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Gluten-free makes it onto Disneyland menus

What if Mickey Mouse became allergic to cheese, or Goofy was told by his doctor he could only eat gluten-free bread?

They would be facing the same dilemma as many people, worried about food choices, who attend California's famed Disneyland theme park. It's estimated that as many as one in 25 Americans suffers from food allergies, and the numbers are growing yearly.

What's a theme park to do? The Disney Company is aware of its customers' increasing dietary demands, and is responding, largely due to the efforts of Head Chef Chris Justesen.

Justesen said it all began about five years ago. "I had a guest who told me her child had Celiac disease, and was allergic to a bunch of stuff. I then began to do a lot of research on the subject." Celiac disease, or gluten intolerance, affects an estimated three million people in the US when they eat specific food-grain antigens (toxic amino acid sequences) found in wheat, rye, barley, and to a lesser extent, oats. "Then a guest asked me, 'Does the food have any modified starch?' and I said 'What is modified starch?'"

So Justesen began figuring out ways in which Disneyland could accommodate these visitors. "They will email me or call, and we'll make it work for them. I talk with parents who are just about in tears because of not being able to go to restaurants anywhere, so to be able now to take their child to a theme park is just wonderful."

He is contacted by seven to 10 people a week about dietary concerns, Justesen said. "It's not just gluten, but things like peanuts. This may be the easiest to deal with, but because an allergic reaction can be fatal, there's no room for error. Then there are allergies to dairy or eggs, or people with diabetes, or PKU (Phenylketonuria, a genetic disorder characterized by an inability of the body to utilise the essential amino acid phenylalanine)." The burden is on the guests, however. "They must talk to the manager to let them know about cross contact," Justesen said.

Making the sprawling park safe for such people is no small feat. Justesen oversees 15 locations throughout the park. "Management has been fantastically supportive," he said. "Every restaurant has a chef making sure quality is there, controlling the possibility of cross-contamination, and so on. We have lots of locations with things like gluten-free waffles and pancakes, and hamburger buns and pizza shells."

Mary Niven, vice president of food and beverage for Disney resorts said: "We want to make it so that people with these special needs don't have to pack all their food at home." Niven explained that the resort's efforts are still in the infant stage. "We don't pretend to be dietitians, but we're making sure that we're well-grounded in the basics. As we gain experience, we will expand it to a major effort."

The park already has made some significant changes. "Chris made us aware that our French-fry coating wasn't gluten free, for instance, so we are now using a coating that is," Niven said. Efforts are ongoing. "We're getting ready to print an outline about these options so that guests can pick it up when they arrive," Justesen said.

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