Is THIS Food For You? Here’s how to decipher the ingredients, so YOU can decide

We became savvy about traditional food and more aware of the dangers of many manufactured food products about 13 years ago and consequently overhauled our whole diet and pantry. Since we are more careful about the foods we buy, we study ingredient lists to familiarize ourselves with those products that are acceptable and those that are not. Gone are the polyunsaturated vegetable oils, soy (unfermented), and most processed foods. We buy organic products as much as possible. We also are quite careful not to buy products that have additives, including those that are not necessary to be included in the product. That means that just as we don’t buy most packaged goods anymore, it also means that we don’t buy tomato paste/sauce that has added sugar, jelly or jam with added sugar, or dairy products that are made with anything besides milk, probiotics, enzymes, and salt (preferably sea salt).

For a long time now, all our cakes and bread/challah have been homemade. However, if I have to buy bread, cake, or crackers, I carefully check the ingredients to make sure that they are few and (as much as possible) contain nothing that I wouldn’t put in if I was making it myself. I will buy coconut milk with only guar gum added, but nothing else. That means that if I can’t find it without the extra ingredients I don’t buy it. Sometimes it can’t be helped, but that’s my rule of thumb.

A quick, informal Facebook survey I took a little while ago revealed that many people just know which additives/E-numbers they must or want to avoid and accept all other ingredients. But just what is it that we are eating when we buy packaged goods with all sorts of ingredients that we can’t pronounce or decipher? Is it food? Is it healthy? How do we know?

tomato paste
Spices, seasonings, (sea) salt, baking powder, and other such ingredients that we use to enhance our own cooking are some of the food additives on these lists. Most of them, however, are items needed in order to keep processed food tasting good, looking pretty, and feeling nice in your mouth, make up for missing ingredients (like fats and nutrients), provide product consistency, and retard spoilage (good for long shelf life).

In the United States and Canada additives are listed on food packages by their natural or chemical names and in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Israel, and other countries they are listed as E numbers. The European Food Safety Authority, the United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA), the United Kingdom Food Standards Authority , and similar agencies in Australia and elsewhere approve or disapprove the addition of these ingredients based on their own safety assessments.

This means that although many additives receive general across the board approval, there are also ingredients which are not uniformly approved – they are banned in some countries but not in others. Some ingredients may lose approved status and their use discontinued, other ingredients may be limited as to the amount that’s permissible to be included, and, of course, new ingredients will be also be added from time to time in the list of acceptable additives.

E-numbers are categorized according to the following numbering scheme, with each category containing a number of different additives:

100 – 199 – Colors
200 – 299 – Preservatives
300 – 399 – Antioxidants & Acidity regulators
400 – 499 – Thickeners, Stabilizers, & Emulsifiers
500 – 599 – pH Regulators & Anti-Caking agents
600 – 699 – Flavor enhancers
700 – 799 – Antibiotics [probably animal feed, not human food]
900 – 999 – Miscellaneous (waxes, synthetic glazes, improving agents, packaging gases, sweeteners, foaming agents)
1100 – 1599 – Other chemicals (New chemicals that do not fall into standard classification schemes such as emulsifiers, humectants, stabilizers, thickening agents, flavors, flavor solvents, and resolving agents)

Would you like to know what it is you are about to buy the next time
you go to the supermarket? Download these E-number apps
to use at the grocery and become a better informed consumer.

Following is the FDA’s list of food ingredients and their purposes. Click here for more information including examples of uses and the ingredient names found on product labels (see their question: “What is the role of modern technology in producing food additives?”):

Sounds yummy, doesn't it? See below to find out what you would be eating.

