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Even non-Jewish consumers have caught on to the benefits of Passover as a time for people who are gluten intolerant.
At a Fairway supermarket on the Upper West Side of Manhattan one recent weekday evening, Denise Utt picked up a 1-pound box of Seder Table gluten-free oat matzo. “I’m not even Jewish,” said Utt, who has been shopping in the Passover aisles for decades. “I just like the stuff.”
Experts say that greater vigilance among doctors to spot celiac disease, and easier methods of testing for it, have been central to a huge growth in awareness of gluten intolerance during the past decade.
Lola O’Rourke, a director of the Gluten Intolerance Group, said celiac disease is thought to affect about 1% of Americans and that up to 5% of the population is believed to have some form of gluten intolerance.
But the gluten-free food boom has also been fueled by a perception that these foods are healthier or that they can aid weight loss. O’Rourke warned against this assumption. Just because a package says “gluten-free” does not mean that the food is automatically healthy, she said.
A gluten-free diet could be healthier for people who swap out processed foods with gluten for fruits and vegetables, O’Rourke explained. But processed gluten-free foods are not necessarily an improvement over their gluten counterparts. Removing gluten from food affects the food’s taste and texture, and manufacturers usually improve both by adding fat and sugar, “so often those processed food products will have a greater fat and sugar content than their gluten-containing counterparts,” O’Rourke said.
As a comparison, Yehuda matzos — made of just wheat flour and water — contain no fat, cholesterol or sodium. But Yehuda matzo-style squares — made of tapioca starch, water, potato starch, potato flour, expeller pressed palm oil, natural vinegar, honey, egg yolks and salt — contain 3.5 grams of fat, 10 milligrams of cholesterol and 120 milligrams of sodium per serving.
Sheryl Goldstein, FreshDirect’s gluten-free consultant, said she was “much thinner” when she was first diagnosed with celiac disease, eight years ago. But it has become harder to keep off the pounds as the gluten-free market has expanded to include cookies, crackers, bread, pizza dough, frozen meals and other products.
Some kosher companies, like Katz Gluten Free and Shabtai Gourmet, have been in the year-round gluten-free market for years. Others are moving in that direction. Bensabat said that Manischewitz is starting to roll out its gluten-free products as year-round items, and FreshDirect said it would try to offer gluten-free matzo year-round, too.
Still, for many celiac sufferers, Passover remains a special time of gluten-free gluttony.
Jonathan Papernick said he would order nine boxes of gluten-free Yehuda matzo from Amazon.com this year. He’s following a tradition his mother started many years earlier. After clearing up her bed, Papernick went into the kitchen and opened the freezer. “[It was] jam packed with Passover gluten free food she never got to,” he said.
Additional reporting by Anne Cohen.