Is Healthy Eating the Latest Craze?

By Naomi Ross


“I’m trying to stay away from kugels these days. They’re just too high in fats and sugars and my family doesn’t even want them anymore.” This is a familiar sentiment echoed in many of the cooking classes I’ve taught in recent years. But if traditional Ashkenazic Jewish cuisine is becoming passé and often considered unhealthy or unimaginative, then what steers our food and dining choices?

Like fashion and art, the food we eat is a reflection of cultural tides and social mores. This idea has never resonated more deeply than it does today. The Food Network and Whole Foods Market have opened the door to new tastes, techniques and healthy options for the general public. But this effect is not limited to the secular world. Keeping kosher, it seems, can be subject to trends too.

“The kosher consumer of today is more sophisticated and informed about food, wine and ingredients,” explains Jay Buchsbaum, vice president of marketing at the Royal Wine Corp. and organizer of the annual Kosher Food & Wine Experience. “They know what goes into [the food they eat].”

Buchsbaum believes the biggest trend of the year is that kosher consumers want quality—and are willing to pay for it. This rings true when examining this past year’s top kosher trends.

Eat Your Greens!
If Popeye were around today, he wouldn’t be eating spinach. He’d be eating kale, and lots of it.

Considered one of the “superfoods,” kale boasts an enormous cadre of nutritional benefits including vitamin K, lutein and calcium. It also provides a more complex flavor than standard greens like lettuce, offering salads a heartier, earthier feel—all integral factors in the spike of kale sales over the past seven years. Still, the trend took time to catch on in the kosher world. This is partly due to the challenges and time involved in removing insects from the leaves.

Like lettuce, kale comes in a variety of forms. Unlike the traditional salad green, however, kale can be prepared in many ways: kale chips (best to use curly kale), sautéed kale (try richly flavored Toscano kale) or tender baby kale salads, garnished with lemon and parmesan.

Whether born out of a desire to feel better and improve health or even for weight-loss purposes, the “healthy” trend has begun to shift the way the Jewish community is eating and cooking.

John Hues, a head grocer at Gourmet Glatt Emporium in Cedarhurst, New York, said the store started offering pre-checked containers of kale about a year-and-a-half ago. “We had already been selling pre-checked baby spinach and arugula for a few years, but people were asking for kale . . . I have a customer who buys six or eight containers at a time—she likes to make kale chips for her grandchildren.”

Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher, has recognized this trend as well. For the private consumer, who reaps the taste and health benefits of kale, the time invested in preparation is considered time well spent. For institutions and restaurants, however, it can be hard to balance the demand for kale with the economics of providing it. The demand for greens in kosher dining has dramatically impacted the job and training of today’s mashgichim (kosher supervisors), explains Rabbi Genack. “In some places, because checking is so time intensive, we are encouraging institutions to purchase pre-checked greens [to lower costs]. Restaurants have mashgichim there anyway, so it’s more economical to have them use light boxes to check the leaves properly.”

To keep up with today’s kosher diet, the OU trains mashgichim about new and different types of greens, including kale. Despite the demand, the profit margin on leafy greens is not assured in the kosher industry. “If the mashgiach finds an infestation, the whole lot has got to go,” Hues explains. “You just never know.”

The Common Cure
If you’ve ever had a hot dog or a hot pastrami on rye, then you’ve had “charcuterie”—foods that have been salted, smoked or cured. Historically, however, meat-curing experts primarily utilized non-kosher meats to produce hand-crafted delicacies like salumi, bresaola and prosciutto. As such, Jews came to associate cured meats with non-kosher food. Other than the hard salami that hung in the Jewish delicatessens of yesteryear, high-quality kosher charcuterie was difficult, if not impossible, to come by. And what was available became synonymous with unhealthy eating: a moderately tasty yet unrefined mix of processed meat products, fillers and flavor enhancers such as MSG.

