Why Food Matters

You know that what you eat you are,
But what is sweet now, turns so sour–
We all know Obla-Di-Obla-Da
But can you show me, where you are?..

Savoy Truffle
George Harrison
The Beatles

We all eat to live but the vast majority of us truly live to eat. We think about what we will have for lunch while we are still eating breakfast. We conjure up delicious dinners before we’ve digested lunch. While we are enjoying our delicious dinners, our most compelling conversations are about other wonderful meals we’ve enjoyed or what we will be eating the following evening. We imagine scrumptious and outlandish desserts. We think of food between meals.

We even get up in the middle of the night to have a little “snack.”

Our individual and communal lives are centered around “breaking bread.” It is not just that we “are what we eat” – we are the people we are because of what we eat. Family gatherings and even national holidays are defined by the meals we eat. In the Jewish tradition, we celebrate the central event in our history with a Seder meal. What would Thanksgiving be without turkey?

There is a saying in Judaism that if you feed them, they will come. The truth of this is simple, and shared by people the world over – a successful meeting or gathering is guaranteed by providing food. The better the food, the better the meeting. Call people together without food and you needn’t expect them the second time you call.

Food is central to how we live; how we define ourselves and how we associate with our friends and neighbors.

And there is nothing wrong with this. Nothing at all. In fact, the only flaw in this from Judaism’s perspective is that we don’t go far enough in our “love” of food. One would think that our need for and our fascination and obsession with food would prompt us to elevate our relationship with it. Just as the most intimate of human interactions can be reduced to a mere physical act, love of food for food’s sake reduces eating to nothing more than an activity that is shared with every other creature on earth.

One would think that the centrality of food in our lives would awaken our consciousness to something more than its taste or our physical satisfaction after we eat. Too often, it does not.

As a result, food has become as much our “enemy” as our friend. That there is an obesity epidemic in our culture is so sadly obvious that it demands no comment. Worse than our own inability to control our eating habits, danger seems to lurk in food itself. Produce carries salmonella. Meat, e-coli. There’s mad cow disease hiding in the brains of the cattle, cattle that becomes the hamburger meat we consume in such quantities.

Food – necessary, enjoyable, and beloved – can also be dangerous.

However, nothing speaks to our complex relationship with food more than the rise in incidences of food sensitivities and allergies. Is there a school in America that is not a nut-free zone? How many parents fear the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, once a staple of young people’s lunch boxes?

It seems that everyone is either – or knows someone who is – lactose-intolerant, allergic to nuts, or dairy, or wheat or gluten, or… the list goes on and on. The reason for the spike in food allergies is not clear but it has created a real challenge to the food preparation industry – the industry that delivers food to the vast majority of consumers. Robert Powitz, Ph.D, MPH points out in an article, “Allergy Consciousness for the Retail Food Industry,” that unlike food-borne infections that strike without warning, people who suffer from food allergies are generally successful in avoiding the foods that trigger their allergies. In fact, that is the preferred strategy when dealing with food allergies –avoidance.

Avoidance of problem foods is fine – so long as the food delivery system cooperates. But, as Dr. Powitz makes clear, problems with accurate food labeling and cross-contamination – when a product that is “free” of the particular allergen is prepared in factories or on machinery that had been used to prepare other foods which may have contained the allergen – sometimes makes avoidance tricky, or impossible.

How can we ensure that people with allergies will know that the foods they eat do not contain the allergens they need to avoid? In this context and in addressing this question, Dr. Powitz refers to an interesting model – kashrut. As Dr. Powitz notes, “…the model for ‘allergy consciousness’ enforcement has been around for at least six thousand years. It is commonly known as Kashrut: Jewish Dietary Laws. Contrary to popular misconception, rabbis or other religious officials do not bless food to make it kosher. Rather, they examine the foods and how they are processed to assure kosher consumers that the food… complies with dietary laws…”

Yes, kashrut could very easily be a model for how to avoid cross-contamination in foods. Kashrut is rigorous. However, if one values kashrut simply as a method to keep the food supply “clean” one misses the fundamental beauty of kashrut entirely.

Judaism values the physical and the spiritual. They exist hand in hand. It is good to enjoy things in this world – but not if it is done without recognizing the spiritual in it. If eating is merely a physical act, if it is devoid of the spiritual awareness of God’s role in providing the food, then regardless of the quality of the food, or the elaborateness of the table, it diminishes us as people and as God’s creatures.

Eating, like everything else that we do, demands our attention, our care and our self-respect. As it turns out, we really are what we eat. The laws of kashrut make clear that God is central to even our most physical acts – elevating them to the spiritual.

Having just spent three days at New York’s Fancy Food Show, it was gratifying to meet so very many OU certified companies, both big and small, all thriving and growing with many sought-after products and with their coveted OU certification boosting sales and prestige. The number of inquiries and requests from companies seeking OU certification from the U.S., Turkey, India, Egypt, Australia, South Africa and beyond surpassed all past shows I have been to in recent memory. We look forward to servicing them soon.

Best regards and all good wishes. If you need any assistance or service with any aspect of your OU kosher program, feel free to be in touch.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran
Editor-in Chief/Vice President,
Communications and Marketing
OU Kosher

OU Kosher Staff