See below to find out what you would have bought. (From Nourishing Traditions, revised second edition, page 449. )

Anti-caking agents: Keep powdered foods free-flowing, prevent moisture absorption
Color Additives: Offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture and storage conditions; correct natural variations in color; enhance colors that occur naturally; provide color to colorless and “fun” foods [Americans know these as “FD&C” colors or as “Red dye number…”. There are some colors which are exempt from having to be declared by name and can be identified as “colorings” or “color added”]
Dough Strengtheners and Conditioners: Produce more stable dough
Emulsifiers: Allow smooth mixing of ingredients, prevent separation, keep emulsified products stable, reduce stickiness, control crystallization, keep ingredients dispersed, and to help products dissolve more easily
Enzyme Preparations: Modify proteins, polysaccharides and fats [ we would expect this in cheese and dairy products since it is enzymes which convert milk into cheese, yogurt, etc.]
Fat Replacers (and components of formulations used to replace fats): Provide expected texture and a creamy “mouth-feel” in reduced-fat foods
Firming Agents: Maintain crispness and firmness
Flavor Enhancers: Enhance flavors already present in foods (without providing their own separate flavor) [Monosodium glutamate in a variety of forms]
Flavors and Spices: Add specific flavors [natural and synthetic]
Gases: Serve as propellant, aerate, or create carbonation
Humectants: Retain moisture
Leavening Agents: Promote rising of baked goods
Nutrients: Replace vitamins and minerals lost in processing (enrichment), add nutrients that may be lacking in the diet (fortification) [very often synthetic vitamins]
pH Control Agents and acidulants: Control acidity and alkalinity, prevent spoilage
Preservatives: Prevent food spoilage from bacteria, molds, fungi, or yeast (antimicrobials); slow or prevent changes in color, flavor, or texture and delay rancidity (antioxidants); maintain freshness
Stabilizers and Thickeners, Binders, Texturizers: Produce uniform texture; improve “mouth-feel”
Sweeteners: Add sweetness with or without the extra calories
Yeast Nutrients: Promote growth of yeast

Some of these products are totally natural, some start off as natural ingredients but are highly processed into a different product, and still others are totally synthetic. There are also ingredients that can come from a natural or synthetic source, yet are identified by the same name, such as ascorbic acid otherwise known as Vitamin C.

The FDA explains the difference between natural and synthetic ingredients:

Natural ingredients are derived from natural sources (e.g., soybeans and corn provide lecithin to maintain product consistency; beets provide beet powder used as food coloring). Other ingredients are not found in nature and therefore must be synthetically produced as artificial ingredients. Also, some ingredients found in nature can be manufactured artificially and produced more economically, with greater purity and more consistent quality, than their natural counterparts.

Are synthetic products really the same as natural foods and do our bodies recognize them as food to be used to promote our health (or at least do us no harm)? What about those that are not found in nature?

Many of these we would never put in homemade foods so why are we accepting them if they are on a supermarket shelf? If we really understood what we were eating, would we, could we?

* Answer to “Know Your Ingredients” above: You would have bought Nature’s Cupboard Hearty Granola Bread. At least it has no artificial preservatives added :). But would you call it “hearty granola bread?”

Is “Gush Katif” Bug-Free Israeli Produce Safe to Eat?

Kosher With No Certificate, an article appearing online in Globes on June 19, 2014 and in the Sunday, June 22, 2014 Business & Finance section of The Jerusalem Post (where I saw it) answered a question that I’ve had for a while. (I wasn’t sure where to go for the answer, so I’m glad that the Globes’ Dafna Bramley Golan knew with whom to speak.) My question: “Did the producers of bug-free “Gush Katif” vegetables decrease the amount of pesticides used since it became known to the Rabbanut in 2012 that the means employed to render their produce “bug-free” was to use dangerously high levels of pesticides?”

The original “Gush Katif “ vegetables were grown in a special environment in Gush Katif, before the 2005 disengagement, so as to render them bug-free. After Israel left Gush Katif and the greenhouses to the Arab population, they were not able to replicate the bug-free produce that the Israelis grew.

In the article Palestinians Boot Jews, Now Ask Them for Help, by Aaron Klein of WND, Anita Tucker, a Gush Katif farmer discusses some of the techniques Gush Katif farmers used to produce their bug free vegetables :

Tucker explained she and other Katif farmers engineered agricultural technology specific to the dry, sandy Gaza conditions.

“We used different kinds of netting, also aluminum, since we knew the reflection of the sun kept bugs away,” she said. “We used colors because we knew certain kinds of bugs were attracted to or kept away from different colors. We used certain organic insecticides for certain plants, and were very strict about which chemicals we used. We kept our greenhouses as clean as possible. And we also had our own proprietary inventions and technology.”

