Tag Archives: packaged foods

Is Kosher the Next Gluten-Free?

If your response to this post title was, “WTF, Molly? That makes no sense,” then your head is about where mine was when I read this headline on Forbes.com: “Is Kosher the Next Big Food Trend?”

Big trend? Kosher? I didn’t get it. Yes, some people of Jewish heritage and/or faith keep kosher, but by no means all (the majority of my Jewish acquaintances, for example, do not). How could something so very specific to the needs of a relatively small segment of the population become a big food trend?, I wondered.

Then the writer mentioned gluten. Oh, I thought. Right.

“Gluten-free,” arguably helpful only to the 1-ish percent of the population with celiac disease (and to others who may be gluten sensitive), has nonetheless managed to become a “big food trend” because American consumers are so dumb that you can put anything on a package label and they’ll assume it means “healthy.”

Kosher may be enjoying the same halo, bolstered by the sense that something “certified” must be more rigorously inspected and therefore purer than other products—regardless of what it’s actually being inspected for. (In the case of kosher, for pork, “unclean” animal meat, the mixture of milk and meat, etc.)

And gluten-free, too! Photo © marsmettnn tallahassee | Flickr

And gluten-free, too!
Photo © marsmettnn tallahassee | Flickr

Now, kosher and gluten-free aren’t totally dissimilar. One of my coworkers keeps kosher, and for an office potluck, she brought in a zucchini bread, with a clean kosher plastic knife that she asked everyone to use—“because otherwise I won’t be able to eat it.” I’d brought in a soup, which I dumped into a presumably gluten-contaminated pot to heat on the stove—except for the single serving I’d reserved in a clean gluten-free container to microwave for myself. Both she and I were too trendy to eat what the others had brought.

Additionally, for some people who don’t keep kosher, there are health-related advantages to choosing kosher foods. Vegetarians can be confident there’s no animal-derived rennet in kosher cheese, just as those with wheat allergies can be [fairly] confident there’s none of that in gluten-free foods. People who enjoy putting arbitrary restrictions on their food intake in hopes of losing weight are just as well off choosing kosher foods as gluten-free ones.

Plus, foods that are “Kosher for Passover” must be grain-free, and anything grain-free is automatically gluten-free (though the converse is not necessarily true). Many kosher-certified products are therefore certified GF, too—for example, such health foods as Katz cinnamon rugelach and chocolate-frosted donuts, and Glutino chocolate vanilla crème sandwich cookies.

On the subject of sandwich cookies, let’s consider the Oreo. A fine (though not gluten-free) occasional treat, at 160 calories in a serving of three (if you can stop at three), Oreos are predominantly composed of refined flour, oil, and high-fructose corn syrup, and offer little nutritional value. A health food, the Oreo is not.

But what it is, is kosher. In “probably the most expensive conversion of a company from non-kosher to kosher,” according to Prof. Joe Regenstein, Nabisco converted its cookie formula to cut out lard (derived from pork), and blowtorched all of its factory equipment to remove remaining traces on the lines (in the process destroying, and later replacing, some expensive equipment).

All that just to beat out Hydrox, a competing—kosher—brand that existed before Oreos. When Oreos cut out the lard, they gained enough new customers to cut Hydrox out of the sandwich cookie market. Today, many of us have never heard of Hydrox, and for good reason: it no longer exists.

The triumphant victor Photo © Stoffel Van Eeckhoudt | Flickr

The triumphant victor
Photo © Stoffel Van Eeckhoudt | Flickr

However, the fact that at least three brands of chocolate-and-crème sandwich cookies—not to mention marshmallows, hot dogs, soft drinks, and more—have been able to claim kosher certification exists as powerful evidence that “kosher” doesn’t mean “healthy.”

Similarly, though I love Katz and Glutino, I know that their gluten-free (and kosher) desserts are treats, not health foods. You know that, too, I’d wager. But does anyone want to place bets on how few people in the US and worldwide do?

The idea of kosher as the next health trend has been bubbling up for at least a few years. In 2010, the New York Times published “More People Choosing Kosher for Health,” and in 2012, Dr. Weil weighed in on the question “Are kosher foods better for you?” This puts the trend just a couple years behind gluten, which was getting NYT attention in 2007, and Dr. Weil’s in 2010. If the trajectory continues, then by sometime next year, one in three Americans just might be “trying to go kosher.”

Will that happen? To make a probably not kosher joke…dear G-d, I hope not.

