Kosher supermarkets are comforting places to visit. The aisles are widely spaced and there is a feeling of abundance: shelves groaning with every supervised product on the planet. No need to check the labels for gelatine or beetles’ blood — everything is kosher. Yet lurking in the chilled and frozen meals, the soups, condiments, sauces and, above all, the sweets, are the additives — chemical concoctions that could make you shudder.
I started wondering about the E-numbers we put in our mouths after seeing a child eating a fizzy blue sherbet. She spilled some of the powder on the carpet and nothing would remove the blue stain. If it did this to the carpet, what is it doing to our insides?
Additives are there for a reason. Customers seem to prefer their fruit yogurt to have flavouring that is reminiscent of a perfumed candle. Colouring too needs to “enhance” what is real, so strawberry ice cream is more likely to be as pink as fairy wings, rather than the muted rose colour that comes from crushed berries. Parev cream lists colouring as part of the chemistry set that goes into it. Colouring? The stuff is white, for goodness sake.
Stabilisers are there to stop the ingredients wobbling about. So that accounts for the gums and gelatine. Preservatives ensure sure you can keep the product till May 2011 or, if perishable, even for just a week. (To be fair, freshly made hummus goes off after about four hours). Finally there are bulking agents — fat, water and starch. How else can you turn a measly chicken nugget into the battered and breaded bite beloved by children?
Most of our favourites contain some of these extras. Thirty per cent of a “pure beef vienna” consists of five different additives, plus some sugar. A parev chicken soup, amusingly called “Tradition”, has 31 ingredients your grandma would never have heard of. These include silicon dioxide and sodium tripolyphosphate, which is used as a preservative and to retain moisture in foods — it is also found in laundry detergents and toilet cleaners.
Geffen noodle soup makes no implicit promises of a haimishe taste. Its 24 ingredients include disodium guanylate (produced from dried fish or seaweed) which carries a warning for vegetarians and asthmatics.
Flavouring is a minefield. There is “natural”, “artificial” and “nature identical”. A factory producing the last of these proudly boasts dozens of different vanilla “flavours” — none of them obtained from a simple vanilla pod, and each one tailored to suit makers of ice cream and cakes. The cloying smell of these concentrates hits you 500 yards before you reach the factory entrance. Most kosher sweets contain not only one of these, but a cocktail of fish gelatine, carnauba wax or gum arabic.
In the wider world of unsupervised products, advertising plays a huge part. Manufacturers are keen to promote a wholesome image. So sugary cornflakes are “low fat” and a fast-food milkshake is “suitable for vegetarians”. In 2006 the Guardian revealed that one of McDonald’s strawberry milkshakes contained an artificial flavour consisting of 46 “yummy chemicals”. A Betty Crocker cake mix has 17 ingredients and a further 16 for the smooth and scrumptious-looking chocolate topping. To create a cake with a far lighter texture than you could bake at home, they use an emulsifier. To achieve this sugar-rich chocolate experience you just need to add fresh eggs.
Surely the most natural food is the egg? Yet here again there are reasons to take care. I stood behind a woman in a kosher store buying the pure white eggs which are far cheaper than brown ones. I wondered if she was aware that in saving money she had bought eggs from caged hens reared in shocking conditions? Waitrose no longer deals with farmers keeping battery chickens, and this method is gradually being phased out by Tesco and Sainsbury. Why, if we care so much about kashrut, should we not care about where our eggs come from?
To find out what lurks inside almost any product, a helpful website is ocado.com — the online delivery service for Waitrose. Items in its Food and Drink section have a “What’s Inside” feature listing the ingredients and nutritional information.
If we want to avoid unpleasant additives the answer is surely to make food ourselves. One of the best ways of learning — if you do not have access to a Jewish mamma in the kitchen — is to watch someone cooking. Check out Videojug.com to see a chef making French macaroons or the perfect pizza. Apart from food, this website (“Life explained on film”) offers thousands of visual hints to show you how to dance, unblock a drain etc.
Of course we shouldn’t believe everything we read on the internet. It was claimed that Pringles were made from McDonald’s leftover chips. “McDonald’s collects unserved french fries which are dehydrated and flaked and then shipped to Pringles factories all over the world.” We are not that gullible but it’s no spoof to say that what goes into ready-made food can be disturbing.