This freed the kosher consumer from the tedious job of carefully washing and checking leafy greens and other vegetables that harbor insects, since they are not allowed to be eaten by those who observe kashrut laws. Buying vegetables labeled as “Gush Katif” simply meant that the vegetables needed to be soaked for a few minutes in water, preferably soapy water, rinsed off under running water, and could then be used without further checking. With the disengagement this production came to an end.

However, many vegetables have continued to be packaged and marketed as “Gush Katif” vegetables although they are not produced using the same methods as was done in Gush Katif. And it was the post-Katif production of “Katif” greens that created the pesticide problem.

Reactions from then Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar and from the Rabbanut to this revelation of dangerous pesticide use were reported in Kosher With No Certificate. “[Rabbi Amar] said eating leafy greens grown in an insect-free environment posed a definite public health risk due to increase use of pesticides, and he recommended that the public buy regular vegetables and clean them themselves, like in the olden days. In so doing, Amar refuted the claim that it’s not possible to clean vegetables in a manner that does not cost so much money and necessitate the use of so many poisons.”

Regarding the Rabbanut, the article states, “Two years ago a joint Chief Rabbinate and Agriculture Ministry team was established, and the Chief Rabbinate suggested that an arrangement be reached through which the Chief Rabbinate would withhold kosher certification for growers who exceed a certain pesticide level, which would be determined by the Agriculture Ministry. There is a halachic basis for this.”

What followed was the answer to my question: “However, the Agriculture Ministry has not yet provided the Chief Rabbinate with this information, and therefore the initiative is being delayed.” This means, therefore, that kosher consumers eating “Gush Katif” produce are, for the most part, being subjected to dangerous levels of pesticides on a daily basis. I have seen some bags of bug-free produce on which is printed the statement that the growers use minimal amounts of pesticides (look for those packages), but not all companies are willing to go the extra length to reduce bugs by other means.

Another interesting fact that I learned from Kosher With No Certificate was the method by which the original Gush Katif farmers were able to grow their produce bug free. I thought it was just by growing the produce in a screen-covered environment. The article explained that “…the vegetables are grown on beds that are detached from the ground in sand that has been sterilized and in hermetically sealed hothouses. Growing vegetables in this manner makes them almost 10 times more expensive.”

I must admit I was quite surprised by the fact that they sterilized the sand. This would, of course, make sense in terms of preventing bugs in vegetables, but anyone who is familiar with organic gardening/farming is well aware that truly nutritious produce can only be grown in healthy soil, and that is soil in which bugs thrive. Gardeners.com explains:

Soil life. Soil organisms include the bacteria and fungi, protozoa and nematodes, mites, springtails, earthworms and other tiny creatures found in healthy soil. These organisms are essential for plant growth. They help convert organic matter and soil minerals into the vitamins, hormones, disease-suppressing compounds and nutrients that plants need to grow.

Their excretions also help to bind soil particles into the small aggregates that make a soil loose and crumbly. As a gardener, your job is to create the ideal conditions for these soil organisms to do their work. This means providing them with an abundant source of food (the carbohydrates in organic matter), oxygen (present in a well-aerated soil), and water (an adequate but not excessive amount).

So, although Gush Katif may have produced bug free produce without the use of pesticides, the produce, in my opinion, may have been less than optimal nutritionally. Artificially adding nutrients to the sand, as I’m sure the Gush Katif farmers must have been doing, was a good thing, but it does not compare to the natural way in which Hashem set up the agricultural system and the method by which natural farming benefits us all.

Non-Katif produce may therefore be preferable from both a health and economic standpoint, because they ostensibly contain fewer pesticides and cost less. Even kosher consumers, as confirmed by Rabbi Amar, can use non-Katif produce and do not have to put their health and finances at risk.

For consumers who want to go a step further, since regular produce is still grown with chemical pesticides, organic is the way to go. (Although Israel may import foods that have been genetically modified, at the present time Israel does not grow such foods.) Producers who have certified organic produce do not use chemical pesticides or GMO crops. Hopefully they are also concerned for their soil health.

