Supermarkets say: Please don’t buy the dreck we sell

I couldn’t believe my eyes.

I was in a Minneapolis branch of Byerly’s, an upscale grocery chain in Minnesota.  Scanning the aisles for a small extravagance for my dinner hosts, I noticed that the shelf labels included not just the price-per-unit, which I’m used to, but little blue and white linked hexagons marked on a scale of 1 to 100 – a “NuVal” score.

NuVal scores don’t tip you off to a bargain.  They tell you how good or bad a food is for your health.

Yeah, right.  The idea that a food store would admit – would explicitly declare, on the spot, as your hand is reaching for it – that a product it’s selling is nutritionally crappy: that violates every principle of Marketing 101, not to mention Ayn Rand 101.

This is different from the labels that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has required since 1990.  Those are well-intentioned marvels of confusion, containing so much information (are you getting your minimum daily requirement of magnesium?), so much disinformation (calculating calories per serving, when a serving is half the amount a runway waif would eat), so much incomprehensible information (I forget – is tripotassium phosphate good or bad for you?) that you can get an anxiety attack trying to figure out which granola will nourish you and which will kill you.

But NuVal scores make that simple, and sometimes shocking. 

Cocoa Puffs, for example, gets a NuVal score of 26, but so does Life (“you don’t have to be a grown-up to benefit from the whole grain inside”), and Kashi Strawberry Fields Cereal (“plenty of whole grain goodness”) gets a 10, same as Cap’n Crunch.  Post Shredded Wheat ’N Bran scores a 91.

An apple gets a 96, which you might expect.  But unsweetened applesauce gets a 29, apple juice gets a 15 and Mott’s Original Applesauce (“a great tasting snack that’s actually good for you”) gets a 4. 

Nabisco Nilla Wafers (“simple goodness”) get a 6, and Keebler Townhouse Bistro Multi-Grain Crackers (multi-grain! surely good for you, no?) get a 3 (no).

It’s no surprise that fresh broccoli gets 100, as does Birds Eye Cooked Winter Squash.  Grapefruits are 99, and sweet potatoes are 96.  But Vlasic Old Fashioned Sauerkraut gets a 4.  

Skim milk comes in at 91, one percent milk at 81 and two percent at 55.  But Capri Sun gets a 1.  So does Odwalla Pomegranate Limeade with 20 percent juice.  Who would buy products like these if they actually knew what poison – I mean, um, empty calories – they amount to, and if they had manifestly better alternatives an arm’s reach away? 

The NuVal numbers are the brainchild of David L. Katz, M.D., MPH, an adjunct associate professor at the Yale School of Medicine.   A dozen doctors and nutritionists, funded by the nonprofit Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn., developed the scoring system, based on 30 factors including vitamins, fiber, salt, sugar, fat quality, protein quality, glycemic load, energy density and calories.  From the public health evidence about those factors, they constructed an algorithm that processes the data into a single number.  As new food science research is published, and as products are reformulated by their manufacturers, the algorithm and the scores are updated.  (If that’s happened to any of the products I’ve mentioned, I’ll be glad to revise the numbers online.)

It’s a miracle that some 30 retail food chains are adopting the scores.  You won’t find them at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, and from the locations page of the NuVal website it looks like the only chain in my neck of the woods – Kroger, which in Los Angeles owns Ralphs and Food4Less – is running a “pilot program in select areas” (Kentucky, apparently).  But Lunds and Byerley’s, which use NuVal, are venerable markets in Minnesota, as is King Kullen on Long Island, N.Y.; grocers in the NuVal fold aren’t just a bunch of crunchy hippies.     

As you might imagine, there’s been pushback.  Ocean Spray, whose Light Cranberry Juice Cocktail gets a 2, says NuVal doesn’t reflect its product’s urinary tract health benefits.  Sara Lee, whose Ball Park hotdogs get a 7, says other Ball Park products score higher.  General Mills complains that details of the algorithm aren’t public, as does the National Consumers League, which turns out to be an astroturf front for the likes of Monsanto, Bristol Myers Squibb, the Chemical Specialties Manufacturers Association and the National Meat Association.  And according to Dr. David Katz, the NuVal founder, the algorithm “has been described in detail in peer-reviewed publications accessible to all. It has been made available in its entirety to research groups throughout the U.S., Canada, and the U.K.; to federal agencies in the U.S.; to the Institute of Medicine; and to private entities that have requested such access.”

