Managing food allergies is a year-round challenge, but kosher for Pesach food has significant implications for people with several common food allergies or sensitivities. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the top eight food allergens are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. Kosher for Pesach food can make it easier to avoid some of these allergens, while making it harder to avoid others.
Most Jewish holidays involve food (or abstaining from food) in some way, but Pesach literally takes the cake. For the eight-day holiday, Jews abstain from eating chametz — leavened food made of wheat, barley, spelt, rye, or oats.
So, does gluten free mean kosher for Pesach, and vice versa?
NO. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, spelt, and rye. People with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity cannot eat anything containing these four grains. Matzah — and related products like matzah meal and matzah farfel — is usually made from wheat, which contains gluten. However, oats themselves do not contain gluten, although they are frequently grown and stored with gluten-containing grains, so many gluten-free products contain oats. If the oats are mixed with anything other than water, the product is gluten free but also chametz. Therefore, the kosher for Pesach and gluten-free designations are not interchangeable.
Several gluten-free “matzah-like” products are now commercially available in the U.S. The products found in supermarkets are usually “matzah-style” crackers made from potato starch or tapioca starch. These “matzah-style” crackers are both gluten-free and kosher for Pesach, but they are not made from one of the five grains that can be used to make matzah for the haMotzi blessing — the same five grains that become chametz if mixed with anything other than water. Oats do not contain gluten, but are one of the five grains that can be made into matzah, so oat matzah is both gluten-free and suitable to use for the haMotzi blessing during the Pesach Seder and holiday meals. Locally, Baked by Yael in Washington, D.C. and Seasons in Baltimore both carry gluten-free oat matzah (visit https://bakedbyyael.com or https://seasonskosher.com/for details.)
While matzah brei, matzah lasagna, and matzah balls are popular Pesach dishes, some people do not eat any food containing matzah mixed with a liquid (referred to as gebrokts). Food items labeled non-gebrokts, therefore, do not have any gluten ingredients. Non-gebrokts products offer an opportunity for people on gluten-free diets to get items they may not find during the rest of the year. However, products containing matzah still dominate and most Ashkenazim (Jews of eastern European descent) don’t eat popular gluten-free grains like rice and buckwheat (which are kitniyot, as explained below) on Pesach, so it’s a toss-up as to whether Pesach makes gluten-free diets easier or harder.
Kitniyot: Nuisance or Blessing?
Jews from around the world do not eat chametz on Pesach, but many Ashkenazi Jews also abstain from kitniyot. Literally translated as “legumes,” when it comes to Pesach, kitniyot is an amorphous category, including common allergens like soybeans and peanuts, along with corn, sesame seeds, rice, beans, and other foods. According to the Mishnah Berurah, the prohibition against eating kitniyot came about because kitniyot were harvested and processed like chametz, could be ground into flour and baked like chametz, and were often planted or stored with chametz, and therefore could have chametz grains mixed in.
Most Ashkenazi Jews lament the additional restrictions on kitniyot, but for people with certain allergies, refraining from kitniyot is actually blessing. There is no single, definitive list of kitniyot, but both the Orthodox Union (OU) and the Star-K consider the allergens soybeans, peanuts, corn, and sesame seeds to be kitniyot, so kosher for Pesach products certified by those agencies do not contain these ingredients. For people with these allergies, kosher for Pesach food offers a wealth of options not available during the year, like sodas, margarine, chocolate chips, and other sweets made without soy, corn, or dairy. These products have gained popularity in the secular food allergy community, and kosher for Pesach Coca-Cola (with the yellow cap) has a particularly large secular following, since it contains sugar rather than high-fructose corn syrup, which is closer to the “original recipe.”
NOTE: Always err on the side of caution when dealing with food allergies. Cross-contamination may still be an issue, so read labels carefully. Additionally, while American products are predominantly geared toward Ashkenazim, and therefore free of kitniyot, the influx of imported products, particularly from Israel, means that products intended for Sephardim (Jews of Spanish or Portuguese descent) and Mizrachim (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent), which are labeled kosher for Pesach but contain kitniyot, are now more readily available in U.S. stores.
Passover Substitutes: What’s in That cake?
By definition, kosher for Pesach baked goods cannot rise — so what are all of those Pesach cakes, cookies, and muffins made out of? Eggs, lots of eggs, some tree nuts, and more eggs (plus oil and sugar). For people who are allergic to eggs or tree nuts — two of the most common allergens — kosher for Pesach products, particularly baked goods, are more dangerous than average baked goods. The majority of packaged and homemade kosher for Pesach baked goods contain one or both of these allergens. While eggs have always been a Pesach staple, the increasing popularity of gluten-free baking has made nut flours like almond flour more common. Coconut flour is also increasingly popular; while the FDA classifies coconut as a tree nut, some people with tree nut allergies can safely eat coconut.
When in doubt, read labels, ask people about their allergies, and ask a rabbi any questions about what qualifies as chametz or kitniyot. Chag sameach!
By Malka Goldberg
Malka Goldberg is the Community News editor for Kol HaBirah.