Latest update: December 16th, 2013
Most people prefer to know in advance if their dinner guests have any dietary restrictions. While some people don’t want to impose on their hosts and keep allergies or food sensitivities to themselves, no one likes to see their deli meat-filled puff-pastry appetizer go uneaten because they didn’t know that their guests were vegans, vegetarians, or on some other restricted diet. More often in recent years, people are gluten-intolerant or are choosing to eat a gluten-free diet. This may feel like a challenge to a hostess, but if you know in advance there are some simple ways to accommodate your guests’ special needs.
Why do people turn to a gluten-free diet? There are those that suffer from celiac disease, where, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website, “the body’s natural defense system reacts to gluten by attacking the lining of the small intestine.” This can keep the body from absorbing the nutrients it needs and can cause anemia, osteoporosis, diabetes, and intestinal cancers. It is extremely important for people with celiac disease to avoid gluten. Then there are those with gluten sensitivity who exhibit symptoms that are similar to, but much less severe, than those of celiac disease. Gluten sensitivity can be thought of as a kind of wheat allergy that often results in various kinds of intestinal distress after eating foods that contain gluten. Then there are those who avoid gluten for weight loss reasons, and some who simply say they feel better when they do not eat gluten.
Previously, the use of the term “gluten-free” was unregulated: the popularity of “gluten-free” labeled products had grown so tremendously without oversight that someone with celiac disease could never really be sure that a processed product was truly free of gluten. According to the FDA, an estimated five percent of foods labeled “gluten-free” contained 20 or more parts per million (ppm) of gluten. As of August 2013, however, anything labeled “gluten-free” or that has other wording implying the same meaning must have less than 20 ppm – the smallest detectable amount. Companies have one year to be compliant with the new regulation.
One popular way to identify a gluten-free item is by the GF symbol. The circular icon looks similar to a kashrut certification and is a trademarked symbol of The Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO), a program of The Gluten Intolerance Group. One doesn’t only have to look for foods with the GF certification though; some foods inherently do not contain gluten and won’t necessarily be labeled as gluten-free.
So what is gluten?
Gluten is the protein that occurs in wheat, rye, barley and derivatives such as malt and spelt. It gives elasticity to dough, and gives many foods and baked goods their chewy texture. However there are many “whole foods” to choose from for gluten-free menu items. Chicken, meat, fish, vegetables, potatoes, rice, and fruit are inherently gluten-free and great menu options. The ingredients used to season and prepare these foods would need to be analyzed carefully, though. When making schnitzel, for example, you would not be able to use standard bread crumbs, but instead could use corn flake crumbs, or bread crumbs that are specially formulated to be gluten-free, like those produced by Katz’s Gluten Free, a family-run company that began in 2007.
Mordechai (Motty) Jacobowitz, the director of research and development at Katz’s Gluten Free, explained that his sister, Mrs. Katz, and three of her children have celiac disease. His sister used to do a lot of her own baking and soon got requests from friends and neighbors for her gluten-free baked goods, so she started selling them. Eventually, they saw the demand for gluten-free items in the kosher market and started the company.
Jacobowitz explained that while his company started small and local, after only six years they now have approximately forty different Katz Gluten Free products sold in all 50 states and in major supermarket chains such as Sprouts, Whole Foods, and ShopRite. They are also available in Pomegranate, the gourmet kosher market in Midwood, Brooklyn where Sam Rapaport, a buyer and grocery manager, said that they have seen a “huge increase in demand of gluten-free products, in part because it has become so mainstream.” Rapaport explained that the gluten-free section in Pomegranate has more than doubled in size in the last three years, but that because so many products are now certified as gluten-free, many more items can be found throughout the store shelves within their regular product category. Both Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s markets reported similar set-ups in their stores, citing easily identifiable shelf tags to indicate a gluten-free item. Trader Joe’s has a seven page document on its website available to consumers to download and print, listing many of the gluten-free products it carries, along with a reminder to always check the label in case of manufacturing changes.
Katz Gluten Free’s full line of products can be ordered online as well. Focused on the needs of the kosher consumer, they produce challah – round for the high holidays and special large party challahs can be ordered in advance, hamantaschen in season, and donuts – which started as a request for Chanukah, but have become one of their most popular products (a box of six sells for about six dollars). Poppy seed, sesame seed, and everything-flavored bagels are the company’s newest products.
