Busting campus rumors: What’s really in the campus food?

It’s a bizarre rumor, but that doesn’t stop it from being passed down through generations of Lawrentians: Do institutional food services, including our own Bon Appétit, put laxatives in the cafeteria food?

Of course, the answer is no.

“Bon Appétit does not, nor ever would, put any foreign substance in any of our food,” says general manager for Bon Appétit Julie Severance. “It goes against every principle of our food. It’s illegal and immoral.”

So why does this myth still come up at Lawrence? Sometimes, the laxatives myth is explained as a way food services try to limit the potential for food poisoning. As the reasoning goes, the faster it leaves you, the lower the chance any bacteria could make you ill. (Listen, I don’t believe it either).

“We check the food temperatures before and after every service,” head chef  Alan Shook said. “I don’t know of any instances we’ve had of food poisoning.”

So, food poisoning is out. More often, the laxatives myth is brought up when people talk about feeling ill after eating in the cafeteria. Symptoms vary, but nausea, discomfort and stomach pain have been reported.

“Everyone in [the McCarthy Food Co-op] agrees that we all feel weird after eating Andrew Commons food, but we don’t feel bad after cooking our own food,” said junior Marie Jeruc.

With stomach symptoms, it can be hard to explain them with a single cause.

“Nausea can be from a number of different reasons,” Director of Health Services Susan Muenster says. “Stress, gastrointestinal flu, eating something that doesn’t sit with you. We also have students we diagnose with gluten intolerance, lactose intolerance or a food allergy.”

Some students speculate that these food intolerances are making them feel ill after eating in the cafeteria.

“My experiences with Bon Appétit have been generally positive, but I often feel ill after eating in the campus center,” senior Hannah Plummer said. “This probably has to do with the fact that I am gluten intolerant, and I suspect that some things that I have eaten there have been contaminated with gluten.”

Bon Appétit does work to label foods for dietary restrictions and prepare specialty foods, but it is impossible to guarantee the kitchen as gluten-free.

“We have a bakery in the middle of our kitchen,” Severance said. “We have to say made without gluten, not gluten-free.”

But what about students without intolerances who feel ill? Severance speculates students may have some trouble adjusting to the cafeteria for the first few weeks after returning because of overeating, which can cause an upset stomach.

“[Students] eat differently at home,” Severance said. “We know from the past that when students come back from break, we have to prepare 50% more food than we normally do.”

Overeating in Andrew Commons is a problem familiar to most students — as Jeruc says, “I definitely eat more downstairs. I try not to, but I still do.”

Upset stomachs can be caused by a number of things, but it’s definitely not laxatives. Students who find they have problems can work with Health Services to try to find the real cause of their cafeteria woes.

“We can help students do a food diary,” Muenster said. “If we can’t find a rhythm, they can come in and talk with the doctors. We also have some medications that can help.”

Students are also encouraged to speak with the Bon Appétit staff if they have concerns, or need special food prepared for their dietary restrictions.

“If you have an issue, a comment, a concern, please come and talk to us,” Severance said. “We work on your behalf. That’s why we’re here. We’ll do anything to help you.”