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.