How to Have an Allergen-Free Passover
With matzo and eggs the two biggest symbols of this Jewish holiday, is it possible to avoid these allergens? With new products on the market, an eye for reading ingredients, and an acknowledgment that Jews contribute recipes from all over the world, the answer is yes.
With its complex dietary laws that guide how we eat for seven to eight days, Passover is a challenging holiday. But for Jews with food allergies, which a 2018 Clinical Pediatric pilot study found to be as high as 37 percent of us, Passover goes beyond difficult into nightmare territory.
Add in that Jews are famously lactose-intolerant and also prone to inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) like celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn's disease. All of this can affect how we process gluten.
While some physicians will say the difference between an allergy and an intolerance is anaphylaxis — you're really only allergic if you're in danger of dying from it, they might argue — this is no longer the case for most health care providers. The Mayo Clinic, for example, acknowledges that gastrointestinal reactions are reason enough to label someone allergic to a food item.
Still, the semantics don't matter. Two of the most symbolic foods for Passover are matzo and eggs; these are also some of the products that cause us the most discomfort.
In my family alone, my mother-in-law, husband, and daughter are all gluten-free for IBD reasons, while I'm allergic to eggs and lactose-intolerant. Seders are not only overly complicated as a result, but meal-planning for the entire week is a tremendous struggle.
Or, at least, it used to be. But with new products on the market, some label-reading know-how, and an acknowledgment that Jews from all over the globe have recipes to share, it's easier now more than ever.
Gluten-Free Products for Passover
To start with, the broad availability of gluten-free products in recent years has included matzo. (If you thought that matzo didn't include gluten to begin with, think again: It does contain wheat, only it's unfermented.) It used to be you only had basic choices for matzo, depending on the brand: egg, salted, or plain/unsalted. But now Manishewitz, Yehudah, Streit's, and Lieber's brands all make gluten-free versions. Streit's even has three different flavors: Original, Onion, and Everything, each without gluten.
The caveat: All of them include eggs. So if you're planning to grind up some squares to make matzo balls, use for a coating on chicken, sprinkle on top of a piece of fish or a veggie casserole, or include in basics like meatloaf, you might accidentally give someone in your household a reaction.
As for gluten-free matzoh meal, count on the same four brands. Also count on egg being included in the ingredients. The same is true for matzo ball mixes from Manishewitz, Streit's, and Leiber's. In fact, any commercial brand is going to contain eggs because they leaven the matzo balls. Without eggs, matzoh balls are more like bowling balls. They won't float in chicken soup. They'll sink.
Do note, though, that Lieber's only uses yolk powder. The Mayo Clinic notes that most people are only allergic to the proteins in the egg whites.
Regardless, be cautious when reading labels. Some, like Lieber's, don't say egg directly. Others use the words albumin, globulin, or lecithin. Anything beginning with the three letters "ovo-" means egg is included somehow. And cross-contamination in a facility, whether it's to egg, gluten, tree nuts, soy, or something else, is likely, and usually is indicated on the label.
If you're egg-free but fine with eating gluten, you can make your own matzo balls with a flax egg (a gluey substance you make yourself with flax seeds) or, depending how observant you are, JUST Egg, a commercial, plant-based replacement that uses mung bean and turmeric. (If you can't consume either, try replicating the texture using potatoes.)
JUST Egg liquid substitute and JUST Egg Mayo are certified kosher by the Orthodox Union, but they're not necessarily parve. (JUST Egg Folded, a toaster-ready frozen product, and Just Egg Sous Vide, little soufflé-like items forthcoming spring 2021, are not yet certified kosher.) Do note, however, that JUST Egg products contain soy.
If you celebrate Ashkenazi traditions (see below), you can also make your own gefilte fish and chopped liver with flax eggs or JUST Egg. Jarred gefilte fish, whether it's Rokeach, Kedem, Mrs. Adler's, or any of the aforementioned brands, all contain egg whites. It doesn't matter if they're in jelly or in broth, sweetened with sugar Polish-style or given texture with beets, parsnips, or carrots à la Lithuanian and Ukrainian Jews. Egg helps to form the fish patties.
Likewise, matzo meal is often added to homemade versions. But commercial products are usually gluten-free, and these days they say so on the label.
As for chopped liver, it's typically mixed with hard-boiled, chopped egg. You may be able to buy this from a delicatessen rather than make it yourself. But even if you don't see egg, don't assume it's not there.
Your regular supermarket loves to put on a big display right before and during Passover to tempt you to stock up on expensive parve products to get you through the week. (And wow, are Passover products pricey!) But keep in mind that a lot of those matzo-meal cake and cookie mixes rely on coconut or almond flour to make them taste sweet or force them to bind. This is a danger for those with tree nut allergies.
And while they are gluten-free, the standard, ready-made coconut macaroons and chocolate-covered marshmallows also contain egg whites. Meanwhile, homemade recipes often ask you to add super-sweet condensed milk.
For your own baking items, as well as dairy-free milk and creamer, and out-of-the-box Passover products that range from ready-made brisket sauce to pickled mango (to satisfy a diversity of Jews), try AviGlatt.com. They deliver anywhere.
Related: 10 Vegan Passover Desserts
A majority of American Jews, like me, are descended from the Ashkenazi tribe (from Eastern Europe, France, Germany, and Russia). But others are Sephardic (from Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East), like many of the Latin American Jews resettled in Miami, where I live.
Worldwide, there are also Mizrahi Jews (from Asia or the Far East) and Ethiopian Jews. It's important to acknowledge that I write from an Ashkenazi background, but Judaism is far more diverse than most people think. Each Jewish person has their own recipes, dishes, and traditions for Passover, according to their culture and customs.
This also means that a Seder can look entirely different food-wise depending on who's hosting it. For instance, Ashkenazi Jews ban a group of foods called kitniyot — legumes, nuts, and seeds — during Passover while Sephardic Jews, who rely on them as well as rice, do not.
Mizrahi or Ethiopian Jews might cook with fresh and dried fruit, nuts, and complex spice mixes featuring chile peppers in their dishes. In other words, anyone can include a potential allergen for which you should be prepared, or at least watch out for, should you be invited to someone else's home.
For Ashkenazim with gluten and egg intolerances or Sephardim with sensitivities to saponins, look to sibling tribes' recipes for inspiration. For me, nothing is more of a relief than attending a Sephardic or Mizrahi Seder, where I can eat almost everything on the table, at least eventually. Allergies aside, nothing is going to shorten that ceremonial service before the meal. I mean, drinking four ritual glasses of wine does take a little bit of time.