Not anymore. Walk into any Costco and you will find Jack’s Gourmet Kosher high-quality hand-crafted sausages, all OU certified, like Mexican Chorizo and Sweet Italian, in addition to deli meats (without the artificial additives and fillers) now available in a mainstream market.

It is a trend that took off in 2012, when Jack’s Gourmet Kosher released facon, a smoky bacon substitute made from beef plate. The product was an immediate hit; company sales tripled in 2013.

“Consumers recognized the quality and consistency and taste and loved it,” says cofounder Jack Silberstein. “Some consumers even made the jump to keeping kosher because they finally felt they had a substitute they could live with.” And although cured meats are not known to be healthy in large consumption, the popularity of these products is in line with a growing general consciousness of healthful meat options. Grow & Behold, an up-and-coming company, sells OU-certified pastured meats and poultry without antibiotics or growth hormones. High-quality, all-natural charcuterie was a logical extension of this trend, trading in soy protein (a filler), hydrolyzed soy protein (a flavor enhancer) and smoke flavor for good quality beef, spices and aromatics and a real smoking. Health-conscious Jews are not turning toward vegetarianism, but rather toward meat choices they can feel good about eating and whose quality shows in the taste.

As a result of the upswing in demand, classically trained chefs like Executive Chef David Kolotkin of The Prime Grill, an upscale kosher steakhouse in Manhattan, have learned to apply their skills to the kosher table, incorporating an explosion of flavors and textures into many of the restaurant’s signature dishes. He acknowledged this as “trend of the year,” and crafts some of their exclusive house-made charcuterie, a spicy-smoky salumi that is aged for nine months and is deeply satisfying all by itself.

“The future of kosher food,” says Silberstein, “is that these will become staples, with customers demanding a wider array of quality items.”

Drink Your Greens?
The bright grassy green and somewhat sludgy mixture at the bottom of my friend’s glass mason jar looked a bit primordial. Yet a smile came to her lips as she finished slurping it up quickly. She is a big believer in “juicing,” extracting the juices from fruits and vegetables—the greener, the better. The FDA recommends consuming five to six servings of vegetables daily; but if you are an average burger-and-fries-eating American, it might be unrealistic to down piles of kale. If that is the case, then juicing is an easy way of incorporating essential nutrients into one’s diet in addition to cleansing the body of toxins.

In the past several years, the juicing trend has gone from fringe lifestyle obsession to nouveau-chic nutrition. Juice manufacturer BluePrintCleanse made it fashionable by placing its products at runway shows six years ago, touting the weight loss possibilities associated with a liquid diet cleanse. When BluePrintCleanse and Suja Juice—both OU certified—started offering their organic cold-pressed juices at retail locations like Whole Foods, the growth was exponential—despite the whopping $8.99 each bottle commands. Suja Juice offers twenty different flavors, each using a unique blend of ingredients like apple, pineapple, banana, mango, kale, spinach, chia seed, flax seed, spirulina and alfalfa. According to Forbes, Suja Juice reported revenues of $18 million in 2013, its first full year of operation.

Julie Maleh, a graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York, was known in the Syrian Jewish community for making all-natural juices at home and giving them out to friends. Two years ago, she took her passion to the next level and opened Jus by Julie in Brooklyn. Three stores (two in Brooklyn and one in Cedarhurst, New York) and many Groupons later, her hobby-turned-business has exposed and educated these bustling Orthodox communities about the health benefits of juicing. “About 90 percent of the stores’ business is Orthodox,” says her son Elliot, manager at the Cedarhurst location. “Business picks up dramatically post-holiday and post-Shabbat,” he explains, alluding to people’s desire to cleanse after indulging. “And also before a vacation like winter break—when people want to look their best.” Since opening, their revenue has nearly tripled.

Unlike its mainstream competitors, Jus by Julie juices are blended, not cold-pressed. Simply put, this means the fiber stays in the juice and you will feel fuller and more nourished afterward. Cold-pressed juices exert pressure to emit the juices, but the fiber is held back. The theory: less fiber means less bodily exertion for digestion and more readily absorbed nutrients into your bloodstream. Whichever way you juice, fresh juices will only last three to four days, so drink up!

