Category Archives: Sprue News

Is Kosher the Next Gluten-Free?

If your response to this post title was, “WTF, Molly? That makes no sense,” then your head is about where mine was when I read this headline on Forbes.com: “Is Kosher the Next Big Food Trend?”

Big trend? Kosher? I didn’t get it. Yes, some people of Jewish heritage and/or faith keep kosher, but by no means all (the majority of my Jewish acquaintances, for example, do not). How could something so very specific to the needs of a relatively small segment of the population become a big food trend?, I wondered.

Then the writer mentioned gluten. Oh, I thought. Right.

“Gluten-free,” arguably helpful only to the 1-ish percent of the population with celiac disease (and to others who may be gluten sensitive), has nonetheless managed to become a “big food trend” because American consumers are so dumb that you can put anything on a package label and they’ll assume it means “healthy.”

Kosher may be enjoying the same halo, bolstered by the sense that something “certified” must be more rigorously inspected and therefore purer than other products—regardless of what it’s actually being inspected for. (In the case of kosher, for pork, “unclean” animal meat, the mixture of milk and meat, etc.)

And gluten-free, too! Photo © marsmettnn tallahassee | Flickr

And gluten-free, too!
Photo © marsmettnn tallahassee | Flickr

Now, kosher and gluten-free aren’t totally dissimilar. One of my coworkers keeps kosher, and for an office potluck, she brought in a zucchini bread, with a clean kosher plastic knife that she asked everyone to use—“because otherwise I won’t be able to eat it.” I’d brought in a soup, which I dumped into a presumably gluten-contaminated pot to heat on the stove—except for the single serving I’d reserved in a clean gluten-free container to microwave for myself. Both she and I were too trendy to eat what the others had brought.

Additionally, for some people who don’t keep kosher, there are health-related advantages to choosing kosher foods. Vegetarians can be confident there’s no animal-derived rennet in kosher cheese, just as those with wheat allergies can be [fairly] confident there’s none of that in gluten-free foods. People who enjoy putting arbitrary restrictions on their food intake in hopes of losing weight are just as well off choosing kosher foods as gluten-free ones.

Plus, foods that are “Kosher for Passover” must be grain-free, and anything grain-free is automatically gluten-free (though the converse is not necessarily true). Many kosher-certified products are therefore certified GF, too—for example, such health foods as Katz cinnamon rugelach and chocolate-frosted donuts, and Glutino chocolate vanilla crème sandwich cookies.

On the subject of sandwich cookies, let’s consider the Oreo. A fine (though not gluten-free) occasional treat, at 160 calories in a serving of three (if you can stop at three), Oreos are predominantly composed of refined flour, oil, and high-fructose corn syrup, and offer little nutritional value. A health food, the Oreo is not.

But what it is, is kosher. In “probably the most expensive conversion of a company from non-kosher to kosher,” according to Prof. Joe Regenstein, Nabisco converted its cookie formula to cut out lard (derived from pork), and blowtorched all of its factory equipment to remove remaining traces on the lines (in the process destroying, and later replacing, some expensive equipment).

All that just to beat out Hydrox, a competing—kosher—brand that existed before Oreos. When Oreos cut out the lard, they gained enough new customers to cut Hydrox out of the sandwich cookie market. Today, many of us have never heard of Hydrox, and for good reason: it no longer exists.

The triumphant victor Photo © Stoffel Van Eeckhoudt | Flickr

The triumphant victor
Photo © Stoffel Van Eeckhoudt | Flickr

However, the fact that at least three brands of chocolate-and-crème sandwich cookies—not to mention marshmallows, hot dogs, soft drinks, and more—have been able to claim kosher certification exists as powerful evidence that “kosher” doesn’t mean “healthy.”

Similarly, though I love Katz and Glutino, I know that their gluten-free (and kosher) desserts are treats, not health foods. You know that, too, I’d wager. But does anyone want to place bets on how few people in the US and worldwide do?

The idea of kosher as the next health trend has been bubbling up for at least a few years. In 2010, the New York Times published “More People Choosing Kosher for Health,” and in 2012, Dr. Weil weighed in on the question “Are kosher foods better for you?” This puts the trend just a couple years behind gluten, which was getting NYT attention in 2007, and Dr. Weil’s in 2010. If the trajectory continues, then by sometime next year, one in three Americans just might be “trying to go kosher.”

Will that happen? To make a probably not kosher joke…dear G-d, I hope not.

I don't think this needs a caption, do you? Photo © ceetap | Flickr

I don’t think this needs a caption, do you?
Photo © ceetap | Flickr

What do you think? Is kosher poised to become the next big thing? Are there health benefits to it that I’m missing? What package labels make you think a food is healthier?

