Once again, my father (Rabbi Wayne Allen) and I have joined forces to bring you the Passover Dirty Dozen List. We collaborate on this project because keeping kosher for Passover presents us with two different kinds of challenges: Halachic (matters of Jewish law) and nutritional. Many of the kosher for Passover products on the supermarket shelves are convenient but are usually not particularly healthy. While some consumers realize this, many are still unaware of just how unhealthy these products can be. I recognize that time is a huge factor and not everyone wants to make everything from scratch. My message is simply to make yourself more aware of what's inside of these products and try to minimize your use of packaged/processed foods, over Passover and year-round.
Our 2014 list includes foods that are extremely unhealthy, totally unnecessary or just downright silly! Some of these may make you cringe, some might make you laugh out loud…but hopefully none of these will end up in your shopping cart.
Here is our Dirty Dozen list for 2014:
1. Mac & Cheeze:
I definitely laughed out loud when I spotted this gem on the shelf. Fake "mac": noodles made of various starches and egg powder. Fake "Cheeze": artificial flavour and turmeric for colour. That's right…no actual cheese, which is likely the reason they had to spell it with a "Z". Of course, no Passover product would be complete without the use of cottonseed oil (see number 4). The 620mg of sodium per 1 cup serving it quite impressive too. But where they really get you here, is the giant box that it comes in. You would assume you could get a good number of servings out of it, or at least be able to feed a family of 6 for dinner. Yet the box contains only 2 small servings of 1 cup each…cooked! This is false advertising and likely done to take up more shelf space and mislead you into thinking you are getting a good value. Packaging a product in such a way so to suggest the contents will yield an amount far greater than what it will actually be borders on fraud. The codes of Jewish law rule explicitly that animal intestines, for example, must not be inflated to make them look larger. Deceptive packaging can be construed as violation of this law.
2. Fruit Slices - Jelly Mini:
These brightly coloured candies which are covered in sugar don't exactly scream out "healthy", but my issue is how can they get away with calling these "fruit slices"? Do they want people to believe there is some fruit involved? In fact, not one bit of fruit can be found in these "fruit slices". The first ingredient is sugar and it contains a variety of artificial flavours and colours including FD&C yellow #5, FD&C yellow #6, Red #40 and FD&C Blue #1. Artificial food dyes have been linked to a number of health concerns including hyperactivity and other behavioural issues in children, migraines and cancer. Why don't you just pour some sugar into your mouth and call it a day.
3. Mini Mandlin:
Here we have a classic example of a Passover food that has transitioned into an everyday food, available all year round in every supermarket's kosher aisle. These artificially coloured yellow crunchy bits are typically added to chicken soup at the table. Consider this: a chef takes pride in seasoning their food to perfection. Adding something like this to your bowl may be interpreted as insulting to the chef. Poor etiquette, if you will. I understand that some people simply enjoy adding a bit of crunch to their soup, but why not use the eight days of Passover as an opportunity for a "soup nut" detox and perhaps it will carry over to the rest of the year. So unless you are nutritionally deficient in yellow dye #5, this product should not make its way into your cart.
4. "100% PURE" Oil of Cottonseed:
Cotton is considered to be one of the world's "dirtiest" crops due to the heavy use of pesticides. Since cotton is technically not a food crop, many chemical pesticides can be sprayed, which would otherwise not be allowed. These pesticides are concentrated in the seeds and then they are turned into oil for our consumption. The oil is also extracted, refined, bleached and deodorized using harsh chemicals processes. You can certainly choose another oil for your Passover cooking needs, but if you buy any packaged Passover food, cottonseed oil is difficult to avoid. Cottonseed oil has become the oil of choice for Passover products. Although the oil comes from seeds which are kitniyot (meaning small and grain-like and may be confused with grains that can become chametz), the oil is permitted since derivatives from inedible seeds are rabbinically allowed. A better choice would be extra virgin olive oil, which as long as it bears a year-round kosher certification, it would not require special Kosher for Passover certification.
5. Passover Bagels:
If a product is Gebrokt, it means it is made with matzah meal to which water was added. Some Jews avoid eating these foods during Passover for fear of it turning into chametz. Thankfully, they can relax and enjoy a nice potato bagel! But seriously - we have 357 days of the year to eat bagels - you can't go eight days without one? While the idea of bagels on Passover just doesn't seem right to me, the cottonseed oil and/or shortening, 11g of fat and 500mg sodium per bagel seems even more outrageous.
6. Toasted Coconut Marshmallows:
With ingredients like sugar, glucose and fish gelatin, it is not surprising to learn that marshmallows do not exist in nature. The kashrut of marshmallows is contingent on the ingredients used in its manufacture. The principal ingredient in marshmallow is gelatin, a product that is typically derived from the bones, hides and skins of animals through a process of the hydrolytic conversion of collagen, the fibrous protein constituent of bones and connective tissue. The gelatinous matter that is the hallmark of kosher marshmallows will instead derive from fish or plants. Coconut covered marshmallows have always been a popular Passover treat, second only to the Passover macaroon, perhaps. What confuses me about this bag of fluff is the claim of being fat free (per serving) clearly indicated on the front of the package, while if you check the nutritional panel on the back, it actually contains 2.5g of fat per serving. I think they also should have chosen a better slogan. "Healthy body, healthy spirit" is not exactly what I have in mind when I think of marshmallows.
