t offer many dining options.

And this isn’t just a few students who have this problem; around 4% of adult Americans suffer from a food allergy, so the number of college students with one or more food restrictions is likely in the hundreds of thousands.

Fortunately for those who struggle finding a gluten-free slice of pizza, or a dairy-free ice cream cone, or simply a peanut butter-free cookie on campus — there are new approaches to on-campus dining.

“Universities are incorporating different and relatively new allergen-free approaches to make students’ lives easier,” said Neogen’s expert, Jeff Kolk. “Every year, 200,000 people visit the emergency room due to food allergies, so the different allergen-free solutions that are being adopted by some schools are a huge relief for those on-campus residents who can’t consume allergen-based products.”

These different approaches offer diverse food options to those students with food intolerances, celiac disease, or food allergies — and some universities across the U.S are creating the best alternatives for this cause every day.

Last month, for example, Michigan State University (MSU) expanded on their already established accommodations when they opened Thrive, MSU’s first dining hall that is certified free from the top eight allergens plus gluten.

“Thrive is another solution for those Michigan State students who are looking for allergen-free meals,” said Dietitian with Culinary Services at MSU, Gina Keilen.

MSU has been working on this project since November 2018, and just like in 1982 when the school reached out to James Herbert and Ted Doan to create Neogen — MSU has reached out again to open a new and safe dining alternative for MSU students and the community.

“We were very happy when MSU reached out to Neogen with the idea of opening a dining hall that would provide safe dietary options to the Spartan community,” Kolk said. “Neogen’s expertise and comprehensive line of products can contribute so much value to a project like this.”

The dining hall, located in Owen Hall, consists of three distinct venues: The Grid, Pantry and Tenderland. They each serve a wide range of options such as chicken strips with accompanying sauce and seasoning options, smoked and rotisserie meats, chipotle lime pork tostados, grain bowls, vegan “crab” cakes, risotto bowls, and allergen-free mac and cheese.

To ensure ingredients and menu items aren’t contaminated with the eight most common food allergens and gluten, the kitchen staff uses Neogen’s food allergen assays to perform environmental monitoring on a regular basis.

Neogen’s lateral flow Reveal 3-D line provides good coverage for different allergens,” Kolk said. “With this technology, Thrive’s kitchen can help ensure their food is free of milk, eggs, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, and shellfish.”

Neogen also provided guidance regarding best practices for food transportation and storage to avoid any risk of cross-contamination. Limiting the access of some kitchen areas and wearing lab coats while working on the premises are among other procedures to enforce the allergen-free dining concept at Thrive.

These procedures helped the dining location get certified as gluten and allergen-free by Kitchens with Confidence (KwC), a top allergen and gluten-free certification agency.

Why Thrive?

Some prospective students and their parents pick a school based on the student’s food restriction instead of the majors offered by the school, according to Keilen.

The need for a project like Thrive comes from the school’s efforts to provide food that all students can eat.

“Our surveys show that one in seven students has some sort of dietary restriction,” Keilen said. “Thrive offers food to everyone, while taking the extra precautions to ensure that a student with a food restriction feels safe eating here.”

As reported by Keilen, many students, parents, and the community have received this project very positively.

“We’ve had people driving over an hour away to try the food,” Keilen said. “We’ve even talked to some parents who were brought to tears out of joy and relief of knowing their Spartans will be able to eat safely here.”

A contagious need for a solution 

While being allergic to certain foods isn’t a contagious condition, the need to solve food allergens in college campuses seems to be spreading among other schools.

Syracuse University has four gluten-free dining halls that are also certified by KwC. Cornell University has gluten-free stations within its dining facilities. And, Georgetown University has “allergy-friendly” dining halls and some student groups that support an allergy-free student lifestyle on campus.

There are smaller approaches to food allergens including Vanderbilt’s convenience stores that offer gluten-free products, or the University of Alabama’s individualized meal plans.

“The rate of Americans suffering from food allergies increases steadily every year, so it is good that schools like MSU and some others provide a solution to their students,” Kolk said. “MSU and Neogen’s partnership has always been the foundation of great ideas that become successful projects, so I am sure this will be a meaningful initiative, and we are ready for the future challenges that the allergen-free dining experience will bring to us.”

Neogen is a leader in the development of food allergen diagnostic tests for the food industry.


Category: Food Safety, Food & Beverage, University & Research, Allergens