January 17, 2019


Udi Goren
“Supermarket, Purim,” 2015

A supermarket in the northern coastal city of Nahariya, Israel, on Purim. “Supermarket, Purim” is part of the international exhibition “Passage to Israel,” which opens on March 8 at the Sagamore Hotel in the South Beach area of Miami Beach, as part of a three-month “Peace 70” initiative (passagetoIsrael.org).

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 martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Trader Joe’s comes up against some tough cookies

Trader Joe’s got slammed last week by a combination of hysteria and hoarding by kosher bakers when word leaked out that its semisweet chocolate chips were going from pareve to dairy.

“It’s just really sad,” said Shana Fishman, a Beverlywood mother of four who stocked up on 20 bags of chocolate chips at the Trader Joe’s in West Hollywood last week. “It means that I’ll have to use bitter chocolate chips in my cookies, and it means that I’ll have to pay more for my chocolate chips.”

Trader Joe’s semisweet chocolate chips were widely valued as the best, most affordable non-dairy chocolate chips on the market. Until now they have borne an “OK pareve” designation, essential for kosher consumers who do not eat meat and dairy products in the same meal. But the supplier for Trader Joe’s has changed its production procedure, and the chips will now be designated as dairy by Brooklyn-based OK-Kosher Certification.

“We are meeting with Trader Joe’s and encouraging them to go back to the old protocol and get those chips back to pareve,” Rabbi Chaim Fogelman, director of public relations at the OK, said on May 21. “So far, there is no movement in that area, but we are working on it.”

Trader Joe’s released a statement last week defending its chocolate chips.

“The ingredients used in our semisweet chocolate chips have not changed, there are no dairy ingredients in the item, and the chips are made on equipment dedicated to non-dairy chocolate,” a company statement said.

But the chips are bagged on machinery that also bags milk chocolate chips, and the supplier recently switched from a wet to a dry cleaning regimen on the bagging machine. “These changes … triggered the need for an FDA regulated, dairy-related allergen statement, and this in turn brought about a change in the Kosher certification for our item — going from ‘Kosher Parve’ to ‘Kosher Dairy,’ ” the statement read.

An officer at OK Kosher Certification said supervising rabbis can no longer guarantee that no errant milk chocolate chips are included in the semisweet bags.

“Currently, the monitoring of the level of separation between pareve and dairy is no longer sufficient to meet the requirements of OK Pareve,” a statement released by the OK read.

As the news leaked out through mournful Facebook posts, kosher bakers — along with vegans and the lactose intolerant — flooded Trader Joe’s with an unprecedented barrage of calls and e-mails. A petition created on change.org had 4,100 signatures as of the middle of this week.

Trader Joe’s locations reported that consumers were buying 20, 80, even 170 bags at a time.

While many so-called “haimish” brands – Jewish companies that make only kosher foods — produce pareve chocolate chips, those chips are generally waxy and flavorless. The silky, rich Trader Joe’s morsels melt to perfect consistency in cookies and taste like actual chocolate. They are good enough to almost make up for the fact that kosher bakers have to forgo real butter in cookies they serve after a Shabbat lunch of grilled chicken, roasted vegetables and quinoa salad.

Chocolate manufacturing requires cocoa butter and cocoa, but those are expensive ingredients when not purchased in massive volumes. Small kosher brands know their consumers aren’t willing to pay what it would cost to produce premium chocolate chips, said Rabbi Eliezer Eidlitz, director of the Kosher Information Bureau.

“They often can’t even legally call it chocolate. It’s ‘chocolate flavored,’ ” Eidlitz said.

Whole Foods carries Enjoy Life chocolate chips that are kosher pareve. They run $4.99 a bag, while the Trader Joe’s chips are $2.29 a bag. Kosher brands range between $2 and $4.

Some consumers were hoping the Trader Joe’s chips would be designated as the less restrictive DE, which stands for dairy equipment, signifying that the chips were manufactured on equipment also used for dairy.

But OK said the chips have to be considered actually dairy because milk chocolate chips could end up in the bags. Eidlitz said because the chips are complete units that do not fully dissolve into the other ingredients, the “one-sixtieth rule” that can be used to nullify trace amounts of dairy does not apply.