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Gluten in beer? Little is clear. (On Omission, “English beer,” the Gluten Summit, and other mysteries)

You know the old saying, “Beer before liquor, never been sicker. Liquor before beer, you’re in the clear”? Then you may also know that neither half is true: it’s not the kind, but the total amount of alcohol (and water) you drink that determines how ill you feel the morning after.

But, for those of us with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, beer—in any amount, before or after the tequila shots—contains enough gluten to make us sick. That, my friends, is true.

Or is it? This past week, the internet’s been abuzz about two surprising claims regarding gluten in beer.

various beers in glasses

Not gluten-free. (Right?!)
Photo © Cambridge Brewing Co. | Flickr

Omitting Omission no more?

On Monday, the Celiac Sprue Association (CSA), one of several organizations we rely upon—for better or worse—to certify gluten-free products, announced that it has recognized Omission beer as gluten-free.

If you happen to have missed it, Omission is a beer made with hops, yeast, water, and…malted barley. As I’m sure you know, gluten is found in wheat, rye, and barley. Going simply by that definition, one might suspect that Omission is not gluten-free.

However, there’s an added confusion (isn’t there always?): according to Omission, the barley has been processed in such a way that the gluten may be considered removed (or as good as removed). Any “small pieces” that remain supposedly won’t set off our jumpy immune systems the way gluten usually does.

Omission’s own website helpfully (and buttcoveringly) includes an archive of the tests they’ve run on every batch of beer brewed, where skeptical consumers can see for themselves that their beer tested below 10 ppm gluten. The only problem is…we don’t know for sure that the test they used (RIDASCREEN® Gliadin competitive ELISA [Art No. R7021], if you’re curious) actually works.

Gluten is not just one protein; it’s a composite, and slightly different versions of it appear in wheat (gliadin), barley (hordein), and rye (secalin). Although the test is intended to detect all of them, others think it might not be sensitive enough to hordein (in barley and, therefore, Omission). If the test can’t find the particles, there’s no way to know whether they’re there or not. The Omission website admits, “Although scientific evidence supports the testing, the evidence is not conclusive.”

Because of all the confusion over Omission (further explained, very well, here), many of us have chosen to skip it. So when the CSA gave its seal of approval to the beer, the outcry began. Posts at Gluten Dude and Gluten-Free Fun, among others, pointed out contradictions between the CSA’s described standards for certification and its stance in the press release on Omission beer.

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From my perspective, the main issue is the way the CSA gave us the news. The press release indicates that it tested Omission using not the perhaps-faulty ELISA test, but rather mass spectrometry testing, perceived to be more accurate for detecting hordein.

Unfortunately, the press release didn’t address the differences between the tests (and introduced further confusion by including a blurb, presumably provided by Omission, that references the company’s own ELISA testing). So for us reading at home, it’s hard to see why the CSA has suddenly reversed their stated position that “‘Ingredients ‘specially processed to remove gluten’ [are] not allowed—with present available commercial methodology the extent or consistency of the processes is not measurable.”

The CSA has now updated that portion of their “Defining the Term Gluten-Free” page to also read, “Allowed if documented absent of celiac toxic amino acid fractions.”

There are two problems with this revised definition:

  1. The old definition still appears, so it’s an internal contradiction. If available methodology can’t measure the extent of gluten in specially processed grain ingredients, then how could those ingredients be “documented absent” of gluten? The CSA needs to take a position on mass spectrometry testing as an improved alternative to ELISA testing, not just put both “It’s not okay” and “It’s okay” in their guidelines.
  2. The change went up after the press release. You can’t just change your standards to make way for a product you want to approve—and I’m not sure that’s what the CSA was doing, but it sure looks that way. If you’re updating your standards, update the standards first, then approve the product that now fits them.

We now have trouble understanding the CSA’s guidelines and less ability to trust their judgment. So is Omission beer really gluten-free? Hard to know.

Some people won’t eat or drink anything that contains a gluten-containing grain, no matter how processed. But most of us do drink distilled spirits (such as vodka) derived from wheat, rye, or barley, since they’re considered to be gluten-free according to the best possible tests.

If new, validated technology indicates that beer can now be processed similarly to vodka to destroy its gluten content, then fine. Great! But I’m not sure yet that the technology is validated, and the CSA hasn’t convinced me (or really bothered trying). We’ll see what statements come next, but they’ve already messed up by not making their position on mass spectrometry testing clear before stamping Omission as approved.

Oh, but actually, all beer is gluten-free. Wait, what?

