The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University

The Reflector

Gluten-free options become more widespread in Starkville

A young woman in her 20s walked up and down the aisles of Kroger, pointing at the labels on the back of food products. She kept shaking her head at the slender, dark-haired man beside her and putting the items back on the shelf.

The young woman nodded her head empathetically at the words coming out of his mouth. The more frustrated the man became, the more patient the girl became.

Finally, the man tired of the girl telling him he is no longer able to eat his favorite foods anymore.

“I don’t want your help anymore,” he said. “This really sucks.”

She kindly responded by explaining if he did not want to be sick anymore, they needed to continue to shop.

Reed Pearson, a senior public relations student at Mississippi State University, retold the story of his first-time shopping for gluten-free food with his roommate’s sister, who had been living gluten-free for seven years.

Pearson was diagnosed as gluten intolerant nine months ago after a long period of illness. Since his diagnosis, Pearson has become accustomed to his new lifestyle.

The availability of gluten-free options, for those who have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, has drastically increased over the past few years, as has the awareness of the need for those options.

Diane Tidwell, a registered dietitian and professor at MSU, specializes in gluten-free diets. Tidwell, who has a gluten intolerance herself, said she believes living with this diet in Starkville was once much harder than it is now because of the availability and low cost of many products.

She said one of the hardest things people struggle with when cutting gluten out of their diets is the higher cost of what used to be staple foods, like pasta.

“Being gluten-free doesn’t have to be expensive. Some of the most nutritious and wholesome foods are naturally gluten-free,” Tidwell said. “My gluten-free must-haves are rice and beans. Quinoa, because it is so full of nutrients. Fruits and vegetables, naturally, and white meats, tend to be less processed.”

Apart from teaching classes in the nutrition department at MSU, Tidwell also helps families in Starkville and the Golden Triangle area find affordable gluten-free products. She works with about 10 families in Starkville who have, or live with someone who has, celiac disease or gluten intolerance.

Tidwell said there used to be a gluten-free club on campus, but because of lack of interest, it dissolved.

As more people are diagnosed with gluten intolerance and celiac disease, more products become available in chain grocery stores like Kroger and Wal-Mart.

Kroger especially has taken on the challenge of providing a wide variety of choices for the gluten-free customer. The company has an official statement about the importance of being able to serve customers who have this dietary restriction.

Kroger labels the products that specifically say gluten-free on the barcode on the shelves and has a wide variety of gluten-free food in the health food section by the bakery.

“So, our gluten-free line helps our customers because we want to make sure we’re taking care of or considering all of our customer’s needs,” said Andrew, a customer service representative from Kroger on a phone interview. “We have seen a big influx of customers just wanting to be gluten-free, but we mainly made the line for our celiac disease customers who have the autoimmune disease that damages the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients.”  Kroger’s policies required that his last name not be published.

John Forde, professor and head of the communication department, has been on a gluten-free diet for 10 years, and has seen the progression of gluten-free friendly options arise throughout Starkville. He has noticed a significant change in the number of places aware of what gluten is, especially in the past 5-to-6 years, and believes this is because of an update to federal labeling laws.

In August 2013, the Food and Drug Administration issued a statement defining the term “gluten-free” for voluntary use when labeling a product as gluten-free, meaning it is up to individual companies to decide whether to label a food as gluten-free.

Many companies looked favorably on this new FDA statement and changed labels to make it easier for those who eat gluten-free to find more options in what they purchase.

“I try not to make a huge deal out of it, you know?” Forde hesitantly said. “If someone puts cheese toast on my salad, my wife a lot of times will do more than I will about it. I would just eat around that piece of lettuce.”

Forde said many of the restaurants in Starkville have gluten-free menus they provide for those who have celiac disease or just choose not to eat gluten. Local restaurants like Bulldog Burger and Thai Siam provide information on what products contain gluten on the regular menu.

However, according to Forde, restaurants like Harveys and The Grill have gone above and beyond for providing him service.

After Forde’s being a frequent customer at Harveys for a long time, the staff was trained to know when someone said they could not eat gluten, this meant they had the same dietary restrictions as Forde.

Upon hearing this, Forde went to the general manager of the Grill, Terry Long, who had once worked at Harveys, to tell him he needed to step up his game and make a John Forde menu. That is exactly what Long did.

Before meeting Forde 12 years ago, Long knew little about what it meant to be gluten-free, but now said it is probably the most common food allergy seen at The Grill.

As the frequency in which they see the allergy has increased, it is now part of the staff training at The Grill to know what it means to have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance.

“We even have a system so that if a server takes an order and they say ‘I have an allergy,’ that server informs the manager,” Long said. “When they ring it in there’s a button that says ‘allergy’ and there is an option for different allergies and they ring it that way so the kitchen knows. So, they know, okay, that’s a gluten allergy. I’ve handled this before. I need to change my gloves.”

As the need to provide for this dietary restriction in Starkville increases, businesses are starting to stock more options for those who are unable to tolerate gluten.

“Although I miss all of my favorite foods—you know, good college student food like Pop-Tarts,”  Pearson said. “I have since learned that potatoes are my life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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The Student Newspaper of Mississippi State University
Gluten-free options become more widespread in Starkville