Avoiding food allergies requires a first course of communication

Executive Chef Roger Disher stands in the bar area in an IUPUI restaurantView print quality image
Chartwells Executive Chef Roger Disher said communication from both sides of the proverbial table is essential for avoiding food allergies. Photo by Tim Brouk, Indiana University

From a busy campus dining hall to your department's holiday pitch-in, food allergies are a serious concern at IUPUI.

Steps big and small have been taken in kitchens like the one in Tower Dining. Clear labeling, more dairy-free choices and even individually packaged servings of peanut butter are initiatives to provide safer eating and to give those with dietary restrictions more variety.

"We serve thousands of meals pretty much every day," said Chartwells Executive Chef Roger Disher, who is based primarily in Tower Dining. "We try to engage people with food allergies early on. For students, we engage during orientation."

Sealed portions of peanut butterView print quality image
Tower Dining switched to sealed, personal peanut butter portions to protect students, staff and faculty who have serious peanut allergies. Photo by Tim Brouk, Indiana University

While menus are posted weekly, and the Dine On Campus app is available for download for easy access to Tower Dining updates, students, staff and faculty are wise to approach Disher and his staff about food allergies before digging into a bowl of stir fry or gumbo. The communication must be two-sided to ensure a safe, healthy dining experience. Diners must be their own personal advocates.

Disher added that the most common allergens are always noted on signage at the various food stations in Tower Dining: gluten, peanut, tree nut, dairy, egg and soy. Kitchen staff are given menus that note ingredients that could trigger an allergic reaction. Meatless options are highlighted as well.

The same approach should be used for office potlucks. Carol should clearly communicate what's in her casserole, while Mike might want to bake something that's egg- and/or dairy-free for his beloved co-workers.

Jennifer Bute, an associate professor of communication studies, used her communication research skills to become a national expert on food allergies because her son, Jack, now 8 years old, developed early, serious food allergies to peanuts and tree nuts. Bute has found food allergies are persistent problems that must be addressed for children and adults in eating areas -- whether in a neighborhood elementary school or a university of about 30,000 students like IUPUI.

"For any kind of social event that has food, you have to ask questions," said Bute, who serves on Food Allergy Research and Education's research advisory board. "One area that I'm really interested in as a researcher that almost nobody has studied is how best to address the psychosocial concerns. What is the stress and anxiety, and how do people cope with that? What resources can we provide for patients and families?

"The most recent estimates are that more than 15 million Americans have food allergies. It's pretty likely that somebody at your party will have a food allergy."

Another fertile field in food allergy research is with adult diagnoses. Bute explained that many patients are diagnosed as adults.

"In some cases, it's foods they have been eating most of their lives, and all of a sudden, they are allergic to them," Bute said. "And we don't know why that is."

Bute and her family are used to bringing their own dishes to gatherings. They also do a lot of label-reading at the grocery, where more caution must be exercised. Ingredients linked to major food allergies are usually clearly labeled, but when the item is packed in a plant that contains peanuts or soy, it's more of a gray area.

"Those labels are not mandated; they are voluntary," Bute explained. "Not all manufacturers choose to use them. You are only required to label if the actual ingredient is in the packaged food. Those 'may contain' labels can be tricky. Just because it doesn't say an ingredient is in there doesn't mean it's safe, and the way they are worded isn't regulated."

For example, chocolate chip cookies could have been made on the same line as peanut butter cookies. The label might say "processed in the same facility" but it might not say "processed on the exact same line."

Bute said one of the current concerns in the food allergy community is sesame. The ingredient is more common than you might think. It's not just those little seeds on a hamburger bun; sesame oil is used in numerous dishes.

Desserts are the toughest to navigate, especially for those with peanut allergies. Bute brings her own sweets for Jack when they attend holiday parties.

Open communication and mindfulness are two ingredients to a successful meal and holiday gathering, as long as Carol remembers what's in that casserole.

"I do think it shows a lot of caring if co-workers or family members are aware of food allergies and make a little effort to make some things available for that person," Bute said. "It helps take the pressure off them a little bit."

Quick bites

Severe food allergy assistance

Those suffering from severe food allergies and who qualify under the Americans with Disabilities Act should register with IUPUI's Adaptive Educational Services.

Vegan's choice

A longtime vegan, Peter Schubert, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Richard G. Lugar Center for Renewable Energy, recommends Duos, a café inside Eskenazi Health, 720 Eskenazi Ave., that features several meatless and dairy-free items. "Ordering their Balance Bowl with no egg, with vegan aioli and topped with tofu is always a delight," he said.