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Gluten-Free on Pesach

By Rabbi Dovid Cohen, Administrative Rabbinic Coordinator

Q. My family is gluten-free, so does that mean we can eat all our gluten-free food on Pesach?

A. People who are celiac or otherwise choose to avoid gluten will not eat items that contain wheat, rye, spelt, and barley, and at first glance it would seem that anything labeled gluten-free is automatically suitable for Pesach.  The simplest reasons why this is not accurate are that (a) oats can be gluten-free, yet oats mixed with water are chametz, and (b) corn, rice, soy, and beans are all gluten-free but are not eaten by Ashkenazic Jews, due to the custom of avoiding kitnios.  Even more surprising to most people is that in recent years, companies have started producing gluten-free wheat flour (a.k.a. Molino flour) which people use to bake bread and challah which is obviously chametz!  [The flour itself is also chametz, since it is processed with water; it must be discarded or sold before Pesach.]

In addition, to qualify as gluten-free, the FDA requires that the product be shown to contain less than 20 ppm of gluten.  This may be an appropriate standard for people suffering from celiac disease, but such tests will not show whether the product was produced on hot equipment used for chametz/gluten (which was not kashered) or whether the gluten-free products had incidental contact with gluten-containing grains during transit or processing.  Such issues have been observed by Mashgichim overseeing kashrus for items claimed to be gluten-free.

However, there is a more fundamental reason why gluten-free products are not necessarily acceptable for Pesach – the standards for gluten-free and chametz-free are not the same!  The term “gluten” is used to refer to specific proteins (gliadin, hordein, and secalin) found in certain grains, and any item free of those proteins can be labeled gluten-free.  Of course, these grains also have other components such as starch, which may be gluten-free but are most definitely chametz.  Thus, for example, in some countries wheat starch which is converted into glucose, later becomes alcohol, and finally ferments into vinegar, may be labeled “gluten-free”, yet the product is clearly not suitable for Pesach.  A real-life example of this is Benefiber powder, which is made of pure wheat dextrin and is chametz, but since it is free of wheat protein, it is labeled as being gluten-free.  Similarly, Scotch whisky is made of malted barley and is surely chametz, yet the Scotch Whisky Association proudly reports that it is acceptable for coeliacs (the British spelling of “celiacs”).  We also mentioned the example of gluten-free wheat flour above.  These examples reflect the fact that the standard for gluten-free is not the same as the halacha’s standard of chametz-free.

Accordingly, people wishing to purchase food for Pesach should check that the item is certified as being kosher for Pesach and not merely rely on a company’s gluten-free claim.

This article first appeared in the Let’s Talk Kashrus column, Yated Ne’eman, April 12, 2024.