Feature Article - October 2007
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Food For Thought

Simple Menu Changes for Special Diets

By Stacy St. Clair

Choices for all

Concessionaires can make great strides toward all-inclusive menus by educating themselves about various dietary needs and restrictions. Celiac disease, for example, is a digestive infirmity that has been gaining more awareness in recent years. The autoimmune condition is triggered by the consumption of a common protein called gluten, which is found in bread, cookies, pizza crusts and many other popular snack bar items.

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in every 100 Americans has the disease, though it often goes undiagnosed. The only treatment is a change in diet, by eliminating foods made from wheat, barley, rye, oats and triticale.

Such restrictions can make concession stands frightening places for people with celiac disease. One wrong bite or mislabeled product can lead to anemia, diarrhea, weight loss, vitamin deficiency and early-onset osteoporosis. Brian Jennings, whose wife and two children have the disease, finds eating at sporting venues near impossible.

"It's actually pretty tough to try to take the family out to the ballpark," he said. "If we go, we try and bring our own food. There's a minor league baseball stadium near us where you would think the French fries would be safe, but they have a flour coating on them."

Jennings, the founder of the Washington-based Celiac Society, often worries about seemingly harmless foods because of the careless ways they can be prepared. For example, fryers will be used for both breaded foods and gluten-free items, he said. The cross-contamination can wreak havoc on more sensitive digestive tracts or people with wheat allergies.

"You could also be serving gluten-free hot dogs, but you used the same tongs on the hot dogs that you used to open the bun," Jennings said.

Progressive concessionaires may want to offer gluten-free hamburger and hot dog buns, which would expand the menu considerably. Some brewing companies, including Anheuser-Busch, even make gluten-free beer.

Without question, these gestures would be welcomed by the celiac community. Word would spread quickly, especially among the many Internet sites and support groups dedicated to helping those with the condition.

"Gluten-free beer or gluten-free buns would be an incredible thing to offer," the Celiac Foundation's Simone said. "There would be a huge response to it."

Of course, recreation facility managers don't need to buy special products in order to be celiac-friendly. Sometimes, all it requires is some traditional items and a little flexibility. Potato chips, for example, are a wise menu option, as is plain popcorn. Popsicles and snow-cones serve as refreshing, gluten-free treats. Many ice creams can be too, as long as unfriendly extras like cookie batter or Oreos aren't mixed in.

The Celiac Sprue Association's Schluckebier recommends plain baked potatoes or sweet potatoes for a gluten-friendly option at sporting venues. The concession operators can offer patrons various toppings, she said, depending on their tastes and dietary needs. Additions like this will make the stand appealing to more than just people with celiac and wheat allergies. These options would also be attractive to vegetarians, people looking for fat-free options and customers looking for low-cholesterol options.

"You need something that crosses several needs," Schluckebier said. "Baked potatoes are one of those options."

Concession stands also could offer bunless hot dogs and sausages as a way to entice people with celiac disease. Snack bars could offer to wrap sandwiches and burgers in lettuce, a move many restaurants have embraced to appease patrons following a low-carb diet. The offering may require more work from employees, and it could overwhelm stands with limited manpower. Those willing to try, however, might be surprised by the positive response and additional revenue.

"Those are some pretty easy things to do," Schluckebier said. "If they have the labor to do it, that's fantastic."