But Eidlitz is holding out hope. In 2006, Duncan Hines cake mixes went dairy, and consumer blowback brought the pareve label back. Same with Stella D’oro cookies, which in 2003 nixed a plan to switch to dairy after a kosher outcry.

A spokesman at the OK said the story is not over.

“We are working to rectify this issue with the manufacturer, and hopefully we will have good news soon,” the OK officer said.

On May 17, Trader Joe’s issued the following glimmer of hope: “We are evaluating our options and although we cannot guarantee a specific outcome at this time, we realize that for some of our customers this is an important issue.”

Kosher Club to close its doors after 30 years

Kosher Club, a warehouse-style kosher market on Pico Boulevard, near La Brea Avenue, will close its doors on Friday, a victim of the competitive kosher retail industry in Los Angeles.

“After 30 years in business, the Kosher Club has decided to close its retail operation,” management wrote in an email sent to customers Wednesday. “As many of you know, we have struggled these last few years, and we decided to make a change.”

Owner Daryl Schwartz was not available for comment Thursday morning, but customers and employees at the market said they were saddened but not shocked to hear the news.

Kosher Club lies proximate to, but not within, the heavily Orthodox neighborhoods of Pico-Robertson and Beverly-La Brea. While loyalists insisted the easy parking and friendly service were worth the drive – less than 10 minutes from both neighborhoods – most customers preferred to patronize markets closer to their homes, which have proliferated in recent years.

Additionally, some customers agreed that prices at Kosher Club were slightly higher than at kosher markets on Pico, most of which also offered a lusher produce section than Kosher Club.

This week, prices for all merchandise (except the meat) were marked 30 percent off to clear the shelves, which by Thursday morning were mostly empty. A Chanukah display held only a few remaining puzzles and some chocolate. The bakery shelf offered some day-old loaves of bread and bags of pita. The meat case – renowned among kosher connoisseurs—sat nearly empty, opposite shelves with a jarringly sparse selection of wines.

Loyal customers, many of whom found out about the closing when they showed up to shop on Thursday, were distressed by the closing.

Meat cases were empty at Kosher Club, which has served the Los Angeles community since 1987.

“I come here once a month from South Bay to do all my shopping. I’m just devastated. Where will I go now?” asked one customer, who identified herself as M. Averch.

“This is home to me,” said Baruch Littman, a long-time customer and friend of the owners. “When I leave my house to go to a kosher market, I have never gone anywhere but here. Never. They have the best meat case in the entire city. Rosie is the best butcher in the entire city.”

Littman, vice president of development at the Jewish Community Foundation, said when he opened a restaurant in 1981, Mickey Schwartz, father of owner Daryl Schwartz, was the only one to extend him credit. Schwartz and a partner owned West Pico Foods, Inc., a distribution company. When they sold the company, Schwartz opened Kosher Club at the property in 1987.

Kosher club was early to develop online shopping and home delivery, but that wasn’t enough to compete with stores farther west on Pico Boulevard. Three large kosher markets and a handful of smaller ones do a brisk business on the stretch of Pico between La Cienega Boulevard and Roxbury Drive.

Angel Soto, who has worked for the Schwartzes for 30 years, most recently driving the home-delivery truck, witnessed the volume of customers at other kosher markets, and said he was concerned about Kosher Club.

Soto, along with about a dozen other employees, were told of the closing this week. Soto said customers have already offered him jobs, so he’s not worried about himself.

Averch, from South Bay, stood talking to other customers, extolling the service and products at Kosher Club, and wondering where she would shop now.

“And,” she added, looking at the newspaper rack near the register, “now where am I going to find my Jewish Journal?”

Rabbis pray for humane work conditions for tomato farmers

Rabbis for Human Rights-North America took part in a prayer event in a Florida Publix supermarket to help ensure the safety of tomatoes pickers.

Fifteen rabbis and two rabbinical students took part in the prayer circle Thursday in Naples urging Publix to sign the Fair Food Agreement, a contract that guarantees that tomato pickers are working in an environment with a zero-tolerance policy for trafficking and slavery, sexual assault and child labor. It also would raise their wages by a penny per pound of tomatoes.