In the past, people needing kosher gluten-free foods would often stock up on the potato starch-based foods produced especially for Passover. Leah Parnes, who began eating a gluten-free diet ten years ago for health reasons, and her husband Moe started their business, Goldbaum’s Natural Foods, now based in Newark, NJ, to provide the kosher community with better tasting gluten-free options. Last month Goldbaum’s was awarded a new product award in the Best New Bread, Grain, Cereal and/or Cracker category for their new gluten-free flatbreads at KosherFest in New Jersey. Note that this was not a special category for health or gluten-free products. Moe Parnes explained that their choice of ingredients, specifically chickpea flour and corn starch for these flatbreads, made them a tasty cracker for anyone to enjoy. “Every year for the past six years we have seen 100-200% growth in our sales,” said Parnes, attesting to the mainstream nature of his company’s products. “Some need to have it, while others believe they feel better or lose weight on a gluten-free diet. Our focus is to have the best products and unique products.”
One testimonial on the Goldbaum’s company website raves about their ice cream cones. A mom shared her sadness that her daughter couldn’t have a cone with her ice cream as she didn’t like the others available on the market: “You can, therefore, imagine how excited I was when I found your gluten- free cones in my local supermarket. I brought it home and to my delight, my daughter loved it. But that’s not all. Astonishingly, my other kids (and my husband!) preferred this cone to the traditional one!”
Goldbaum’s products include pasta, croutons, couscous, and chips, as well as shelf-stable gluten-free meals, such as beef stuffed cabbage, that could be a nice option for emergency provisions, lunch at work, or traveling. There are many gluten-free options available, and locating gluten-free products in stores is much easier now than in the past.
How can you prepare a gluten-free Shabbos meal for a guest or your family?
By making a few modifications to your usual recipes using gluten-free substitutes you can find on the shelves at your local kosher grocery store, you’ll be able to put together a beautiful four-course Shabbos meal that anyone can enjoy. Try replacing typical gefilte fish (which usually contains gluten because of matza meal) with poached salmon and dill sauce alongside a green or Israeli salad. Check your chicken soup recipe for any gluten; leave out any noodles or matza balls, and serve gluten-free croutons on the side if you can purchase them in your local market. For the main course, roasted chicken with an apricot sauce or a braised beef roast will go well with seasoned rice and a vegetable stir-fry. Bake some hand-cut French fries for the kids. For dessert, a colorful fruit platter and a scoop of parve sorbet accented with a purchased or home-baked gluten-free cookie will round out a delicious meal. You will need to make your selections carefully, but many gluten-free dishes are ones you probably make and enjoy often anyway.
Gluten-free and gourmet?
Gluten-free cooking has become so popular that there are even a number of kosher cookbooks that are exclusively gluten-free – and they are not just for Passover. Gluten-Free Goes Gourmet, written by Vicky Pearl and published by Moznaim, has over 100 gluten-free, kosher recipes. Discover How Tasty Gluten-Free Can Be! by Leiba Bibla has 250 kosher gluten-free recipes.
Eating gluten-free doesn’t mean that you need to sacrifice your eating out, either. Va Bene, an upscale kosher Italian eatery in New York offers the option of gluten-free pasta upon request as replacement in its many pasta dishes. Abigael’s on Broadway, a high class grill and Asian Fusion restaurant, has requests for gluten-free meals every day, according to the manager Jigi Mathew. “Six or seven years ago, it just exploded,” Mathew explained, “and now we have an allergy-free menu available.” The special menu references other food sensitivities as well, such as nut allergies. All of Abigail’s waiters are educated on issues such as cross-contamination so that patrons with food sensitivities can make the proper choices for their needs. French fries, as Mathew pointed out are naturally gluten-free, but breaded items containing gluten may have been cooked in the deep fryer just minutes before, so consumers need to know just how sensitive their gluten issues are.
So whatever your reasons are for avoiding gluten, you can relax that with the proliferation of kosher and gluten-free products you will not have to sacrifice eating out or eating well – not only on Passover, but throughout the year.Amy A. Dubitsky
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