Past Articles:

By: Dave Gordon

The Surprising Truth About What is in the Food You Eat

When you order a plate of sushi at a restaurant, you expect to get what is advertised on the menu. You believe, for example, that a red snapper roll will be made with red snapper. As it turns out, however, that may be far from the truth.

In actuality, your food may be made of something else entirely, because someone wanted to save money.

According to a nationwide study done by Oceana, sushi – as well as other fish varieties ordered at restaurants – may be “swapped” up to 87 percent of the time. Cod may be swapped with catfish, and white tuna may be escolar, a fish that is not kosher.

Just seven of the 120 samples of red snapper purchased nationwide were actually red snapper - and six out of ten times the “tuna” was not in fact tuna, DNA tests showed.

In the two-year study that began in 2010, Oceana collected more than 1,200 fish samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states. Forty percent of fish analyzed in New York State were mislabeled.

In the first four months of 2017 alone, West Palm Beach, Florida’s State’s Division of Hotels and Restaurants discovered “hundreds” of violations for mislabeling or misrepresenting food, reports NBC News. Tuna and red snapper were the fish most often swapped out in favor of other kinds.

Larry Olmsted, author of Real Food/Fake Food, has written a number of pieces in Forbes about the issue of misrepresented food. He claims that every snapper sample tested in Seattle, Washington, and Washington, D.C. was mislabeled. Southern California had the highest mislabeling rate at nearly sixty percent. In Chicago, every sushi restaurant sampled had at least one mislabeled fish. That sure sounds fishy to me!

What secretly occurs in the food industry isn’t limited to swapping seafood. Other shady practices include mixing in hidden ingredients, or infusing additives that aren’t publicized to consumers.

What is Really
in Your Rice and Vegetables?

With his vast knowledge of industrial food preparation in both in Israel and New Jersey, mashgiah Rabbi David Condiotti has learned some frightening facts.

“Going into a vegan restaurant sounds fine, right? You might think, ‘what could go wrong?’ Lots! If they use broccoli, they’re not going to give it a kosher wash, and bugs could be hiding in it by the dozens,” he exclaimed. “Want to add just a little Balsamic vinegar to your salad? It’s made out of non-kosher wine. Care to have some tomato sauce with plain pasta? Pasta sauces can have cheeses or meats in them, and even infested (non-kashered) herbs.”

Items that might seem fine on the surface may not be fit for kosher consumption, after all. “In addition, some restaurants might cook with chicken stock water to add a little flavor to a given dish, such as rice or vegetables,” Condiotti said. What is also quite common, he explained, is for large food factories to contain some kosher, and some non-kosher items that look similar. This can be confusing to the kosher consumer. He cites Wishbone dressing as an example. “The Italian version of it is certified kosher, but the French and Caesar dressing is not. Because a lot of these dressings contain non-kosher cheese, such as Ranch,” he noted.

Yet another example is the Snapple beverage. “Unbeknownst to many, there are a few flavors that are not kosher – and they can easily be mistaken for the kosher varieties. The company decides what’s going to sell in the kosher market and what will not,” Condiotti declared.

What Goes On Behind the Scenes

Executive Chef of The Prime Cut Caterers, Raymond Tawil, shares similar anecdotes, revealing some behind-the-scenes information gleaned from his four years at Johnson and Wales Culinary University. He saw “crazy things, that were really regular every day ways people prepare their food in the real world.”

Examples include using bacon fat, duck fat, or beef fat instead of olive oil to make eggs, biscuits, and collard greens.

“The pastas we made in classical European class all started with beef broth, chicken broth, or a seafood broth. Rice are all made in a broth; no one uses water in the kitchen,” noted the chef, who holds a B.S. in Culinary Nutrition and Food Science.

Other surprises included fish sauces as a “big ingredient” used in stir-fry recipes or vegetable dishes; sauces with a wine base; and gelatins (formerly animal bones) used in salad dressings
and mousses.

But it’s not just the food itself that’s the issue.

“Places that use cast iron to cook food is a big problem for us. Cast iron is the most absorbent material you can find in the kitchen,” Chef Tawil explained. “Besides the fact that you never really wash a cast iron pan with soap and water, chefs don't clean them at all. They call them seasoned pans… wait about two minutes and you’ll see the oils and juices of the last dish coming out of the pan. They use this to cook the next dish and give it added flavor.”

Therefore, any item cooked in a cast iron pan is questionable, for it could have been in previous contact with an untold number of foods over the course of hours.

Not So Simple

Even a vegetable that appears to be seasoned with ‘simple ingredients’ could be problematic.

