How healthy is your Hanukkah ponchke or latke?
Published: 15 Dec 2006
by Joe Lederman © December 2006
BALDWINS – FoodLegal
Australian Food Lawyers & Consultants
Some readers thought our article querying the food safety of Christmas puddings was a bit rich. In response to the Jewish readers who asked about Hanukkah food and in the interest of fairness and redress I set out the following food compositional, compliance and food safety analysis of Hanukkah ponchkes and latkes.
The Jewish festival of Hanukkah is traditionally celebrated by Jewish people in an 8 day period starting on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Kislev every year, which transpired on 16 December 2006 (beginning on the Friday night of 15 December 2006). It is a commemoration of the miracle of Hanukkah as described in the Talmud when a single container of olive oil, which would usually only fuel the eternal flame at the Temple in Jerusalem for one day, was found in the desecrated Temple and miraculously provided enough fuel for 8 days. This allowed the Temple to be re-consecrated after the defeat of the Syrian-Greek invaders, whose King was called Antiochus. The Jewish warriors, had been led by Judah Maccabeus and his brothers, also known as the Maccabees (or Maccabim, in Hebrew). The word “maccabi” comes from a Hebrew word associated with the power of a hammer.
The celebration of the Hanukkah festival traditionally involves the lighting of candles in Jewish homes with an extra candle to be lit every night for 8 nights. It is a festival that celebrates the winning of freedom as well as celebrating Jewish sovereignty in the holy land centred on Jerusalem where the Temple once stood (the Western wall of which is all that remains and is the holiest Jewish site – and towards which all Jews face when praying anywhere in the world).
As with most Jewish celebrations, the Hanukkah tradition also involves the eating of food. Hanukkah food is usually fried food, particularly latkes and ponchkes, in commemoration of the miracle associated with the long lasting attribute of the Temple oil.
A ‘latke’ is a shallow-fried potato pancake made from grated or julienned potato mixed with egg and flavoured with grated onion. The latke can also be topped with a variety of condiments including sour cream, cheese, applesauce, sugar and cinnamon.
A ‘ponchke’ is the Yiddish word but may also be called (in Hebrew) a ‘sufganiyah’ or by Germans a ‘Berliner’ and is a jam doughnut that has been fried first, then pierced and injected with jam. The name “Berliner” is in fact a confusing name as USA President John F Kennedy once found out when he famously proclaimed in Berlin “Ich bin ein Berliner” and the audience roared with glee because he had just said “I am a Doughnut”! Undoubtedly, during the Cold War, the city of Berlin was somewhat isolated within the Communist surrounds of East Germany but the western part of the city of Berlin was, like the delicious jam in the centre of the doughnut, linked by a narrow corridor to the outside free world.
Because Hanukkah food is usually fried, it has a high fat content. Fried doughnuts usually have a fat content of about 25%.
In Eastern Europe before World War Two, Hanukkah food was traditionally fried in rendered goose fat, which gave the food a unique flavour. Goose fat is relatively high in saturated fats. Typically, its composition is 28% saturated fat, 11% polyunsaturated fat, 57% monounsaturated fat and 11 mg per tablespoon cholesterol (see http://www.ochef.com/699.htm). This oil, however, was healthier than most other animal-sourced fats. Yet by current nutritional and health knowledge and standards it might still be considered quite unhealthy compared to plant oils such as olive oil which typically consists of 14% saturated fat, 9% polyunsaturated fat, 74% monounsaturated fat and no cholesterol. Saturated fat is a recognized contributor to the suffering of high blood pressure and coronary heart disease.
Nowadays, the oil used for ponchkes (doughnuts) and latkes, is usually a vegetable based oil. This is because, kosher-wise, it is “pareve” (neutral ie neither meat based nor dairy based) and therefore the finished food can be eaten with any other kosher food whether dairy based or meat based (but of course not both at the same time). Given the negative effects of many fats and oils on one’s health, and considering that it was in fact olive oil that was used at the Temple, it is ironic that olive oil is not widely used in the recipes for these traditional Hanukkah foods.
There is no chance of making health or nutritional claims under Australian law for such products because the criteria for making such claims either under proposed food Standard 1.2.7, or existing Standard 1.2.8, or Transitional Standard 1.1A.2, would not be met.
Apart from the high fat content of the foods, the frying of foods with high starch content - such as in doughnuts and potatoes - has been shown to produce a carcinogen called acrylamide. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), which is the government agency responsible for setting Australia’s food standards, has been looking at the issue of acrylamide in food. The studies have not specifically mentioned Hanukkah foods but they do present the same constituents.
Allergens and intolerances
Hanukkah foods such as the ponchke or the latke also contain many potential allergens. Standard 1.2.3 of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (‘ANZFSC’) prescribes that mandatory statements be placed on the labels of packaged foods that contain substances recognized as allergens. Even when the product is sold in unpackaged form, clause 4(2)(b) of Standard 1.2.3 of the ANZFSC prescribes that the mandatory statement must be made in connection with the display of the food or be declared to the purchaser upon request.
Gluten which is found in flour is the most common allergen in Australia. Approximately 1% of the population suffer from coeliac’s disease which is a condition of great discomfort caused by an allergy to gluten.
Even for people without an actual allergic reaction to flour, some may suffer from a range of maladies such as either heavy blocked feelings in the stomach or bowels with the risks of cramp or bowel leakage [or in words that might have been uttered by a famous French-speaking Nobel Prize winner, if you'll pardon the French, "Oyb es iz faran tsu-fil shmaltz in di latke, stoig nisht far der gatkes"]. Some people may also suffer from excessive acid in the stomach and/or in their alimentary canal, or just suffer from indigestion from the effect of consuming sugar after oil. Others may suffer from diabetic reactions to the excessive consumption of a high-calorie food.
Eggs are another recognized allergen under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code and the allergy is common amongst young children.
Consuming excessive quantities of potatoes has also been associated with the development of arthritis-like conditions.
Too many doughnuts may ultimately give some people heart attacks or other associated health risks but on the other hand, giving someone a ponchke or latke to celebrate Hanukkah is a Mitzvah (a good deed in honour of the Almighty) and therefore demonstrates a good Jewish heart.
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by Joe Lederman © December 2006