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Kent State Opens What It Says Is First Gluten-Free Campus Dining Hall

Classic college fare such as pizza, burritos, and grilled cheese are on the menu at Kent State's Prentice Cafe, an entirely gluten-free dining hall that the university says is the first of its kind.

While many colleges offer gluten-free stations within dining halls, Prentice Cafe is the first certified all-gluten-free campus dining facility in America, according to the Ohio university.

That means there's no risk of cross-contamination during food preparation to allow traces of gluten into a meal, which can severely impact sufferers of celiac disease — an autoimmune disorder where the body cannot process the wheat protein.

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School officials say a rise in students who can't — or choose not to — eat gluten prompted them to designate a dining hall specifically for them.

"For the last several years, the increase in food intolerances and celiac disease and those who have even minor gluten intolerances kept increasing," Kent State Director of Dining Services Richard Roldan told NBC News. "A lot of parents kept coming in and stressing about the well-being of their students and having options that wouldn't make them sick."

Chefs cook up omelets with bacon and other sides at Kent State University's Prentice Cafe, the only entirely gluten-free campus dining hall in America, according to the school. Courtesy of Kent State University

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. About 3 million Americans suffer celiac, a genetic autoimmune disease which leads to damage to the lining of the small intestine, Symptoms include pain, fatigue and diarrhea when foods with gluten, such as bread or pasta, are consumed. A small number of people have an allergy to wheat, which has similar symptoms.

Millions of others avoid gluten for perceived health reasons, although nutritionists question whether going gluten-free actually has benefits. Many gluten-free foods use rice as a substitute and may lack key nutrients found in whole grains. Also, gluten-free products tend to have have more fat and sugar than foods with gluten, which can lead to weight gain.

Either way, sales of gluten-free products have surged in recent years as the number of people foregoing it in the U.S. tripled between 2009 and 2014, according to a new study out this week.

But despite the spike in popularity, there's been no effect on the prevalence of celiac disease. Diagnoses appear to have remained stable in recent years, according to the article published by JAMA Internal Medicine on Tuesday.

One clear benefit in recent years of the gluten-free movement, according to the Kent State dining officials: gluten-free products taste a lot better — and a lot closer to their gluten counterparts than they used to.

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"The manager and chef at [Prentice Cafe] have done a lot of sampling of different products out there to find the ones that really taste the best, so students who don't need to eat gluten-free come in and are enjoying it too," dining services dietitian Megan Brzuski told NBC News.

Erin Mazzotta, 19, just started her freshman year at Kent State. She was diagnosed with celiac in third grade and knew Prentice had food options for her when she was applying, but didn't know it was going to be entirely gluten-free as of this year.

The Pittsburgh native was thrilled when she found out, especially after her experiences going out to eat growing up.

"A lot of restaurants do offer gluten-free menus, but it's a little bit of a risk. You have to trust them when they're cooking your food and handling it," she said.

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Kent State earned certification from the Gluten-Free Food Services Certification Program, a food safety program offered through the Gluten Intolerance Group, for Prentice Cafe. Traditional gluten products are easily subbed out for things like tortillas made from corn for burritos, and gluten-free hamburger buns that have good taste and texture, Roldan said.

The food is "really good," Mazzotta said.

"With gluten-free foods, sometimes you can tell it's a little bit off, but all the different meals there have been spot-on," she said, adding that her friends who aren't gluten-free join her for meals there.

For students who don't require a gluten-free diet, Prentice Cafe can still meet all their nutritional needs, Brzuski said.

"The cafe still has a wide variety of options," she said. "There's still a salad bar with plenty of lean protein, plenty of other options. Eating gluten-free is just a benefit."