On the other hand, Dr. Michael Marsh—yes, he of the “Marsh” I, II, and III classifications of villous atrophy, a celiac expert for sure—might say that all this hullabaloo is for nothing. At the “Gluten Summit” on November 11th, he went on record that it’s perfectly fine for those with celiac disease to drink “good English beer.”

I bet he doesn't know if it's gluten-free, either. Photo © Erik Gustafson | Flickr

I bet he doesn’t know if it’s gluten-free, either.
Photo © Erik Gustafson | Flickr

If you skipped the Gluten Summit, I don’t blame you. Such a mishmash of experts and quacks I have never seen united in one place. In the Marsh interview—the only one that I watched in full—the interviewer asked leading questions (which Marsh answered with such polite negations as, “Ah, [sigh], well, maybe it would be nice to think of that in that way. I’m really not sure [pause] that that is so”), and didn’t manage to establish an agreement with Marsh on the actual definition of gluten sensitivity (fair enough, since no one has).

So when Marsh announced there’s no evidence that beer (specifically English beer) contains gluten, I thought that either it was true (because he seemed like the reasonable one) or that he was pulling his interviewer’s leg. When I scouted around, I found:

  1. Dr. Marsh has made this claim before.
  2. No one else seems to be making the claim.
  3. The gluten content in beer has been tested—here, for just one example—and proven to exist.

Is “English” beer, like Omission, processed in such a way that the gluten is absent or no longer harmful? And have most sensitive measures (e.g., mass spectrometry testing) proved it? I don’t think so! So far as I can tell, the answer is “no.” English beer comes in as many varieties as any other beer, if Wikipedia can be believed, and English beer brewers such as St. Peter’s distinguish between gluten-containing and gluten-free varieties.

If there’s a loophole here, I’m not seeing it, and Marsh didn’t prove it.

To conclude…

The CSA and Dr. Marsh are experts, in their respective ways, on celiac disease and gluten. But I don’t just take the word of experts—no informed consumer does. We look to their evidence, and their standards for gathering it. In this case, neither Marsh nor the CSA has convinced me of anything. They’ve left me with more questions than I had before.

Now, I don’t even like beer. Never did. So while everyone else bickers about mass spectrometry vs. ELISA testing, English vs. Omission beer, I’m happy enough to just move on. If you, like me, prefer wine anyway, I hope that we can share a cheers to that, and work this out later.

Have you been following one or the other of these controversies, and where do you fall? Are you in favor of developing gluten-removed ingredients or would you rather steer clear? And what the heck is “English beer”?

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Ain’t no party like a celiac party

In fact, the only thing that beats a celiac party is THREE celiac events, back to back, like the recent and upcoming ones I’m about to describe. Am I right, or am I right?

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First, for everyone who’s been wondering whether our gluten-free paper mâché piñata held together…the answer is YES. Cornstarch + water pretty much = glue. It’s kind of gross.

Want to make your own? We used this recipe, and it couldn’t be simpler. A few tips, though:

  1. The recipe calls for boiling water, so be careful of tender little hands if you have kiddie helpers (not that you have to; as we can attest, it’s fun at any age).
  2. You’ll need to let the first layer dry a couple days before adding another, so start early.
  3. Paper is stronger than you think, so don’t add a billion layers unless you and your guests have a lot of rage to work out.
  4. We used to paint the shells when we made piñatas with our mom, but this time we glued streamers all over it and called it a day. How you decorate is up to you, but if you really want a gluten-free piñata, pick a GF paint.
Pinterest-worthy, no?

Pinterest-worthy, no?

For fear of it breaking too soon, we were overzealous in our double- and triple-layering, and the piñata ended up a bit too structurally sound. Instead of breaking, after many whacks it came loose from the ceiling, fell to the floor, and still didn’t break. Althea had to go Super Saiyan on it until it finally made like Humpty Dumpty and splat. (Yes, I feel those references belong in a sentence together.)

Our friends were way too cool/sober to rush for the gluten-free, nut-free candy once it hit the ground, though they did eventually saunter over to pick through it. (Tootsie Rolls, Starbursts, and Skittles, if you’re wondering, along with some shockingly good caramel apple lollipops, also in the Tootsie family, in green apple, Golden Delicious, and Macintosh flavors.)

No one filled up their goodie bags (who do they think they are? Grownups?), so we have lots left to give away to trick-or-treaters. We’ve hidden it from ourselves to help it last till Halloween. Do you give out treats at Halloween? Have you bought your stash already, and do you have to hide it from yourself, too?

I had my goodie bag at the ready, going up for my turn (with the mop handle bat).