I’m no food puritan.  My culinary patrimony consists of shmaltz, gribenes and kishka.  (Don’t ask.)  I believe that the joylessness caused by renouncing “bad” foods – and the guilt that’s caused by consuming them – conceivably undoes the good that’s done by substituting celery for Oreos.  I know that adding eye-popping 1-to-100 scores to grocery price tags won’t cut down on gargantuan portion sizes; or make meals more mindful occasions; or alert us to our complicity with corporate farming; or prevent the processed food industry from addicting us to salt, sugar and fat; or get our butts off the couch and start moving.  But giving consumers a no-brainer tool while they’re standing in the supermarket aisle is surely a more promising way to stop the slow-motion suicide we call the American way of eating than declaring March to be National Nutrition Month.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at

Minnesotans mourn two Israelis slain in office attack

Funeral services were held this week for two Israelis who were among five people gunned down in a recent shooting attack in Minneapolis.

Reuven Rahamim, 61, was buried in Israel and Rami Cooks, 62, was interred at a Minneapolis area Jewish cemetery, according to Minnesota's American Jewish World.

The Sept. 27 shooting took place at a sign manufacturing company owned by Rahamim, 61, who was killed in the attack. Cooks, an employee of the company, was killed, as were two other employees and a UPS driver. Police said the shooter, who shot himself dead after the attack, had been fired as an employee of the company a few hours before the attack.

Private services were held on Sunday at Beth Shalom Congregation for Cooks. That same day, more than 1,000 mourners turned out for a memorial service for Rahamim at Beth El Synagogue, where he served on the board of directors.

Rahamim, an Israel Defense Forces veteran of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, came to the United States following that campaign to visit family and decided to stay. In Minnesota, he founded and built Accent Signage into a multimillion dollar company manufacturing interior signs. He also held several patents, including one for making signs in Braille that is used around the world, according to the Jewish World.

“He didn’t just make signs, he helped people find their way,” the newspaper reported Rabbi Alexander Davis as saying at the funeral.

Hearing on motion to dismiss set in Hebrew National class-action suit

A hearing on a motion to dismiss a consumer fraud case against the company that produces Hebrew National products has been scheduled for Nov. 30 in a federal court.

The hearing will be held at the U.S. District Court in Minneapolis.

ConAgra Foods Inc., which owns the Hebrew National brand, on July 26 filed the motion to dismiss a class-action suit that alleges that Hebrew National’s iconic hot dogs and other meats do not comport with the brand’s claim to be kosher “as defined by the most stringent Jews who follow Orthodox Jewish law.” The ConAgra motion states that the case should be dismissed because, among other reasons, kosher is “exclusively a matter of Jewish religious doctrine.” It also states that under the First Amendment, “federal courts may not adjudicate disputes that turn on religious teachings, doctrine and practice.”

The suit, which was filed May 18 in a Minnesota state court, accuses ConAgra of consumer fraud. ConAgra has rejected the claims.

Triangle-K, the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based supervising agency that certifies Hebrew National products as kosher, and AER, which provides the kosher slaughtering services at Hebrew National facilities in the Midwest, including in Minnesota, also rejected the allegations. Neither is named in the suit.

The suit is seeking monetary damages equal to the total amount of monies that consumers in the class paid for Hebrew National meat products.

Zimmerman Reed, an Arizona-based law firm with offices in Minnesota, solicited consumers through its website. The firm advertised a free case review for anyone who purchased Hebrew National hot dogs in the past two years or had information about the preparation of the products.

McCain accepts nomination, offers little new on Israel, Iran

ST. PAUL, Minn. (JTA)—John McCain used his convention speech Thursday to unveil his game plan for claiming the mantle of real change: Shore up support among conservatives by touting traditional Republican positions while appealing to undecided voters by criticizing his party’s actual performance and promising to work across party lines.

In the process, he offered little new on Israel and Iran—possibly because of Republican confidence that the party has the upper hand over Democrats on those issues.

Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.) accepted the Republican Party’s nomination on the final night of the convention in St. Paul with a speech that promised a Washington shake-up.

“Let me just offer an advance warning to the old, big-spending, do-nothing, me-first-country-second, Washington crowd: Change is coming,” McCain said to cheers.

The McCain campaign has striven to undercut claims by the Democratic candidate, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), to real change—a tough proposition given his advantage of being a Democrat after eight years of Bush administration rule, including six years when Republicans controlled Congress. Making the challenge even tougher is McCain’s commitment to a long string of conventional Republican domestic and foreign-policy staples.

Stll, McCain offered a clear break from the increasingly bitter mood in Washington: He pledged to work with Democrats and independents once elected.

“Instead of rejecting good ideas because we didn’t think of them first, let’s use the best ideas from both sides,” McCain said.

The nominee already has made clear his most senior adviser on foreign policy—and on some areas of domestic policy—will be Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the former Democrat who became the first Jew to make a national ticket when he was tapped as the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000.

Not much in terms of policy appeared to distinguish McCain from Bush, whose unpopularity ratings are at about 65 percent, according to polls.

This is partly because, in one critical area, dealing with Iraq, Bush in recent years has caught up with McCain: Bush has increased troops, a policy that has gone some way toward stemming the chaos that ensued in that country after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

On education, taxes, trade and immigration, McCain appears to be on the same page as Bush. If there was a difference between the two that came out in the speech Thursday, it was one of emphasis: In his speech, McCain barely mentioned the social conservatism that characterized much of the Bush administration. He included one passing mention to a “culture of life,” a code for opposition to abortion.

McCain opposes abortion, but has shown little taste for legislating it out of existence; additionally, unlike many Christian conservatives, he supports embryonic stem-cell research.

Israel did not get a mention in McCain’s speech, but McCain alluded to Israel’s concerns at two points.

First, when he outlined unfinished foreign policy business: “Iran remains the chief state sponsor of terrorism, and is on the path to acquiring nuclear weapons,” McCain said. The other reference was in outlining a pledge to promote energy independence—one Obama also has adopted but without going as far as McCain in pushing for more drilling in the United States.

“We’re going to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don’t like us very much,” McCain said. The world’s major oil producers include such countries as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Russia.

When the Middle East came up during the Republican convention, it often did so in conjunction with hopes for energy independence. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, McCain’s vice presidential pick, also linked the two in her speech Wednesday night.

Republicans’ confidence that McCain will claim a greater share of the Jewish vote this November compared to recent presidential elections was evident on the margins of the convention.

Polls have shown McCain claiming at least 32 percent in November, a leap from the 25 percent Bush won in 2004. This, despite the Obama campaign’s efforts in recent months to stress its support for Israel and its commitment to tougher action against Iran.

Lawmakers attending a Republican Jewish Coalition event on Thursday returned constantly to the theme of McCain being a more proven friend of Israel than Obama.

“If you care about the United States of America, if you care about Israel, this election is absolutely critical,” said Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.). Nevada is in play this election and its growing Jewish population could prove critical in November.

At the same event, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) appeared to imply that the Democratic Party isn’t pro-Israel.

“There’s an important and fundamental difference between the two parties in Washington, and I know you’re not going to be fooled by Democrats claiming that just because they’re for foreign assistance to Israel that they’re pro-Israel,” McConnell said. “Israel’s security and U.S. security are inextricably intertwined and they involve… having an assertive, aggressive proactive approach to danger.”

Such harsh rhetoric echoed the sharp attacks against Obama delivered by Palin and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in their speeches the night before.

On McCain’s night, however, the nominee ultimately appeared to take his cues from Lieberman, who in his speech Tuesday night painted the GOP nominee as a maverick willing to buck his own party and work with Democrats when the national interest required it.

Allies and foes scrape through Palin bio for Jewish material

ST. PAUL (JTA)—A small Israeli flag propped up on a window frame. A Pat Buchanan button sported briefly as a courtesy. A prospective son-in-law with a biblical name.

Little about the Frozen North is Jewish outside the realm of fiction (see Mordechai Richler, Michael Chabon, “Northern Exposure”), so when Republicans pitch Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, John McCain’s vice presidential pick, to the Jews and Democrats try to undermine her, both sides tend to reach.