Kimchi, the Korean staple, is a cabbage-based food that contains white radish and spices. Mainstream kimchi’s flavorings include shrimp brine. And contrary to popular belief, nori, which is used in sushi, poses a unique kashrut obstacle, even if it contains “100% seaweed.” Unbeknownst to many, seahorses, which are not kosher, as well as various non-kosher fish eggs, become intermingled with the seaweed and must be filtered out in order for the seaweed to be deemed kosher. This process is not performed at non-kosher manufacturing plants.

Rabbi Binyomin Y. Edery, the mashgiah of Kosher Japan, explained that kosher nori requires a special procedure, as well as rabbinical supervision, despite its being a vegetable from the ocean.

The way the kosher world compensates, said Edery, is by harvesting the seaweed in a certain two-hour window prior to daybreak, when the waters are coldest and the creatures are less likely to swim into the seaweed.

Careful Consumption

Long gone are the days in which you could feel sure of the food you were buying. As the industry becomes more complicated and the science of flavoring more sophisticated, it gets increasingly tough to know how much your food has been tampered with before you eat it.

One thing is for certain: Before a food gets as far as your plate, it has gone through manufacturing processes with chemicals, additives, and flavorings. And even if a food appears as if it came straight from the farm or ocean, any number of problems could be associated with eating it.

So, before you take your next bite at a restaurant or choose the next item off a grocery store shelf, make sure a reputable source has vouched for the food’s authenticity. Mashgiahs are hired to ensure that food meets kosher standards and restaurant owners and chefs should not hesitate to answer any one of your questions. The next time you shop and certainly the next time you dine, be a conscious consumer, aware of exactly what you are putting into your body.

Dave Gordon can be reached at


During the manufacturing stage, there are ingredients added to non-kosher foods that even chefs might not know about, let alone consumers! Here are some examples:


Lac or ‘shellac’ is a red colored
secretion left behind by lac insects. They colonize on branches, where a farmer harvests their secretions. Lac is commonly used as a colorant in juices, carbonated beverages, jams, wines, sauces, yogurts, ice creams, gum, and candies.


Castoreum is the yellowish secretion attained from a beaver. Castoreum is used, most often, as a vanilla, raspberry, and strawberry flavoring. Candies, ice creams, gum, and alcoholic beverages rank among the food products that most often get ‘natural flavoring’ from castoreum.


Gelatin is a protein made from boiling the cartilage, skin and bones of an animal in order to achieve a thickening agent. The animal can be either cattle or pork, at least among the major American brands.

Gelatin is most popularly used in desserts, marshmallows, candy corn, gummy bears, fruit snacks, jelly beans, yogurt, cream cheese, margarine, and juices. Interestingly, gelatin is also used in
low/no fat foods to simulate the ‘thickness’ of full-fat foods. There are so many foods that use gelatin that it would be impossible to name every one. Some of the brands you can be sure contain gelatin, though, are Jell-O, Skittles, Pop-tarts, Frosted Mini Wheats, Hostess, Coffee Mate, and Trident.


Rennet is an enzyme that is naturally produced in the lining of the stomach of some mammals. In food processing, it is used for cheese making, helping milk separate into curds and whey. Rennet is taken from cows, sheep, goats, deer, and yaks among other animals.


Carmine is the red dye derived from the cochineal bug. It’s predominately used as a food
dye. You might also find it labeled natural red 4, crimson lake, E120, or cochineal extract. Cochineal is a type of scaled insect that eats the
red fruit of the cactus, giving it the red color for which it is famous. In order to be us ed in food, the cochineal is nurtured on cactus farms, and then the insects are boiled.

Carmine is a common food coloring, especially used to meet the ‘no artificial colors’ standard that some foods advertise. Food producers are not, however, required to label that this food dye is ‘insect based.’

Starbucks’ Strawberries ‘n’ Cream Frappuccino used cochineal as a dye at one point.

Brands linked to the use of cochineal include Dannon, Tropicana, and Burt’s Bees. Cochineal is used in icings, jams, pie fillings, sauces, beverages, sweets, and many dairy products.

Oleic acid

Oleic acid is an odorless, colorless oil produced from the naturally occurring fatty acids in various animals and vegetables. It exists in the fat of chickens, pork and turkeys, as well as in various nut and vegetable oils. It makes up a large portion of pecan oil, canola oil, grape seed oil, sesame oil, and poppy seed oil.


Ambergris is a waxy, dull grey substance produced in the digestive system of
sperm whales.

It has been used for flavoring foods and cocktails. Ethically, and legally speaking, the use of ambergris is somewhat controversial. Sperm whales are a protected endangered species, so hunting and fishing for them is against international law. However, the ambergris that is being derived today comes from sperm whales that have washed ashore and are considered ‘waste.’ Therefore, the selling or harvesting of ambergris is rarely prosecuted by law.