I had my goodie bag ready, sure I’d bring the candy down on my turn…


...but then did not manage to hit the thing at all.

…but did not manage to hit the thing at all.

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Tonight Althea and I will be heading to another gluten-free party. If you’re in New York City, I hope to see you there! Tickets will be sold at the door for $30, cash or credit, and it’s for a good cause: a fundraiser for the Celiac Disease Center at the University of Chicago.
More details are available HERE, but most importantly, the event includes:

The organizers are clearly out to prove that, contrary to popular opinion and T-shirts, fun hasn’t died yet at the U of C. Perhaps it was the gluten-free diet.

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Finally, next Tuesday, I’m participating in another exciting event: a luncheon at Mehtaphor, part of NFCA’s GREAT Kitchens 10-City Chefs Table Tour. There I’ll learn about—and report on—what top chefs like Jehangir Mehta are doing to extend a hand to the gluten-free community.

Given that I’ve had restaurant training on the brain, I have some questions about GREAT I hope to ask. If there’s anything you’d like to know, let me know.

Chef Mehta is also serving up a gluten-free prix fixe menu on Wednesday, October 23rd, open to the public, so make a reservation through the Mehtaphor website if you’d like a taste.

Will you be attending the party or reserving a table at Mehtaphor? Any other exciting GF events coming up on your horizon?

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Scientists say: schedule gluten, save babies.

Hey new moms and moms-to-be, great news! Scientists have pinpointed the precise moment in your baby’s life when it’s acceptable to introduce gluten to his or her diet.

As long as you administer just the right dose of gluten no earlier or later than 3:42:18 a.m. exactly 126 days after your baby is born, he/she can’t possibly get celiac disease. (We don’t know yet about gluten sensitivity, sorry.) On the other hand, if you jump the gun or miss your cue, Baby is almost guaranteed to develop an autoimmune response to gluten, so get it right.

Don't mess up, now. Photo © Donnie Ray Jones | Flickr

Don’t mess up, now.
Photo © Donnie Ray Jones | Flickr

Sure, feeding gluten at that time goes against the World Health Organization (WHO)’s suggestion to breastfeed exclusively for six months to protect against gastrointestinal infections, decrease your baby’s chances of becoming obese, increase your baby’s likelihood of school success, and reduce your own risk of ovarian and breast cancer. But WHO are they to tell you what to do? You need to look at the big picture, and introduce gluten while you still can!

Oh, and should you follow the WHO’s other recommendation to continue to breastfeed for up to two years, then you’ll really seal the deal: the study demonstrates that babies who still latch on at age one may also be more likely to come down with a case of the celiac. Bummer!

The point I’m making, ladies, is that it’s up to you to prevent the spread of this celiac epidemic. So whatever you do, don’t focus on what seems right for your child’s and your own individual well-being. Your son wants to gum on a crust before the precise moment when it’s acceptable for him to do so? Tell him no! It’s how kids learn. Your eleven-month-old daughter still thinks breast is best? Wean her fast! Keep in mind that mother knows best, except when science does.

It’s too late to avoid passing your child the celiac genes. But you can make it right by timing it right. When it comes to introducing gluten, you must delay, delay, delay, and then ACT FAST. Keep that bread box stocked, and don’t be caught sleeping at the appointed time. In fact, set your alarm now.

Don't let Baby be caught sleeping, either. Photo © Yoshihide Nomura | Flickr

Don’t let Baby be caught sleeping, either.
Photo © Yoshihide Nomura | Flickr

The fate of your child is in your hands (and breasts). Celiac disease prevalence is increasing, and it seems mothers are to blame. Don’t become part of the problem.

If today marks day 127 of Baby’s life, then sorry, you’ve already flubbed it. You can always try again on your next child; science is all about learning from mistakes. Then again, having a sib with celiac disease will pretty much doom any future offspring, too, so you’d better not worry about it too much. After all, when it comes to ruining Baby’s life, getting stressed out is another surefire way.

For more totally-not-overstated headlines about the latest too-small-sample-sized study of a possible celiac risk factor by not-even-completely-convinced-themselves researchers, check out:

I’m glad research on causes of celiac disease continues. Still, I think sometimes we get so excited that science is paying attention to us that we give studies more weight than they deserve (even more than the researchers tell us to give them).

Confusing, isn't it? Photo © Alpha | Flickr

Confusing, isn’t it?
Photo © Alpha | Flickr

This was the latest in a patchwork of conflicting, insufficient studies on celiac disease triggers (and on breastfeeding). Most of the articles do include cautions about study limitations and conflicting existing research. But the headlines are pure mommy (sorry, “parent”) guilt.

Don’t you just love journalism?

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