Fortunately, Israel has a number of organic farms, generally CSA (community supported agriculture) producers who deliver their vegetables to either a central drop-off point in a community or to individual homes. And of course, organic produce can be found in health food stores around the country. As for the higher price, considering what Gush Katif and regular farmed vegetables have been costing us both in terms of health and finances, buying organic may be a vehicle for investing in our own and in our children’s long term health.

In the video below, Dr. Daphne Miller, a family doctor in California on a quest to heal her patients as naturally as possible, shows how using traditional farming methods yields superior fruits and vegetables and healthier human beings.

Pesach Strategies for Eating Healthy & Shopping Smart

Pesach (Passover), especially for those of us who do not eat kitniyot (certain legumes, grains, and vegetables) and/or gebrochts, often find the holiday to be onerously heavy on the matzah and potatoes. Faced with what’s perceived as “the possibility of near starvation” for a week, diets become laden with all types of matzah and potato recipes, products, and derivatives. And because all our food and some of our personal products must be kosher for Pesach, we have to buy new just about everything we will be using for the week, even if we have the same items on hand for use during the rest of the year.*

Over the years I have discovered two things that have helped us significantly in these respects – cutting back on carbohydrates such as matzah products and potatoes keeps our waistlines from expanding, and not buying (or overbuying) anything for Pesach that will not be eaten or we will not need after Pesach keeps our pocket book from slimming down too much.

Having learned many years ago that carbohydrates, especially processed carbohydrates, are the foods predominantly responsible for weight gain, we dramatically reduced our consumption of matzah and starchy vegetables like potatoes. I significantly limit the number of recipes I make that are based on matzah (my Matzah 101 cookbook featuring all kinds of gebrochts recipes is a casualty of this matzah crackdown) and cut back on the white potato dishes as well. (Don’t forget that potato starch falls into this category too.) Incredibly, the first year we did this my husband actually lost weight over Pesach!

As we do during the rest of the year, any cakes and cookies we eat are generally limited to the one or two that are baked for Shabbos and Yom Tov. And, by the way, we only buy whole wheat and spelt matzah which are a lot healthier and kinder to the digestive system than matzah made from white flour.

If you don’t eat kitniyot, but do eat quinoa, be sure to soak the quinoa before cooking it in order to increase its digestibility and nutritional value. Quinoa recipes, such as quinoa porridge (see below) may also be a good substitute for breakfast cereals. If you eat kitniyot on Pesach, be sure to soak all your grains and legumes before cooking.

Although it’s nice to have special Pesach dishes that we enjoy at this time, there are many good recipes that we use year round that can be made on Pesach with little or no modification so, for the most part, we do not need to change our diet too much.

In general, I don’t buy ready-made foods and mixes or cold cereals during the year so I don’t buy cake or matzah ball mixes, Pesach cereal (which is really just another, more unhealthy, form of matzah) and any of the myriad other products that we think we need but really don’t use too much of or that will go to waste after Pesach (after all, who wants to eat Pesachdig cereal after the holiday is over?). If you do buy “only for Pesach” foods, be honest with yourself about what you will really need and use and purchase accordingly. Buying extra “just in case” only makes sense for those products that you will enjoy after Pesach as well.

Avoiding post-Pesach product duplication is also important. There is often little use for two or more of the same item sitting in your cabinet after Pesach since you already have the same non-Pesachdig item stored away during the holiday. After too many years of buying Kosher for Pesach dried herbs and spices and other condiments of which I already had enough for use during the rest of the year, I decided to only buy for Pesach what I could find fresh. This means that there are some items I may do without, and there are others for which there is no dried Kosher for Pesach option, but that we can buy fresh and use during Pesach. We regularly buy fresh herbs such as thyme, rosemary, dill, basil, parsley, and cilantro, and we use them fresh or dry them ourselves, so this no longer represents a Pesach challenge for me. Those that we forgo, I’ve found that my family and I (and my purse) can live without for the week of Pesach.

money

In order to avoid laying out money each year for items like paper goods and certain staples that last from year to year, we pack these all up and keep them for the following Pesach. This also means that I don’t have extra foil, baggies, napkins, etc. hanging around the house for months after Pesach is over. I keep a list of these items accessible so that I know what I don’t need to buy the following year; many times these items will actually make it through several Pesach holidays before I need to buy new.**

My list includes items such as:

