Americans today are looking for alternatives. This trend has manifested itself in many different areas but is perhaps the most pronounced in the health sector. How often do we hear about alternative medicine? As a result, more and more Americans are electing to have a homeopath, chiropractor, or kinesiologist be their primary care physician in place of the more conventional medical doctor. In a word, Americans are looking to lead a more ‘natural’ lifestyle. After all, what can be better than what nature itself has to offer?
This ‘natural’ lifestyle trend has in no small measure impacted as well upon the food industry. In order to accommodate the growing population of vegetarians and macrobiotics, food manufacturers have reformulated many recipes by substituting natural and organic ingredients over their artificial and non-organic counterparts. Just in the past three years alone, my office, which processes thousands of new product applications for kosher approval, has noticed in the batch formulae of these requests more wholesome ingredients. My encounters with unbleached flour instead of bleached, cane juice in lieu of high fructose corn syrup, and expeller pressed oil as opposed to the chemically extracted oil, are not as few and far between as they once were.
In an effort to drive the ‘natural’ message home, the government has followed suit by requiring on nutrition labels as of January 2006 a declaration for trans fatty acids. This is done to alert the consumer that trans fats, which undergo the unnatural partial hydrogenation of vegetable oils, have been found to increase low density lipoprotein-cholesterol (LDL-C) or bad cholesterol in the blood, thus raising the risk of developing coronary heart disease.
Substituting healthier ingredients in formulae is just one approach food manufacturers have taken to satisfy the ‘natural’ yearning of their customers. There is, however, a second approach that has grown in popularity and also enjoys much success. Through the aid of intense research and development, food manufacturers are either devising new and innovative natural foods or are resuscitating and embellishing outdated ones. One such natural product that has hit supermarket shelves by storm, much to the delight of the consumer, is granola.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, granola was a trademark name that represented foods made up of crumbled or baked whole grain products. Whole grain products include whole wheat flour, oatmeal, popcorn, brown rice and whole wheat bread. There are many health benefits of whole grain over refined grain; most significant is the almost four times as much dietary fiber content. Studies have shown that foods with higher dietary fiber reduce the chances of many diseases, including coronary heart disease, diabetes and certain forms of cancer.
While it may be true that the term granola was trademarked at the end of the nineteenth century, baked whole grain products can be traced as far back as the first man to inhabit this world. There is a fascinating source in Jewish literature and tradition that describes the diet of Adam from the Book of Genesis. In addition to fruits and vegetables, it is recorded that Adam ate bread. Bakeries may find this curious enough, as it is well known that bread making and baking requires much knowledge and skill, and where would Adam have acquired these necessary tools?
What is even more astounding is that the same source states that before Adam sinned by eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, loaves of bread actually grew forth from the earth. It was only as a consequence of the sin, when Adam lost this privilege and was forced to fend for himself, that he needed to learn how to bake bread from scratch. Ever since, humanity has never before delighted in a more natural and purer granola product than those loaves of bread that Adam ate before he sinned.
Aside from the health benefits, granola has demonstrated great versatility and is quite delicious in an array of food categories. Just add to the whole grains some nuts, honey and dried fruit and it is an ideal breakfast food that can be used in combination with cereal or yogurt. Loose in a bag, it is a sort of high energy trail-mix snack. For a mouth-watering treat, it can be used as a topping for desserts. Bake these ingredients together and the result is a euphoric bar with half the calories of a candy bar. And how about trying a scrumptious and delectable granola cookie?
Regardless if it is enjoyed as a breakfast cereal, snack, energy bar or cookie, granola is a quintessential ‘natural’ experience. Notwithstanding the basic natural components, granola products are not precluded from adhering to strict guidelines in order to become kosher certified. In other words, just because a food is made up of all natural ingredients, that doesn’t mean it is kosher. In fact, there are many natural ingredients used in typical granola products that may not be kosher. Some of these include but are not limited to oils, roasted nuts and seeds, powdered honey and molasses, oil treated dried fruit and nuts, natural flavors and colors.
Another area that needs to be monitored for kosher, especially as it relates to whole grains, is infestation. Due to the purity of the product, whole grains have a tendency to become rancid faster than refined grain. Although companies are quite careful to maintain proper storage for the whole grain ingredients to avoid rancidification, occasionally, rabbinic field representatives have found that whole wheat flour or rolled oats, for example, have been subject to infestation.
Aside from the ingredients themselves, there are production issues that must be addressed before kosher certification is granted for the various granola products. Most notably in the case of granola bars and cookies, but at times too for granola cereals and snacks, there are wet ingredients that are cooked in a kettle creating a slurry that will subsequently be blended with the dry granola ingredients. Care must be taken to ensure that the kettles are used to cook only kosher approved ingredients listed on Schedule A.
This would be the case also for any balance tanks, mixers and troughs that hold the hot slurry concoction along with all other lines and pumps they come in contact with. In addition, for pareve granola products, this same equipment would not be able to introduce dairy ingredients such as milk and whey powder that are often used in dairy granola bars and cookies.
Varying kosher processing concerns may arise for the dry whole grain ingredients in granola bars, depending upon the type of granola bar. In the case of the traditional crunchy granola bar, the dry whole grains, nuts, dried fruit and honey are baked in an oven in order to give it a crunchy texture. Then the now crunchy dry whole grain ingredients are combined with the hot slurry. For these crunchy granola bars, whatever processing concerns there were for the wet granola ingredients will hold equally true for the oven baked dry granola ingredients.
All relevant equipment such as mixer, depositor, sheeter, laminator, conveyors, oven and its bands, sheet pans and racks must meet Schedule A specifications. In the case of the chewy granola bar, however, since quite often the whole grain ingredients are not baked at all in order to maintain a more chewy consistency, there would not be any related concerns with oven equipment. Still for those chewy granola bars where the dry whole grain ingredients are only partially baked, proper controls need to be implemented for the oven line as with the crunchy granola bar.
Yes indeed, things have changed since the days when Adam was able to effortlessly enjoy the natural whole grain bread that grew forth from the earth. In today’s day and age, eating ‘natural’ involves great effort, as wholesome natural products such as granola are more costly and are not yet as in abundance as higher caloric foods. Those who have chosen to follow through with eating natural must be admired and commended for demonstrating tremendous discipline and willpower in showing mind over matter. We are blessed in this great country that American food manufacturers have heard the call of these natural aficionados and are making such natural and nutritious products as granola more accessible in supermarkets and grocery stores nationwide.
These same food manufacturers have invested much in capital and ingredients to meet the exacting standards that are vital for making delicious and nutritious natural granola products. Our hats go off to such granola brand favorites as Kashi, Nature Valley, Back to Nature, General Mills, Kellogg’s, Quaker, Barbara’s Bakery, Baker’s Breakfast Cookie, Cherrydale Farms, Blue Planet Foods, Pecan Deluxe, Pennant, Sensible Edibles, Organic Milling, Kerry, Slim Fast, Harlan and more which have taken the lead in the natural food revolution. The aforementioned brands too have made another natural choice. They have chosen to proudly display the world’s premier kosher emblem on their product’s packaging.
At the Orthodox Union, we are proud to have them among as part of growing family. These companies realize that the great effort expended in meeting the high standards of OU kosher certification, as with making natural granola products, is well worth it in terms of the benefits and profits accrued from larger market penetration. Who knows too, as natural food becomes more available, if companies will realize the miracle of whole grain bread growing forth from the ground as in the days of yesteryear. Rest assured, the Orthodox Union plans on being there to ensure the best in kosher natural products.