Austin’s diverse food scene is one of the many trademarks that attract students to UT. However, restrictions such as celiac disease can complicate everything from eating on campus to finding the perfect taco.
There are countless reasons why people abide by dietary restrictions. Whether it’s because of an intolerance or simply just a preference, Austin offers a variety of foods in its robust restaurant scene for the gluten-free eater as well as those with other allergies and dietary restrictions. Trouble can arise, however, when cross-contamination occurs and options are limited.
Kirtana Jasti, a history and government junior, was diagnosed with celiac disease during her sophomore year of high school. The autoimmune disorder requires adherence to a strict gluten-free diet.
“I’ve lived in Houston and San Antonio,” Jasti said. “I will say Austin probably has the best in (gluten-free) restaurants.”
She said Austin restaurants do a good job of asking her if eating gluten-free is due to an allergy or preference. According to Jasti, in other cities, restaurants often assume the latter. Jasti said even the slightest amount of cross-contamination can evoke painful symptoms.
“Cross-contamination for me really sucks,” Jasti said.
Jasti must take precautions to ensure her food has not come in contact with gluten throughout the preparation process. Employees have to change their gloves and clean off preparation surfaces to ensure her food is safe to eat.
Thai Fresh is a local Thai restaurant that houses a gluten-free bakery. Jam Sanichat is the owner of Thai Fresh and Gati, a vegan ice cream truck. Sanichat is allergic to wheat, so Thai Fresh bakery initially began phasing flour out of their recipes before becoming completely gluten-free to avoid cross-contamination.
“We even marked items that might have trace of gluten, like the fryer,” Sanichat said. “We provide a place where most diet restrictions can be met, and our staff is knowledgeable both in the cuisine and special diet.”
Sanichat said when they opened, gluten-free food was much harder to come by. They label their menu items, which she said people really appreciate.
“All the bakers we have hired were motivated to make gluten-free and vegan items,” Sanichat said.
Students are already limited by the food options available on campus, but gluten allergies complicate the matter further, Jasti said. Chick-fil-A is one of the few places on campus that she can eat, so when she is off-campus, she opts for alternative options to avoid growing bored with her typical options.
“College students just have it a little bit different because you live in more of a bubble where you are limited to your food options based on what is here,” Jasti said.
One alternative for students such as Jasti is Picnik, a gluten-, corn-, peanut- and soy-free restaurant founded in 2013 by Naomi Seifter, who struggled with food allergies, digestive issues and chronic fatigue. When Picnik first opened, Seifter said there was little accessibility to gluten-free cuisine in the restaurant industry.
As celiac disease and other food intolerances become more well-known, cities will continue to develop dedicated resources and restaurants to ensure those with restrictions still have options.
“Where there is consumer demand, there will be businesses to accommodate,” Seifter said.