Matzah! – Our tortured gastronomical love affair with this square-shaped piece of bread

By Chandrea Serebro

How we love to hate matzah, and how our stomachs hate to love matzah. Most of us spend half of Pesach complaining about the lousy effect that all the matzah, chrain, and wine have on us. Yet, during the week of Pesach, we all delight at the simple pleasure of a creamy slice of geshmeerte matza. Or two. Or, why not three? Who’s counting? Besides, matzah doesn’t fill us up, so it’s very easy to keep going on and on just like the Energizer bunny. But there are some very real concerns when it comes to marvellous matzah and its effects on our digestive system. Of course, some have more real and pressing concerns than others, but it would be wise to take these tips to heart and keep them in mind before gorging yourself on this particular brand of cardboard box cuisine to spare you an achy-breaky stomach for the next eight days.

“Regarding the gastrointestinal effects of matzah, there are three basic categories that we can look at,” says Colorectal Surgeon Dr Dean Lutrin. And how seriously people will listen to your moaning about the cement brick that the matzah left in your stomach will depend on where you fit on the spectrum of matzah moaners.

The truth tellers

There are those who suffer from authentic medical problems and will have real issues if they eat matzah. The main concern here, says Dr Lutrin, are people with Celiac Disease. “Celiac Disease is a true allergy to wheat and gluten.” No grains or anything with gluten can be eaten. For these people, matzah presents a genuine problem, and they should only eat true non-gebrokts foods on Pesach. Lucky for these guys, the shift towards gluten-free eating has made it much easier for them on Pesach, as previously more Pesach food contained the dreaded matzah meal. “The decision as to whether they would be allowed to eat any matzah at all is done on a case by case basis in conjunction with a rabbi and a gastroenterologist.”

Top tip: “Matzah made from oats has the lowest gluten content. Or look for spelt or even egg matzah,” says Dr Lutrin.

“Diabetics also have a concern on Pesach,” says Dr Lutrin. Wine, grape juice, and matzah on the Seder nights, as well as the rest of Pesach, pose a significant carbohydrate challenge and should be carefully watched.

Top tip: “Our digestive health depends largely on fibre and water, so ensure adequate fibre intake from fruits and vegetables and, if you are Sephardi, then beans, peas, and lentils too. Also make sure you are drinking enough (aim for 6-8 glasses) water daily,” says Lauri Isserow, Registered Dietician.

The sensitive souls

Now let’s chat about people who have a gluten intolerance or a just a sensitivity to gluten. These are people who don’t have a true allergy in the medical sense, but they find that it makes them feel below par – symptoms such as diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, abdominal pain, fatigue, and nausea. I know what you’re thinking – that is pretty much all of us on Pesach, right? But seriously, this is a legitimate concern and because these guys fall into what we shall call the grey area of matzah eaters, they should look to have the smallest halachic quantity in order to fulfil the mitzvah of eating matzah, or maybe only have matzah when it is an absolute mitzvah to do so – of course, in consultation with their doctor and their local orthodox rabbi.

Top tip: “For most people, a little matzah is okay for our bodies, but too much is not. Instead of focusing on matzah as the main starch during Pesach, view it as a condiment and eat it sparingly, including potatoes and sweet potatoes as your go-to carbohydrate instead,” says Lauri.

The middle road matzah moaners

Yup, that’s most of us. These are the people without any medical conditions. There is no legitimate reason for anyone to listen to our digestive complaints; none at all. Sadly, complain we must. Especially as many of us actually enjoy a nice slice of matzah (or two) with some avocado or melted cheese, without suffering any of the supposed after effects. But there are still problems that matzah might present. The major issue is the cursed calorie content of matzah.

“Eating matzah is like eating lots of white bread that is very calorie dense,” says Dr Lutrin. Because it is a convenient snack during Pesach (when most of us feel permanently starved anyway), people find themselves consuming a fortune of calories without realising how much they are actually having. And this, says the good doctor, is a concern. “If you consider that a single square of matzah can equal up to two slices of white bread, and you have one slice of matzah a meal for breakfast, lunch, and supper for the eight days of Pesach, you are looking at a whopping 48 slices of white bread for the duration of Pesach! It’s a huge number that most of us would not eat during a normal week,” says Dr Lutrin. “But don’t skip meals because you know that a big meal is coming. Rather eat smaller healthful meals in preparation for the big ones.”

Top tip: “Be aware of the amount of spreads (butter, margarine, jams) you use on your matzah as well, as this is usually much more than you would use on a slice of bread,” says Lauri. “If you tend to experience constipation during Pesach, then decrease your dairy intake as this may exacerbate the constipation.”

Married to matzah

Then there are people who just eat way too much matzah on Pesach. Dr Lutrin has seen “more than one or two people who have been hospitalised for bowel obstructions caused by matzah”. Usually it sorts itself out naturally, but he has had to operate on patients for this rare emergency. This is a legitimate thing, people; so, if you are one of these matzah fiends, beware.

Top tip: “There is no reason to unnecessarily limit matzah if you enjoy it, and no reason to eat it more than halacha requires if you don’t!” says Lauri. “Just like the rest of the year, the focus should be on healthy balanced eating with everything in moderation.”

The health gurus

The key on Pesach is to try and eat as healthily as you can, says Dr Lutrin. The health gurus know that keeping Pesach as green as possible is the best way to handle the matzah meltdown. Fruit and vegetables are your friend on Pesach due to the constipating effects that many experience from matzah, as well as the strain on your pocket from processed Pesach food.

Top tip: “Fan of the Banting diet? Quinoa can replace a lot of the carbohydrates in matzah,” says Dr Lutrin. “Don’t be so quick to re-gift that dried fruit presentation you received. This can help sort out your stomach quite significantly. And mint teas can really help digestion as well.”

Thank you to Izzy Goldfein for this story idea.

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