BEIRUT: With Easter Sunday come the trays artfully arranged with maamoul and other stacked sweets. And with the consumption of all these confections comes the inevitable groans of next-day resolutions to be healthier.
For Lebanese, the options for eating “cleaner” bread and pastries – whether for health or environmental reasons – are increasing, as new bakeries open in the country offering organic, wheat-free and gluten-free fare.
“It’s a lifestyle. The closer you are to your food, the better it is for you,” said Soumaya Merhi, the founder of Square Bread Basket, which offers a range of wheat-free and vegan baked goods made from locally sourced grains such as oats and barley.
As the name suggests, the products also happen to be square-shaped, as opposed to the ordinarily round balls of maamoul or circular loaves of pita bread.
The bakery, based in Tripoli but with its products available throughout Lebanon, opened just over a year ago with the goal of providing bread and pastries made with a greater diversity of grains.
“Most people consume white, unrefined wheat. We try to work with other grains from the Mediterranean region,” Merhi said.
For Easter, she has developed a line of maamoul using organic coconut oil and oat flour with pistachios, walnuts and dates.
While Merhi values organic products, she prefers to use primarily local ingredients and process them directly, which often rules out using the official “organic” label.
“We’re against big, big agriculture. We work with wholesome ingredients, both locally sourced and some from abroad,” she explained.
Rayan Daou, whose Organic Bakery products can also be found across Lebanon, has chosen the other route, and only uses 100 percent organic ingredients for his company’s bread and pastries.
“The goal is to give the people clean, organic food. So we import all the raw materials,” he said.
Daou said the initiative was born of personal need. Unable to find fresh, certified-organic baked goods in Lebanon, he began making his own and eventually expanded to industrial production three years ago.
In addition to the green and health-conscious nature of Organic Bakery’s products, the brand offers gluten-free bread for people suffering from Celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
“We have gluten-free bread as well as wheat-free bread. Each grain has a different gluten content so some people are more sensitive to one or the other. We have bread made with different grains for different allergies.”
Internationally, the popularity of wheat-free and gluten-free products has exploded, as more people adopt gluten-free or organic diets as part of weight-loss regimes or holistic lifestyle changes.
For example, fad diets like the Paleo Diet – short for Paleolithic – promotes a style of eating that its creators believe to be closer to how early humans ate, avoiding things like dairy, grains and refined sugars.
Lebanese have become increasingly aware of Celiac disease and the effects gluten can have on the body for those who are sensitive to it, Daou said.
Gluten is a type of protein found to varying degrees in different grains. Some forms, such as wheat and spelt, have higher contents and are therefore more likely to affect those with an allergy, Lynn Charabaty, a licensed dietitian, told The Daily Star.
She explained that there is a clear difference between Celiac disease and non-Celiac gluten intolerance.
Those who are intolerant will experience some irritation as their body struggles to process the protein, while people with the disease are at risk of damaging their intestines because their stomach fails to recognize gluten.
Rising awareness about both gluten intolerance and Celiac disease have lead other local bakeries to offer gluten-free lines of breads and pastries.
Pate Boulanger and Al-Sultan Bakery also told The Daily Star that they had seen an increase in interest in such products, with most customers citing Celiac disease or allergies as the reason they chose to go gluten-free.
Still, Merhi said, gluten-free or not, the focus should also be on a diversity of grains in Lebanese baked goods.
Whether customers are avoiding gluten for health reasons or are just trying to be more conscious of what they put into their bodies, the trend in wholesome bakeries with more salubrious breads and pastries is clearly on the rise.