The New Healthy
When my daughter Talia was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2009, it meant a shift to a gluten-free diet (no wheat, rye, barley or spelt). Though a considerable amount of resource material was already available online, shopping for basic items like cereal, bread and pasta became challenging. Frequent trips to the health food store and Trader Joe’s and ordering products online quickly became routine.

In the last two years, the demand for gluten-free products—not only for celiac- and gluten-intolerant individuals, but also for people who believe the diet is healthier for everyone—reached a tipping point. Gluten-free products and healthy alternative grains (like millet) are now readily available in mainstream stores. Popular cereals now boast their “gluten-free” status on the box in bold capital letters. Menachem Lubinsky, president and CEO of Lubicom Marketing Consulting, founding publisher of Kosher Today and creator and developer of the Kosherfest trade show, said that there were just a handful of booths at Kosherfest showcasing gluten-free foods five years ago; last year, there were thirty-five.

The spike in recent years in celiac or gluten-intolerance diagnoses has been the subject of much speculation. Historically, the condition has been common among Jews of Eastern European descent, but some argue that increased awareness among doctors and better diagnostic tools account for the increased numbers today. Many observers also believe that the nature of modern-day grain production is a major contributing factor. Whatever the cause, the impact has been felt within the kosher industry as well.

Kosher manufacturers have had to accommodate the demand for gluten-free and healthier options. “People are looking for products that are better for their health. Many people who think ‘kosher’ think ‘healthy,’” explained Mitchell Halpert, CFO of Kedem Food Products International, which produces a line of gluten-free products. “Years ago, it was cholesterol free. Now everyone is looking for gluten free, ‘all natural’ and non-GMO [genetically modified organism].”

Meeting this demand has not been as straightforward as with other manufactured products. To be labeled gluten free, a product must be officially certified by gluten-free organizations like the Gluten-Free Certification Organization (GFCO).

While there is much debate over whether non-GMO foods are really healthier, it is clear that consumers are demanding these products.

Whether born out of a desire to feel better and improve their health or even for weight-loss purposes, the “healthy” trend has begun to shift the way the Jewish community is eating and cooking. Halpert says, “People are looking for healthy options. If something came kosher in one variety but was unhealthy, they would use it anyway because they had no choice. Now they want the option of something healthier. Substitutions [are available], so it can be done.”

New Year’s Resolutions
This past year’s trends were a movement toward eating and cooking more healthfully, more thoughtfully. Many trends are a passing fad, but reforming and improving our eating habits (and by extension our cooking) is never a bad thing. Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook writes about many kinds of teshuvah (repentance) in Orot HaTeshuvah, one of which is a physical form of teshuvah. Taking care of and delivering real nourishment to the body can also be part of our Jewish New Year’s resolutions. Move over lokshen kugel, make room for kale salad with roasted squash . . . and maybe some facon bits too.

Helpful tips for cooking and eating in the coming year:

• Eat lots of greens—the darker, the better; cooked or raw. Kale is great, but so is Swiss chard and escarole. Temper the bitterness with something acidic (like lemon juice or wine vinegar) and sweet.

• Short on time? Wash, check and dry a bunch of greens at the beginning of the week. Wrap in paper towels and store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Will last up to one week.

• Green juices can be bitter if only using dark greens. Balance with the sweetness of 1 to 2 fruits.

• Learn to read ingredient labels. Try to avoid ingredients you don’t understand and can’t pronounce. The more natural and simple the product, the better.

• Try alternative whole grains for your side dishes: spelt berries, wheat berries, buckwheat, et cetera.

Naomi Ross is a cooking instructor and food writer. She teaches classes throughout the tri-state area and writes articles connecting good cooking and Jewish inspiration.

This article was featured in the Fall 2014 issue of Jewish Action.