Publix has refused repeatedly to sign the agreement or meet with workers.

The rabbis’ group has partnered with the Committee of Immokalee, a coalition of 4,000 tomato pickers, and they plan to stage another demonstration over Sukkot urging all major tomato retailers to sign the pledge. They also used social media to help push their message. 

Nine major retailers of tomatoes, including McDonalds, Whole Foods and Subway, have signed the pledge. 

“As rabbis, we are called upon to be moral leaders,” said Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, the director of North American programs for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America. “We cannot stand idly by as the workers who pick our tomatoes suffer some of the worst human rights abuses in America.”

Kosher Consumers for a New Age

Meet the new kosher consumer: No, it is not a rabbi with a beard down to his navel and payot that graze his shoulders, but practicing Seventh-day Adventist Kay Meager, a mother of three and a first-grade teacher at Conejo Adventist Elementary School. Meager’s husband, Larry, is senior pastor at the Thousand Oaks Seventh-day Adventist Church and when Meager goes to the supermarket to buy food for her family, a kosher label is the first thing she looks for.

“If I see hot dogs labeled as kosher, then I know that we don’t have to investigate any further,” said Meager, whose religion has its own set of dietary restrictions, including a prohibition on eating pig-derived meat products. “And that goes for any type of processed meat or meat products. If something is labeled as kosher … we would feel comfortable that it would be fine for us.”

She is one of the estimated 11 million in the United States who make kosher a factor when buying food. Of those 11 million, kosher industry experts estimate that only 1 million are Jewish — the rest are a collection of Seventh-day Adventists, Muslims, lactose intolerants, vegetarian inclined, celiacs (gluten- and wheat-free) and others who feel that a kosher symbol ensures quality and purity of the food. Combined, these people make up a new food market — the kosher consumer, which both manufacturers and retailers are starting to understand has, if captured correctly, a great profit potential.

“I tell all the food manufacturers that don’t have kosher supervision that in this market it is nothing but a plus,” said Jim Small, specialty and ethnic foods buyer for Ralphs. “I’m not going to make the vendor incur the expense, but I am going to open their eyes to the potential [of kosher].”

According to Kosher Today, a kosher industry trade publication, there are $130 billion worth of certified kosher food produced in the United States yearly, and it is an industry that has been growing at the rate of 15 percent per annum since the early 1990s.

This month, the kosher industry is going to be staking a claim to new headquarters — California. The kosher industry trade show, Kosher World Conference and Expo, will be held at the Los Angeles Convention Center Jan. 27-29. The Kosher World organizers chose California as the locale for its international trade show for a number of reasons: California has the third largest Jewish community in the world; it is also home to 1.2 million Muslims who consume Halal products and 185,000 Seventh-day Adventists. There are also at least 10 million Californians who are vegetarian inclined — which means they would benefit from knowing about pareve-labeled kosher food. Many Californians are health conscious, and they strive for a balanced eating plan with high-quality food selections. Furthermore, the latest trends in American cuisine — fusion, California cuisine and spa cuisine — emerged from California. And, of course, it’s the most populous state in the union, which means that it has a great deal of hotels, restaurants and food-service companies that could benefit from hearing about the ways kosher can be an advantage.

Kosher World’s mission is to “bring kosher to mainstream and mainstream to kosher” — in other words, the organizers want to see more kosher products in mainstream supermarkets, and they also want mainstream supermarkets to appreciate the financial potential of satisfying kosher consumers. At the event, kosher food manufacturers will have the chance to meet buyers from the major supermarket chains like Gelson’s, Costco and Ralphs, and the buyers will be able to attend the Buyer Certification Program that will educate them about what kosher is and how it can be used to increase sales.

So far, there are about 80 exhibitors at the event, including such doyens of U.S.-processed food as Campbells, which recently had its vegetable soup kosher certified; Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, which are certified kosher in California and elsewhere; and the Kraft Food Co., which produces a large number of kosher products.