I don't think this needs a caption, do you? Photo © ceetap | Flickr

I don’t think this needs a caption, do you?
Photo © ceetap | Flickr

What do you think? Is kosher poised to become the next big thing? Are there health benefits to it that I’m missing? What package labels make you think a food is healthier?

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Tell me a sprue story about…grocery shopping

In the wake of the FDA finally announcing gluten-free labeling rules (read about it here, here, and pretty much everywhere), I’ve been thinking about grocery shopping even more than usual, if that’s possible.

In the spirit of celebration, I’d love if you would share YOUR stories about gluten-free grocery shopping—make them sad, funny, infuriating, short, long, general, specific, anything you want…as long as they’re “sprue.”

Gluten-free aisle

Photo © Memphis CVB | Flickr

Here’s mine.

For me, shopping with celiac in tow is only slightly more stressful than it used to be (and still likely not as stressful as having, say, a toddler in tow—or with both, a plight with which some of you are familiar).

That’s because even before I went gluten-free, my grocery shopping trips were already interminable processes of pausing, considering, picking up, rejecting, and repeating. I blame this on:

a) calorie consciousness, which adds time spent reading labels and doing little calculations like, “X calories times Y servings per equals WTF HOW CAN THERE BE THAT MANY IN THIS TINY BAG?,” followed by hunting for more reasonable choices;

b) money consciousness, which adds time spent chewing over this option versus that option and more little calculations like, “X dollars divided by Y servings equals WTF HOW CAN IT COST THAT MUCH FOR THIS TINY BAG?,” followed by hunting for sale items (something that now takes less time, because it’s simple: the gluten-free items are NEVER on sale);

c) lack of spatial awareness or visual memory (I can’t see images in my mind, perhaps due to mild dyscalculia, which would also explain why the aforementioned calculations always take me so long), which adds time spent wandering slooooowly down aisles looking at each item and hoping that one of them will magically turn out to be the thing I came in for, which I sort of thought I’d seen before somewhere, but in which aisle or store I couldn’t say;

d) vegetarianism, which adds time spent scanning ingredients lists for gelatin and trying to remember which cheese brands use microbial rennet (and trying to nail down once and for all my viewpoint on animal-derived rennet—a philosophical dilemma that also, incidentally, adds time to my shopping trips);

and I could go on.

In other words, with or without gluten, I suck at shopping. With so many hem- and haw-worthy items in mind, I dawdle my way through the aisles. When I finally emerge from a Whole Foods or a Fairway or a TJ’s, I feel a bit like a mortal departing the fairy underworld, leaving behind halls bursting with enticing and enchanting food, and having no idea how much time has passed in the outside world.

I lug my bags home in a daze and often find, as I sort through the treasure, that in a sudden panic after too much time spent deliberating I managed to buy several items I do not need, will never use, or cannot use (such as, recently, those two boxes of granola bars whose first ingredient—oats, even gluten-free—is one I do not eat). Perhaps I do this unconsciously to form a link between myself and those magical realms; I must return, you see, to make the return.

Despite all this, and even though nobody likes a slow shopper during the afterwork rush hour, I always make it through with my sanity intact. And even after a rough trip when nothing is certified and everything is overpriced, I don’t feel discouraged for long.

Because…I must admit…I like grocery shopping. I like discovering interesting new ingredients, I appreciate marketing slogans and packaging strategies, I enjoy checking items off the shopping list, I indulge in people- and cart-watching, I sniff the bottoms of pineapples like a pro, I savor the sudden chill of the freezer aisle and thrill to the sight of a good bargain, and, above all, I know it’s all in service of a great cause: delicious gluten-free, vegetarian, (mostly) thrifty, nutritious, home-cooked meals.

Worth every second.

Don’t forget to share your story about gluten-free grocery shopping for you or others. Alternatively, tell me how you feel about the new labeling rules. Are they everything you hoped they’d be? (Links to your own blog posts on the subject are, of course, welcome.)

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It’s not easy being green (and gluten- or allergy-free)

Happy Earth Day! Yesterday in Prospect Park I saw two young guys tromping around the lake, drumming on reclaimed water cooler jugs and chanting “Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!,” with a group of kids and parents following behind and half-heartedly shaking the little recycled maraca-things they’d clearly made earlier in the outing. I’m sure Mother Nature found it cute. I found it a good reminder to write this blog post.