Picking through the trivia and smears for substance, there’s this: Palin, 44, has genuinely warm relations with her Jewish constituents—6,000 or so—and appears to have a fondness for Israel. She also comes down on the strongly conservative side on social issues where Jews tend to trend liberal.

“Governor Palin has established a great relationship with the Jewish community over the years and has attended several of our Jewish cultural gala events,” Rabbi Yosef Greenberg, the director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Anchorage, wrote in an e-mail after McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee and longtime Arizona senator, announced that she was joining his ticket.

“Governor Palin also had plans to visit Israel with members of the Jewish community, however, for technical reasons, the visit has not occurred yet.”

Palin is likeable enough that she got props from Ethan Berkowitz, the Jewish former minority leader in the Alaska House of Representatives who appears poised to become the first Democrat to represent Alaska in the U.S. House of Representatives since Nick Begich disappeared in a snowstorm in 1972.

“I like her and this is an exciting day for Alaska,” Berkowitz told JTA.

Republicans have been scouring the archives to uncover evidence of Palin’s outreach to Jews and to Israel.

Her single substantive act is signing a resolution in June marking 60 years of Alaska-Israel relations, launched improbably in 1948 when Alaska Airlines helped shepherd thousands of Yemeni Jews to Israel. However, she did not initiate the legislation: Its major mover was John Harris, the speaker of the Alaska House.

The paucity of material led the Republican Jewish Coalition to tout the appearance of a small Israeli flag propped against a window of the state Capitol in an online video in which Palin touts the virtues of hiking Juneau.

In an e-mail blast, RJC executive director Matt Brooks offered the screengrab as an answer for “those of you who have had questions regarding Sarah Palin and her views on Israel.”

In a seemingly equal bit of stretching in the other direction, some Democrats played up an Associated Press report that Palin—then the mayor of the small Alaska town of Wasilla—had sported a Buchanan button in 1999 when the Reform Party candidate visited there.

“John McCain’s decision to select a vice presidential running mate that endorsed Pat Buchanan for President in 2000 is a direct affront to all Jewish Americans,” said an e-mail blast from the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the Democratic nominee for president, quoting U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), Obama’s top Jewish surrogate. “Pat Buchanan is a Nazi sympathizer with a uniquely atrocious record on Israel, even going as far as to denounce bringing former Nazi soldiers to justice and praising Adolf Hitler for his ‘great courage.’ ”

The problem was that Palin had corrected the record as soon as the AP report appeared, noting in a letter to a local newspaper that had published the account that she wore the button as a courtesy. In fact, in the 2000 election, during the GOP primaries, she was an official of the Steve Forbes campaign.

The hunger for Palin-Jewish news extended beyond partisan politics. Pulses quickened among some in the Israeli media when the McCain campaign revealed Monday that Palin’s 17-year old unmarried daughter, Bristol, is pregnant and that her fiance’s name is Levi. (It was revealed later that his last name is Johnston, so no seders in the immediate Palin family future.)

The National Jewish Democratic Council focused on a more substantive difference between Palin and the U.S. Jewish community: her staunch social conservatism.

“For a party which claims it is trying to reach out to the Jewish community, McCain’s pick is particularly strange,” NJDC director Ira Forman said in a statement. “On a broad range of issues, most strikingly on the issue of women’s reproductive freedom, she is totally out of step with Jewish public opinion. The gulf between Palin’s public policy positions and the American Jewish community is best illustrated by the fact that the Christian Coalition of America was one of the strongest advocates of her selection.”

Palin backs abortion only in cases where a woman’s life is at risk, opposes stem cell research and believes creationism should be taught in schools alongside evolution.

Perhaps the most damning feature of her resume on Jewish issues is its thinness—her broader problem as well. Berkowitz, the Jewish congressional candidate, poked a little fun at the resume by citing Palin’s enthusiasm for guns and hunting.

“As far as Republican vice presidents go, she will be a much better shot than Dick Cheney,” he said. “But this is John McCain’s choice and an insight in terms of his judgment.”

