There is nothing inherently unhealthy about kosher food. The dietary laws of kashrut derived from the Torah have been part of Jewish tradition for generations. But innovations in industrialized food production over the last century offered enticing new products to the kosher consumer that radically changed its observance.
The prohibition against mixing dairy and meat offered the most opportunity to incorporate new innovations in kosher products.
Unfortunately many of the ingredients that make these products so irresistible and prevalent in kosher foods, are the same ones associated with the increase of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
If you want to keep kosher without ruining your health, start reading labels and know what to avoid.
Top Five Ingredients to Avoid in Processed Foods
1. Trans Fat
After the introduction of Crisco (vegetable shortening) in the early 1900’s, one Rabbi stated that “the Hebrew Race has been waiting 4,000 years for Crisco” because of how groundbreaking it was to have a meat-free/dairy-free (pareve) fat available for kosher cooking and baking (source).
Even with all the latest news on how detrimental trans-fats are, margarine is still a big-seller today. In 2008, a margarine shortage for passover created an uproar termed “Margarine-gate”.
Trans fats are formed when hydrogen is added to vegetable oils to make it solid. This process is called hydrogenation and is used to create shortening and margarine.
The FDA recently announced its intent to remove partially hydrogenated oils from its “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) list. FDA officials believe eliminating trans fat from the food supply could prevent thousands of heart attacks and deaths each year.
How to avoid trans fat:
Read labels! Avoid foods that list partially hydrogenated, hydrogenated oils, or shortening in the ingredient list. They are found in baked goods (like cakes and cookies), microwave popcorn, margarine and other spreads, coffee creamer, vegetable shortenings and stick margarines, fast food and fried foods.
How to replace:
Use real butter! For dairy-free baking use coconut oil or palm oil.
2. Vegetable Oils
Vegetable oils are fats extracted from various seeds like rapeseed (canola oil), soybean, corn, sunflower, and safflower. These cooking oils were almost non-existent before industrialized food production.
Despite it’s healthy name and reputation, vegetable oils are highly processed foods. The processing involves using toxic chemicals like hexane and bleaching agents to help extract and deodorize these oils. And most of these oils are made from genetically modified ingredients. Even organic expeller-pressed vegetable oils undergo tremendous processing which exposes them to heat that can damage the oils.
Another issue with vegetable oils is that they are high in omega 6 fatty acids. Excessive amounts of omega 6 fatty acids in the diet throws off the important omega- 6 to omega- 3 ratio in the body that manages inflammation.
Ingesting damaged fats increases cancer and cardiovascular disease risk and has been linked to asthma, eczema, and depression.
How to avoid vegetable oils: Avoid buying canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, “vegetable” oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, and grape seed oil. Avoid “buttery” spreads and “trans-fat free” spreads. These oils are found in many processed food like salad dressings, chips, mayonnaise, trail mix, and snack foods. Check labels for everything you purchase.
How to replace: Use more stable fats for cooking like coconut oil, red palm oil (from sustainable sources), butter and ghee. Render your own beef fat from kosher pastured-raised beef tallow. Make homemade salad dressings and mayonnaise with olive oil, avocado oil and nut oils. Use my Kitchen Guide to Fats and Oils chart to clarify what to use in cooking and baking.
Traditionally, soy beans were always prepared with great care and traditional Asian diets included small amounts of soy foods that were carefully fermented like natto, miso, tamari, and tempeh.
Now, processed soy is used to create everything from cream cheese and ice cream, to hot dogs and hamburgers. A little of naturally fermented soy sauce on your food once in a while is harmless (unless you have an allergy or intolerance). But a high intake of processed soy foods used to replace animal proteins and dairy creates many health problems.
Soy beans are high in lectins and phytates which blocks absorption of important minerals (proper fermentation can reduce these amounts). Soy contains phytoestrogens – a plant source of the hormone estrogen – that can disrupt normal hormone function. It can also impair thyroid function. And 90% of soy is genetically modified.
How to avoid soy: Read all labels and avoid processed soy ingredients. This includes all the dairy and meat substitutes widely available to the kosher consumer like parve cream cheese, milk, and ice cream, and vegetarian soy burgers and other meat replacements.
How to replace: Replace with coconut and nut products. And eat real food – not everything needs a substitute!
4. Artificial colors
According to CSPI, at least 9 food dyes have been linked to organ damage, cancer, birth defects, hyperactivity and other behavioral problems in children, and allergic reactions.
Many of these petroleum derived artificial colors, are banned in other countries like Norway, Finland, France, Austria and the U.K., and the European Union requires a warning notice on most foods containing dyes.
Some food manufacturers will replace artificial colors with natural ingredients on foods sold outside of the United States but keep the artificial dyes in American sold products.
How to avoid food dyes: Don’t wait for the FDA to catch up with the rest of the world. Read labels of all packaged foods and avoid any with artificial colors and preservatives. They can be found in a wide range of foods from candy to yogurt.
5. Processed Carbs
White flour and white sugar are rampant in our food supply. People are starting their day with muffins, toast, and cereal, eating sandwiches for lunch, pasta for dinner, snacking on crackers, pretzels, and energy bars and treating themselves with doughnuts and other pastries.
Jewish life is full of celebrations and life cycle events that tend to center around food; challah for shabbat and holiday meals, bakery goods for desserts, bagels and cream cheese at a bris or baby naming, and lavish dessert spreads at weddings and bar mitzvahs, etc…
Overconsumption of refined carbs can lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes and other chronic conditions. Food intake is not just about calories and fat grams. Food is information and effects the intricate hormonal balance that regulates every bodily function.
And gluten intolerance is on the rise, possibly because of how wheat has been hybridized over the years and the fact that wheat gluten is added to so many processed foods. The breads of today are very different than those of our ancestors. Traditional bread making involved a slow process of sprouting and fermentation that increased the digestibility of the grains.
How to avoid processed carbs: Avoid processed foods.
How to replace: Make your own sourdough, sprouted, and properly prepared bread for Shabbat and holidays. Make desserts from scratch. Replace the typical refined snack foods with nuts, veggies and dip, hard boiled eggs, and fruit. Eat quality proteins with healthy fats at all meals for optimal hormone function.
Keep it Simple – Eat Real Food!
This list is not just about avoiding these ingredients rampant in kosher foods but eating less processed foods, concentrating on real food as close to its natural state as possible. You’ll also be avoiding other harmful ingredients like artificial sweeteners, MSG, and preservatives.
I have kids. I’m part of a vibrant Jewish community. I get the challenges involved.
But we can all do our part by keeping our homes healthy and being good role models. Spending our money on healthier products and avoiding the junk sends a powerful message to the marketplace and can create a positive shift.
And slowly there is shift happening – though I see it more in the increasing amounts of certified kosher products at health food stores than in the kosher markets where the ingredients I listed above still overwhelms the labels.
What are your challenges to eating a healthier kosher diet? What products do you have a hard time finding? Does this represent your community as well?