All this brings kosher to a whole new level that seems light years away from the original biblical injunctions. Eating kosher — which is the Hebrew word for “fit” or “proper for use” — is generally regarded as a chok — a halachah that, regardless of the marketing spin that organizers of Kosher World might put on it, has no rational reason for its existence but must be kept anyway, because God said so. Kosher has its source in Leviticus 11, where God commands the children of Israel to only eat animals that chew their cud and have split hooves, to only eat fish that have fins and scales and to not eat insects or birds of prey. Any animals that Jews do eat need to be ritually slaughtered, i.e, they can’t have died from natural causes. Additionally, the Torah forbids the consumption of blood, which is why all kosher animals are salted after they are slaughtered, and “cooking a kid in its mother’s milk,” which the rabbis interpreted as meaning that milk and meat should not be eaten or cooked together.

Kosher food got its start in the United States in the mid-17th century, when Congregation Shearith Israel, a Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in New York, started supervising the production of kosher meat. Packaged kosher products hit store shelves in the late 19th century, when entrepreneurs like Israel Rokeach and Dov Behr Manischewitz started producing and marketing kosher foods like boxed matzahs and jarred gefilte fish. Back then, there wasn’t organized kosher supervision as such — Jews relied on the reputation of the manufacturers or peddlers.

Around the same time, U.S. food manufacturers started to notice the market potential in kosher. In 1911, Procter & Gamble started advertising Crisco — pure vegetable shortening — as a kosher product. In 1930, Maxwell House Coffee published its first Passover haggadah to complement its kosher coffee. In 1935, Heinz sought Orthodox Union endorsement on its newly invented vegetarian baked beans, so that it could have a recognizably kosher product to market to Jews living on the Lower East Side of New York. This was the first instance of a kosher certification symbol appearing on a mass-produced product.

Today, more than 60 percent of the items found in supermarkets are certified kosher, and not only are buyers for supermarket chains seeking out kosher products, manufacturers are seeking out kosher certification for their foods. According to Kosher Today, large companies that added kosher symbols to their products — like Coors or M&Ms — all experienced a noticeable growth in sales. Statistics show that kosher-specific consumers spend $100 more on groceries per week than their nonkosher counterparts.

“I have yet to find a situation where a company says, ‘Yes, I was kosher but it didn’t make sense for me from a dollars point of view,'” said Neil Ticktin, CEO of Kosher World. “What happens across the board is that when you become kosher, it pays for itself without an issue.”

“For mainstream corporate America to spend money on kosher supervision makes dollars and sense,” said Rafi Litenatsky, sales manager of Kosher World. “It’s a way for them to expand their sales horizontally, to branch out into other markets.”

Kosher advocates say that kosher labeling and supervision is really the only way to ensure that the product is completely what it says it is. Nondairy creamer, for example, is likely to contain dairy ingredients, unless it is labeled pareve. Seemingly benign items like canned vegetables, may, according to U.S.D.A. laws, contain up to .2 percent of animal byproducts — anything from insect pieces to rat hair — unless certified kosher. Noncertified red food dye is likely to be made from crushed cockroaches. Keeping kosher can even reduce your risk of contracting salmonella. Since kosher chickens are salted and drained of all fluids, the odds of salmonella occurring are severely decreased.

In other words, if you want to avoid these and other culinary pitfalls, kosher is the way to go. Organizers of Kosher World hope that in the next few years, 75 percent of the products in supermarkets will be kosher, and that more consumers will recognize the word “kosher” (in the same way that people understand the word “vegetarian”) — and see it as a “seal of approval.”

How much the kosher landscape will change in America is yet to be seen.

“I don’t see the average McDonald’s going kosher,” Litenatsky said, “but three people from McDonald’s signed up to come to the show, so maybe they are planning something I don’t know about. But look at companies like Nathan’s [hot dogs] — who have kosher outlets — and Krispy Kreme, where almost every Krispy Kreme is kosher certified. Whoever thought that would happen? I never say never.”

The Kosher World Conference and Expo will take place at
the Los Angeles Convention Center Jan. 27-29. It will be open to the public Jan.
29 from 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. For information call (805) 494-9797 or visit www.kosherworld.com .