For students with gluten allergies and other unique eating circumstances, more specific information about the ingredients in the food available in the dining halls is now at their fingertips.
University Dining Services is currently continuing development of the University dining website to make nutritional resources as accessible for viewers as possible.
The website, which contains a section titled “My Nutrition,” allows students to check for allergens and caloric content of dining hall entrées. Website users can view menus, click on a specific allergen and then apply filters to show a list of all of the foods that do not contain the allergen specified.
Kathryn Whiteside, University menu and nutrition information manager, said the benefit of the program is that it allows students to view every single ingredient in a given dish — out of the more than 4,000 options available.
“There are students who are allergic to very specific things,” she said. “For example if you are allergic to caramel color, you can search our ingredient list and find the foods that have the caramel color.”
Whiteside added that two or three years ago, seeking out this information would have required students to talk to hall service members, adding that though they have offered nutritional counseling to students with allergies for years, this is a new way to offer students their own tools to monitor their nutrition.
“What we’re trying to do with this is make it easier for them to identify and be connected,” she said.
In order to make information as accessible as possible, Whiteside said she is working with the developers of the next Michigan smart phone application to include the same information available on the website for students on the go.
“We’re always trying to improve the communication pathway and give the information to the students in their hands in the way that they want it,” she said.
The online menus, which have traditionally labeled healthy, “vegan” and “vegetarian,” entrées now have two new labels — Halal and gluten-free.
Whiteside said recent heightened awareness about gluten allergies didn’t prompt the change in campus dining. Instead, the availability of more gluten-free products made it easier for the dining halls to accommodate students’ allergies.
“Five years ago it was really difficult to find gluten-free bread products,” she said. “You could purchase them at the grocery store, you could purchase them online, but as large scale purchasers, we couldn’t find a source to bring gluten-free products to campus.”
Today, every dining hall offers gluten-free hot dog buns, slider buns, pizza crusts and sandwich breads.
Even with the new program, students can still opt for one-on-one counseling. Additionally, brochures are offered on site with information on healthy eating and specific diets.
Whiteside said the variety of options allows students to manage their allergies in their own ways.
“Students do different things,” she said. “Some of them don’t want anyone to know about their allergy, and they manage it themselves and that’s perfectly fine, but others come to us for assistance and we help them.”
University Housing spokesman Peter Logan said the program is extremely specific and designed to aid every student with allergies based on his or her need.
“I find it interesting that a school as large as Michigan, that is basically approaching 10,000 meal plans, can provide that personal contact and counseling,” he said.
Whiteside said she has found the student response to the online ingredient listings to be enthusiastic. Since the nutrition website has launched, there has been a decrease in the number of students seeking nutrition counseling, she said.
“I find that most students explore the website,” she said. “Most of the calls I get are from parents.”
For students like LSA sophomore Benjamin Cassidy, who didn’t report his gluten allergy to the University initially, the new website provides a more discreet way to manage food allergies.
“I’ve always been kind of private about my allergy, and I wanted my college experience to be as normal as possible,” he said.
Though Cassidy said he ultimately opted for a counseling session with Whiteside to receive more information, he said he thinks the website will be helpful to students in his situation.
“I think anything that better informs students about what they’re eating is a positive thing,” he said.