Pesach Kashrus professionals are familiar with the intricacies of ingredients and food production. Often, consumers who have health concerns contact kashrus agencies in order to obtain information about foods and ingredients. This is especially true when it comes to Pesach. Before Pesach, the consumer information lines at the major Kashrus agencies are constantly ringing. Many of these consumers ask question about Pesach and their health needs. This article will discuss some of the ways in which Pesach certified foods may impact on health issues. However, it is important to note that kashrus agencies and Rabbanim are not health specialists. Persons who need guidance with respect to health matters should obtain advice from qualified health specialists, not from kashrus agencies.
It is important to be aware if the problem is gluten intolerance, celiac, or a true allergy. These three conditions vary significantly. Gluten intolerance is a nuisance. If wheat gluten is consumed by a gluten intolerant person the results may be stomach aches, diarrhea, and general malaise. Similar symptoms are experienced by people who suffer from a celiac condition, however, the similarity stops here. Celiac is a malabsorption problem that affects the intestines. Ingesting gluten triggers their immune system to launch an attack on the small intestine. Thus, every time a person with celiac consumes gluten, the small intestines are damaged. The long term cumulative effects of consuming gluten can be devastating for a celiac person. Consequently, such an individual must not consume any gluten. Celiac is not a life threatening disease. However, allergies can be life threatening. An allergic person exposed to an allergen could experience an anaphylactic shock and stop breathing. Therefore, one must be aware whether wheat must be avoided because of gluten intolerance, celiac disease or allergies.
The US government has determined that an item is ‘gluten free’ at 20 ppm (parts per million) of gluten. For allergies, the threshold is 0 ppm. I would strongly recommend that anyone with an allergy to wheat or celiac disease ascertain whether the manufacturer uses matzo meal or cake meal in other products. If the answer is positive, it is likely that even the items not containing matzo meal may contain some gluten that can even exceed the government threshold.
There is no substitute for reading labels. Wheat can be listed as matzah, matzo meal, cake meal, farfel, egg matzo or matzo balls. Even after all is said and done, there are numerous safe items available for Pesach, which include but are not limited to, candies, chocolate, catsup, jam, jelly, spaghetti and even pizza. In fact, there are more wheat free products available for Pesach than during the rest of the year. A significant number of people that suffer from gluten related conditions, Jewish and non-Jewish, take advantage of the many gluten free products available for Pesach.
For those suffering from wheat allergies, or celiac disease, who are contemplating a vacation at a Passover certified hotel, it would be prudent to limit themselves to a non-gebrokts program. This means that no matzo or matzo-based product (such as matzo meal) will be used in any food preparation in the kitchen. There will be wheat based matzo served with the meals but it will not be used in the kitchen in food preparation. Matzo will be placed in a box on the table. While there are programs that advertise “non-gebrokts” available, it would not be safe for someone who is allergic to wheat or a celiac person to participate in such a program. As we discussed earlier, gluten free products must meet a threshold of less than 20 ppm (parts per million) gluten. For allergies, this 20 ppm threshold is not sufficient. The number needed is ZERO. A kitchen that is preparing both gebrokts and non-gebrokts food would have difficulty meeting this standard.
It is feasible for allergic and celiac people to be at a hotel for Passover. If they gather a group with sufficient numbers, then a small hotel can host them. I know of several hotels that operate Passover programs for small crowds of 100-150 people. It takes some time to organize such a group, but it can be done. Nothing is impossible.
Tree nuts are also considered an allergen. Typically, nuts are used in charoset. It is customary to use both almonds and walnuts in charoset. For someone allergic to nuts, I would recommend the recipe for charoset be apples, figs, dates, pomegranates, and wine. There is no question that the mitzvah of charoset can be fulfilled by using this recipe. Peanuts are also a common allergen. However, even though Rav Moshe Feinstein writes that peanuts are not kitniyot, most Jews of Ashkenazic extraction do not use peanuts on Pesach.
Consumers who are concerned about nuts should know that kernel paste is another name for ground nuts. Most Passover certified bakeries use kernel paste as a base for their products. Most of the cakes and cookies certified Kosher for Passover contain nuts in some form or another. A person allergic to nuts should avoid commercially baked products. Even if a bakery produces cakes and cookies without nuts, as long as nuts are used in the facility it may be dangerous for an allergic person to eat them. It is quite possible that the ppm of nuts in the air is quite high. This does not imply that an allergic person cannot eat any cake or cookies on Pesach. There are many recipes for different types of cakes and cookies that do not contain nuts. You may be surprised by how many different types of pastries can be produced from potato starch, eggs, oil, sugar, honey, cocoa, salt and spices. Sponge cakes, marble cakes, chocolate loaves, brownies, jelly rolls, seven layer cake, and cookies are only some of the items that can be made without any nuts.
For those with an allergy to dairy products, chocolate should not be part of their diet year round; not just on Passover. Although there are chocolate products that are certified pareve, however, for allergies no chances should be taken. Most chocolate manufacturers who produce both dairy and pareve products have separate lines for the dairy and the pareve products. However, separate lines do not guarantee a dairy-free product. At some facilities, the separate lines start at the later stage of processing, such as the refiners and conches, where the product is heated, and not at the earlier stages where the powder mixers can be used for both dairy and pareve powders. While the mixers are adequately cleaned out between the dairy and pareve mixes in order to allow the mix to be called pareve, however, from an allergen point of view, it is woefully inadequate. The next part of the chocolate process to share equipment is the mold. Since the liquid chocolate poured into the mold is not very hot (generally less than 100 degrees), a cleanup, rather than a full koshering suffices. From an allergen standpoint, there are probably more than 0 ppm in pareve chocolate. Whether it is Pesach or all year around, someone allergic to dairy should refrain from chocolate.
The importance of reading the ingredient statement on the label of any manufactured food cannot be understated. If a person has an allergy to any food product, whether it is wheat, eggs, nuts, dairy, or whatever, he may be taking his life into his hands by not reading labels. I would recommend that he carry a magnifying glass with him in order to read the small print. Remember, as one ages, the print seems to become smaller.
Let me end this article by wishing everyone a Kosher and healthy Pesach. Remember, there is no place in the Torah that requires one to become sick during Pesach. If there are health issues involved, please consult a health specialist and your Rav.