Digestion : Teen's Food Intolerances Lead Him to Help Others

Marni Jameson, Orlando Sentinel

Hunger made him do it.

Last year, 17-year-old Nick Ramirez learned that eating foods containing wheat, dairy or sugar made him sick, and that his diet needed an overhaul.

Suddenly cheeseburgers, pizza, cookies and Grandma's cooking were off the menu.

The Bishop Moore High School senior went searching for good grub he could eat, and wound up launching a foodie website and a nonprofit when all he found were slim, bland pickins.

"I got pretty tired of rice and pasta," said the 6-foot-2-inch Ramirez, who weighs 214 pounds and is a tae kwan do black belt. "I wanted real food in big portions."

So he grabbed a spatula and fought back.

He started experimenting with recipes, converting them into allergy-safe but tasty dishes. As "Chef Grub," he launched the sumbeastlygrub.com website Jan. 1.

Its target audience, he says, is anyone trying to avoid sugar, gluten and dairy.

And who isn't these days?

A growing awareness of food allergies and intolerances, such as celiac disease and lactose intolerance, is leading more Americans to seek out gluten-free and non-dairy foods. Grocery store shelves are ample evidence.

Ramirez was first diagnosed with mastocytic enterocolitis, or MEC, one year ago. The immune disorder affects the mast cells that line the intestines and make it difficult to digest wheat and dairy.

After Ramirez cut those ingredients out, his stomach problems improved but didn't disappear.

A tuned-in doctor specializing in stomach issues suspected that more was going on. In December, the gastroenterologist diagnosed Ramirez with disaccharidase deficiency. Suddenly sugar was off the table, too.

"It was a relief to know what was wrong," said Ramirez. But the next challenge was to find what he could eat.

He looked up recipes for favorite foods and began modifying them. He started with pie. The recipe called for butter, flour and sugar, so he got creative.

He melted vanilla-flavored coconut milk ice cream, and mixed it with gluten-free graham crackers to make a crust. He filled it with canned pumpkin and sweetened it with agave nectar.

His other go-to cooking secrets include Tony's Creole Seasoning, a seasoned salt that gives his dishes some kick, and imitation sour cream and imitation cream cheese, which make his cheesecake possible. He swears that Daiya cheese -- a dairy-free product made from peas and tapioca -- tastes better than it sounds.

After creating a few menus, he assembled an advisory board that includes a restaurant executive, a professor of food science and two nutritionists, and took his recipes public.

The website currently has five complete menus -- a total of 27 recipes -- all tried, tested and tweaked by his advisory board.

Chef Grub's last menu installment featured "The Big Bang Theory Congratulatory Dinner Menu" to celebrate the show's winning the People's Choice Award.

"My goal is to upload a menu a week," said Ramirez, whose efforts count toward computer class credit and community service hours for school.

For the service part, he teamed up with Allison Sakara, a local disaster-preparedness consultant who helped the teen set up a nonprofit. Together, they use his knowledge of food intolerances to help stock area food pantries.

Since disasters also happen to those who have food sensitivities, Sakara saw this as an unmet need.

"Nick not only knows what works, but also what tastes good," she said.

Though he's not quite ready to replace Chef Emeril, Chef Grub is cooking up some YouTube demonstrations, and he has plans for a cookbook.

"It's something I love doing," he said. "If it makes people feel better, it's worth it."


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