  • Toothpaste
  • Hairspray (that does not contain denatured alcohol)
  • Dish washing liquid
  • Shelving paper
  • Cheese cloth/cheese cloth bags
  • Baggies, foil, plastic wrap, waxed paper
  • Assorted aluminum baking pans (yes, I know using aluminum for baking is not really healthy. Never use aluminum for tomato products since the acid reacts with the metal.)
  • Toothpicks
  • Plastic plates and utensils
  • Napkins
  • Coffee filters
  • Disposable plastic tablecloths
  • Cocoa
  • Baking powder
  • Baking soda
  • Sea salt

We bought several bedikat chametz kits last year and have the extras stored away for use in following years. They’re inexpensive and it’s one extra item that we don’t have to worry about purchasing or find we’ve forgotten at the last minute.

I also save the packaging, paper towels, and bubble wrap in which I’ve stored my Pesach dishes and glassware for repeat use.

Unless your family has any minhagim (customs) that further limit your Pesach consumption or you do not buy any food after Pesach’s begun, these guidelines should be fairly easy to put into practice. If you are living outside of Israel, I know that it is harder to find kosher for Pesach products after the holiday’s begun and stores do not replenish what they’ve run out of. However, I practiced this more circumspect way of buying for Pesach for many years when we were living in the United States and had no problem making sure we had what to eat throughout the holiday. Stocking up on meat, dairy, and fish are generally not a problem since they will be eaten after Pesach just as well. Fresh vegetables do not need to be certified for Pesach except, possibly, for pre-packaged greens and slaw.

To further help you save money, keeping track of and recording this year’s holiday consumption will help you buy appropriately and rein in unnecessary expenses the following year.

Quinoa Recipes (pronounced Keen-wa) 
(Quinoa, called the “mother grain” has an excellent nutrition profile.
It was used by Peruvian Indians to nourish expectant mothers .
)

Quinoa Plants Growing in the Field This is what quinoa plants look like, growing in the high altitudes of mountainous regions.

 Quinoa Porridge (notes in italics are mine)
(from Hamodia mMagazine – October 31, 2007)

  • 3/4 cups quinoa (pre-soak measure)
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon (optional)
  • 1/3 cup maple syrup (use honey if no Pesach syrup available. Never use imitation syrup)
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • Optional Add-ins:
  • Raisins
  • Craisins
  • Apples
  • Nuts
  • Dates
  • Pecans
  • Whatever suits your fancy

Put soaked and drained quinoa, water, salt and cinnamon in a medium pot and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to low and simmer while covered for 15 minutes. Add the maple syrup (or honey) and milk. Continue to simmer uncovered for another 10 minutes. Stir in add-ins and let sit for another 10 minutes before serving. The porridge will thicken as it cools.

Apple-Almond Quinoa (notes in italics are mine)
(Hamodia Magazine – January 9, 2008)

1 cup quinoa (pre-soak measure)
2 tsps. olive oil, divided
3/4 cup chopped onion
2 carrots, finely diced
1 clove garlic, pressed
2 cups vegetable broth or water
1/4 tsp. sea salt
1/4 tsp. curry powder (leave out if not available for Pesach)
1 large Granny Smith or other tart apple (sweet is good too), finely diced
3 tbsps. slivered almonds
1/8 tsp. freshly ground pepper

Heat 1 tsp. olive oil in saucepan. Add onion, carrot, and garlic. Saute for five minutes or until onion is soft and carrot begins to brown. Stir in broth or water, quinoa, salt, and curry powder. Bring to a boil, then cover, reduce heat and let simmer for 20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Fluff with a fork and keep warm.

Heat the remaining tsps. of oil in a skillet. Add apple and saute for about 7 minutes. Add sauteed apple, almonds and pepper to quinoa, tossing to combine. Serve warm. (Personally, I just add the apple and almonds to the pot a little before it is finished cooking.)

To your health.

Best wishes for a happy & healthy Pesach

* Food prep equipment, dishes, utensils, and the like are stored away for Pesach use, so except for items than need to be replaced or filled in, this is generally a one-time expense for most families.

** It also helps to keep a list of items that you have run out of or find that you are missing like silver polish, knives, etc.