7. Parve Kishke:
Nothing says delicious like imitation cow intestines! Author Leo Rosten correctly notes that kishke is made according to the cook’s ancestry, palate, spices, and patience. My great grandmother would make a filling of matzah meal, schmaltz, kosher salt, pepper, and sweet paprika and painstakingly stuff it into a casing of cow intestine. The stuffed “derma” would first be boiled in water and then browned in the oven. The result was a crispy yet chewy skin and a starchy, flavourful middle. Slices of kishke could always be added to cholent. It is a quintessential Jewish comfort food. Kishke was a treat because it was so labour intensive, therefore only served for special occasions. From a health perspective, this imitation kishke is a double whammy. The use of partially hydrogenated cotton seed oil gives you a delicious serving of trans fat with a side of pesticide residue. According to my great grandmother, love is expressed through food. To her, the best way to express her love was by spending hours in the kitchen. Making food that everyone enjoyed and watching them take pleasure in eating it was what made her happy. You may be able to reproduce the kishke taste with a bunch of chemicals (although I'm sure many kishke enthusiasts would argue this), but you can't reproduce the experience.
Chrain is the Yiddish word for prepared horseradish. Its root – pardon the pun - goes back to the twelfth century or earlier. The sharpness of the horseradish is usually tempered by an addition of beet juice, giving it a red-ish purple colour. For Jews of Eastern European background, chrain is the condiment of choice for gefilte fish, a traditional Passover food. Enter the newest fusion condiment: Chrayonnaise. It's pretty much how it sounds - a mixture of horseradish and mayonnaise. As with most Passover mayo, you will get your dose of cottonseed oil (first ingredient) along with sugar and preservatives to "protect flavour". But don't forget the beets. While this product does contain actual beets, apparently they were not red enough, because the manufacturer felt the need to add some FD&C Red #40. Why do we really need this product? To schmear on our passover bagels, of course.
9. Matzo Ball Soup - "Ready to Serve":
If you are thinking that someone's bubbie made a nice big pot of matzo ball soup and ladled it into a jar for you to enjoy in a convenient, "ready to serve" way - think again! Typically, matzo ball soup involves a chicken soup base, but you will not find any chicken in the list of ingredients on this jar. This is a parve soup, so in an attempt to match the colour and flavour of chicken soup, MSG, sugar and our old friend yellow dye #5 are thrown in. At almost 1000mg of sodium per ONE CUP serving, you are looking at nearly half of your recommended daily intake in just one small bowl of soup.
10. Ma Puree - "100% natural mashed potatoes":
The box highlights "100% natural" with an image of a whole potato. Granted, the box does contain potato flakes as its sole ingredient, but we all know that potatoes don't grow in boxes. Just boil some potatoes and mash them - it's quite easy to do. Potatoes are fairly inexpensive and taste much better than the instant varieties. Although this may be a time saver, to me this is just another example of how the Kosher for Passover industry wants us to spend more money on foods that are completely unnecessary.
11. Blueberry Muffin Mix:
Can you spot the difference between these two boxes of blueberry muffin mix? If you look closely, you will see that one is made with real blueberries and the other is made with artificial blueberries. Hmmm…which one would you choose? First of all, I find it quite odd that they need to offer this as an option. Is there a new wave of blueberry allergies that I need to be aware of? Let's do a little comparison. The box with the artificial blueberries contains similar ingredients as the one with real blueberries, including shortening made of partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil (trans fat), but the imitation version also contains blueberry flavoured bits (alginate, propylene glycol, potassium sorbate, artificial flavours and colours). Yet even the box with real blueberries isn't quite so simple. Its "blueberries" consist of: wild blueberries, sugar and cottonseed oil. These "blueberries" do not contain artificial flavours like the imitation ones do, but not to worry - they threw some of that into the the rest of the muffin mix anyway.
12. Bulk Baby Fingers - "Try me in a bowl of milk"!:
We just couldn't resist adding this to our list. What exactly are "baby fingers" and why do we need them in BULK?? Don't get me wrong when my kids were babies, their fingers were quite delicious. But dipping them in a bowl of milk is going a bit too far.
Focus on eating REAL food. If it comes in a box - leave it on the shelf! Of course, there will be a some exceptions for essentials like matzah. Just try to stick to whole grain varieties to avoid constipation ;-)
Have a healthy and kosher Passover!
For a selection of healthy, Passover-friendly recipes, check out The Organic Kosher Cookbook - Holiday Edition: PDF version is now available for download!
Rabbi Wayne Allen is a recognized authority on Jewish law. www.rabbiwayneallen.ca
Aviva Allen is a Kids' Nutritionist and author of The Organic Kosher Cookbook. www.avivaallen.com