Ben Chouake, who heads NORPAC, a New Jersey-based pro-Israel political action committee and one who is close to the McCain campaign, says he learned that McCain favored Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the one-time Democrat and Al Gore’s vice-presidential pick in 2000, until the last minute but caved to arguments that Lieberman would alienate the Republican Party’s conservative base.

“I don’t know anything about her, but I’m not concerned because she is the governor, who is someone with executive experience,” Chouake told JTA.

Palin has served less than two years as governor and, as NJDC noted, has “zero foreign policy experience.”

Greenberg, the Chabad rabbi who has not endorsed a candidate, suggests that she makes up in soul what she lacks in experience, referring to her fifth child, Trig, a Down syndrome baby born just four months ago.

“I was personally impressed by Governor Palin’s remarks of hope and faith when she gave birth to a child with special needs,” he said. “We all feel that the Governor is a remarkable, energetic, and good person.”

(JTA staff writer Jacob Berkman contributed to this report from New   York.)

Torah Portion

My older cousin, Earl, was into Judaism in a bigway when I was a kid. I mean, he was cool and everything — playedguitar, had long hair, a beard, earth shoes and his own room in theattic — but the guy loved to daven. From what I can remember, thismade him something of an exception in the Leder clan.

Since then, Earl has gone on to write a couple ofgreat books about Judaism and morality, he teaches Torah all overMinneapolis and St. Paul, and he is generally renowned for hisbrilliance and his menschlichkayt. I respect him for all of that, butmore so for something he did when his 13-year-old cousin became a barmitzvah; it’s something I am sure he has forgotten by now.

Digging through the packages and envelopes of mypost-party bar mitzvah loot 25 years ago, I unearthed a small boxwith a card on top from Earl. “I know that you probably won’t usethese,” it said, “but every Jew should have them just incase.”

I opened the box to discover two smaller boxes,shiny and black, with stiff leather straps. I’d seen tefillin inpictures and on the praying Chassid curios for sale in the templegift shop. But these were mine, and one thing Earl said in his cardwas for sure — I wouldn’t use them.

For more than a decade, the tefillin I never usedstayed inside the velvet bag that held the tallis I never wore, onthe shelf in the basement bedroom of my parents’ home, where I nolonger lived. I couldn’t bring myself to throw away these artifactsof an irrelevant Judaism from an unenlightened era, but I had no usefor them either. That was until my liturgy professor in rabbinicalschool gave us an assignment — three weeks of davening at anOrthodox shul.

“Mom, UPS those tefillin in the basement, willya?”

I’ve been a proud Reform Jew my entire life. I’man unapologetic, “spirit of the law trumps the letter of the law”sort of guy. I drive to synagogue on Shabbat, believe in egalitarianJudaism, full rights for homosexuals, patrilineal descent, andhalacha is a part but not the sum total of my decision makingprocess. Had you asked what my reaction to wearing tefillin wouldhave been before I tried them, I would have answered you with thewords of the Reform movement’s Torah commentary on the verses abouttefillin in this week’s Torah portion: “Reform Jews stress internalcommitment over adherence to external forms…the biblicalprescription to ‘place a sign upon your hand and a reminder upon yourforehead’ was meant in a figurative way only.” Yep, that was me, Mr.Rational. Until I tried it.

Figurative or not, there’s something powerfulabout literally placing a tiny box with promises of redemption fromthe Torah hidden inside onto your upper arm facing your heart.Wrapping the thin black strap seven times around your arm andfinishing it off in the shape of a Shin (the first letter of God’sname), laced between your fingers, is meditative and connecting — tothe other men by your side, the Torah, the past, God. A shining blacksquare suspended just below your hairline with leather strapscascading over your shoulders really does remind you of who and whatyou are.

Fifteen years after those experimental days inrabbinical school, not always, not even very often, but sometimes, Iwrap myself in my tallis and my tefillin, sway to a rhythm unheardand lose myself in a world of ancient words. I guess I’ve learnedwhat Cousin Earl knew all along: Not always, but sometimes, what’srational isn’t what’s meaningful, and what once we dismissed, we maylater embrace. Certain things are worth keeping, as Earl himselfmight put it, “just in case.”

Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at WilshireBoulevard Temple.

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