Gluten-free often gets lumped in with organic and green in marketing and in popular imagination. I find this odd. Sure, reading labels on processed foods may make you more aware of what weird chemicals you’re putting into your body, and from there you might make the leap to increased awareness of what those chemicals may do to, say, bodies of water. (Dana at Celiac Kiddo wrote a great post about beaver butt in breakfast cereal and what exactly “natural ingredients” means—related and definitely worth a read.)

But overall, I find it’s not that easy to be both green and gluten-free. I’m sure anyone who’s ever had to worry about gluten and allergy contamination can relate; maintaining a clean, contamination-free environment can involve a lot of waste.

There’s the inevitable pantry cleaning at the start and the rallying cry, “When in doubt, throw it out!” Might you have dipped a spoon into first the flour and then the sugar? Toss the sugar. Did a knife go onto toast and then into the jam? Ditch the jar. And while you’re throwing out food right and left, go ahead and buy yourself a new dedicated cutting board, and try not to think about plastic and landfills.

We’re encouraged to buy designated gluten-free toasters, which means double the appliances to plug in, using double the electricity—and no, I don’t believe you remember to unplug your appliances when they aren’t in use.

My sponge usage went through the roof when I went gluten-free, as I’ve written before. Besides that, there’s paper towels for cleaning, parchment paper for baking, and ziploc bags for everything. I also use a lot more soap, which may or may not be harmful to the environment.

And all that is just at home. There’s more! At the grocery store, where before I might have skipped bagging my potatoes and apples, now I worry about those mystery stains on the conveyor belt and opt for the extra plastic. Packaged ingredients, with their FDA-regulated ingredients labels and airtight seals, are my friends. And shopping from the bulk bins to reduce packaging? Forget about it! You don’t know where those scoops have been!

We nod approvingly at muffins being baked in a separate facility and shipped to our local bakeries in individual shrinkwrap. We ask that Chipotle employees wear new gloves while preparing our burritos. And when we can’t find safe places to dine out, we buy individually packaged power bars to see us through.

I’ve even started using more plastic utensils and cups, because I bring meals with me when I’m out instead of stopping off somewhere to eat, and because I don’t trust these items to be clean enough at friends’ homes (no offense).

If you seek organic and non-GMO foods, you may find it harder when purchasing gluten-free products, many of which include corn (here’s a pretty recent list of foods, maintained by a gluten-free, vegan mom blogger, that are non-GMO and gluten-free). I can’t seem to get worked up about GMOs myself, but I understand there’s a lot of anxiety surrounding their health and environmental impact—an anxiety that may be compounded by gluten or allergen concerns.

Organic, natural body care products may also be more likely to include wheat or dairy proteins because these are “natural” alternatives to the chemicals in the big guys. This means if you’re avoiding those proteins, you must reject the purportedly greener options.

For people with severe seasonal allergies to, e.g., pollen, there’s a whole other set of energy expenditures to add into the mix: more laundry-washing, more vacuuming, more air conditioning. Those with serious allergies may also drive their cars during this season more often than they walk or bike. (Amanda at Celiac and Allergy Adventures has written here about the measures she takes during asthma/allergy season.)

So you see? It’s not that easy being green! When we’re expending lots of extra energy ourselves to rigidly control our immediate environment, it’s harder to maintain some of those little footprint-reducing habits we once cherished. Luckily, this doesn’t mean you can’t be green.

The safest foods in the world for most allergies and the gluten-free diet are fresh fruits and vegetables—whole foods that (as long as you buy in season) are pretty darn low in environmental impact. You can even consider going meatless for at least some meals, which is touted far and wide as a simple way to reduce one’s environmental impact. Yes, it can also be a bit harder to maintain a balanced diet while avoiding gluten or allergens and meat and dairy/eggs, but it’s nowhere near as tough as some will have you believe.

You can still keep an eye on your overall energy and water usage (and a dishwasher, widely considered the most effective way to clean contaminated dishes for those lucky enough to own one, is also often more energy- and water-efficient than hand-washing).

And (unless you do have the aforementioned severe seasonal allergies) you can always plant a tree or make an effort to walk or bike more, use public transportation more, and drive less, none of which have much of anything to do with gluten.

Tell me: Do you consider yourself an environmentalist? What do you do to reduce your footprint, if so? Do you find it harder to do while on a gluten- or allergy-free diet? What are your tips for managing both at once? And how are you celebrating Earth Day?

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