Jews (and non-Jews) with health concerns find the Passover aisle liberating

More gluten-free products are available at Passover, and an array of blogs offers recipes on how to use them. (Hillel Kuttler)
More gluten-free products are available at Passover, and an array of blogs offers recipes on how to use them. (Hillel Kuttler)

BALTIMORE (JTA) – Grasping a jar of jam in the Passover aisle of a large supermarket here, Kevin Brinson turned to a stranger and asked, “Do you know when Passover ends this year?”

Brinson isn’t dreading the holiday to the extent that two weeks before its start, he’s already anticipating its conclusion.

In fact, he eagerly awaits Passover each year. For Brinson, who isn’t Jewish, Passover is personal.

Having a medical intolerance of corn, Brinson, an electronics technician with the city’s Transit Authority, knows he’ll find an array of products on the shelves each spring that aren’t readily available the rest of the year. He then purchases items free of corn and corn syrup – for Brinson, this means mayonnaise, ketchup, macaroons and Coca-Cola – before the holiday.

And as soon as Passover ends, he returns to buy in bulk whatever’s been drastically discounted when the demand drops.

While corn is not a prohibited food for Passover observers, it falls into the category of kitniyot, or legumes, that Ashkenazic Jews traditionally avoid.

Foods omitting other ingredients bothersome or dangerous to those with sensitivities or allergies similarly find a market among consumers who don’t observe Passover but look for items with kosher-for-Passover certification. They include people who avoid products containing gluten and seek items that substitute potato starch for wheat because of the holiday’s prohibitions against consuming leavened products.

Rabbi Menachem Genack, chief executive officer of the kashrus division of the Orthodox Union, said he’s unable to quantify the sales of such items to those not observing Passover but who buy products for medical reasons. Still, like for kosher products year-round, “the market is larger than for people who are just concerned with kosher-dietary laws,” he said.

Menachem Lubinsky, whose Brooklyn, N.Y., marketing firm specializes in kosher products, said kosher-for-Passover items in 2013 produced $1.1 billion in sales, including $90 million in matzah.

Among those relying on O.U. certification of Passover products is Cynthia Kupper, the executive director of the Gluten Intolerance Group, which is based near Seattle and has 5,000 members nationally.

“Passover is the time of year that people with celiac disease will stock up,” said Kupper, a Methodist who has the disease. “Even my non-Jewish friends will go out and look for things not produced except at Passover.”

The Gluten Intolerance Group, in fact, certifies gluten-free food items with a GF symbol throughout the year (nearly 21,000 in 2013). In 2005, it began partnering with the O.U. in that venture, Kupper said.

Because of the Orthodox agency’s expertise regarding ingredients and its relationships with food manufacturers, she explained, it was “very instrumental in helping us get that started.” Kupper said she was alerted to the O.U. by a Jewish friend living in New York.

Consumers with gluten intolerances are known to create and share lists digitally of kosher-for-Passover, gluten-free products, she said.

Websites such as Gluten Free Palace present various Passover products, and an array of blogs offer gluten-free Passover recipes. They include one run by Jules Shepard, who writes that Passover “is not just for those in the Jewish faith” and urges readers to “take a few extra minutes the next time you’re in the grocery store and peruse the kosher section” for gluten-free products.

The Passover and Easter section of Shepard’s blog offers a basic explanation of the religious basis for the Passover diet of Jews and informs gluten-intolerant readers about some products available primarily at Passover time. Shepard also provides recipes for baking matzah made from oat flour and other grains while noting that traditional matzah is made from wheat, making it inedible for those who are sensitive to gluten.

Jews, particularly the observant, constitute the primary market, of course, for kosher-for-Passover products — but not only for kashrut reasons.

Joel Schnur, a Brooklyn resident with Crohn’s disease who keeps strictly kosher year-round, stocks up on gluten-free Passover products ordinarily unavailable.

On Tuesday alone, Schnur said, he spent $1,500 on kosher-for-Passover gluten-free products – $1,000 just on 15 cases of chicken soup in containers, the rest on cake mixes, gefilte fish, croutons and faux-bread crumbs.

He has yet to purchase favorites such as frozen waffles and blintzes, along with such big-ticket items as oat-flour matzah, which costs up to $29 a box.

Nearly all those items are acceptable only because Schnur, who works in public relations, does not follow the Passover custom observed by some of refraining from gebrokts, matzah products containing liquid.

Schnur carefully checks ingredients on packages, anyway, to assure that his condition can tolerate them. The gluten-free offerings at Passover time are “like manna from heaven,” he said, because they “expand my ability to eat more products.”

After Passover, he races to stores to buy the expensive boxes of oat-flour matzah at about half the price.

In Baltimore, that’s what Brinson does for his favorite items, buying enough Coke (made with sugar instead of corn syrup) to last at least a few months, when the carbonation begins to dissipate.

Knowing that Jews and non-Jews with health issues seek out kosher-for-Passover foods gratifies Rabbi Zvi Holland, a kashrut administrator at Baltimore’s Star-K, a large food-certification agency.

“We’re pleased,” he said, “that the work of kosher certification benefits a very broad population.”