Friday, April 30, 2010

Dispelling the Kugel is Bad for You Myth

There has been a lot said about how potato kugel, considered a "typical" Jewish food is reallllly, realllly unhealthy. Well, it's time to clear the air about those kugels. Here's the deal: some of those kugels are prepared in a way that defeats the nutritional benefits available in potatoes and some aren't.

If you are pouring in globs and globs of a plain vegetable oil, you are adding in mega fat calories that cancel out the nutritional benefits. But prepared correctly, those kugels are not only not going to be bad for you, they are going to be good for you.

First a word or two about potatoes, that much maligned vegetable. First, the glycemic content. Keep in mind that healthy individuals with no underlying medical condition that would require limiting glycemic content aren't going to get in trouble ingesting potatoes. Even those who have to chart their glycemic intake can still include a potato during the day if they plan right. Yes, a medium sized potato has a score of about 29 on the glycemic index, with 100 being the maximum to be ingested in one day for those needing to watch intake. So plan ahead.

Now, the nutritional benefits of a potato.

Nutrition Facts
Serving Size 1 potato (148g/5.3 oz)
Amount Per Serving
Calories 110
Calories from Fat 0
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 0g
Saturated Fat 0g
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 0mg
Sodium 0mg
Potassium 620mg
Total Carbohydrate 26g
Dietary Fiber 2g
Sugars 1g
Protein 2g
Vitamin A 0%, Vitamin C 45%, Calcium 2%, Iron 6%, Thiamin 8%, Riboflavin 2%, Niacin 8%, Vitamin B6 10%, Folate 6%, Magnesium 6%, Zinc 2%, Phosphorous 6%, Copper 4%
*Percent Daily values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet

What goes into a potato kugel? Basically potatoes, eggs and spices/flavorings. If you are worried about cholesterol then use an egg substitute or use only egg whites--no loss of flavor for the kugel. The addition of some grated onion or of onion powder and/or pepper is not going to cause any health problems.

Salt has been pointed to as one of the "evils" of potato kugel. There are still a whole lot of ways to solve that problem. 1) Use less salt. 2) Use a low-sodium or no-sodium type of salt. It is the sodium that is the problem for some people, such as those with high blood pressure. I have for years being using a salt substitute for when I want salt on food and no one, that's NO ONE, has ever been able to tell the difference between that substitute and "real" salt.

Now back to that oil. What is the purpose of oil for a potato kugel? It's two-fold: to keep the mixture from sticking to the pan and to produce a nicely browned crust. To achieve that purpose it's not necessary to use huge amounts of oil. First, instead of those general vegetable oils use an oil with health benefits, such as canola, grape seed or olive. Second, instead of using poured oil straight out of the bottle, use spray oil, either from purchased cans or from a sprayer you purchase and fill with oil. A few quick sprays and your pan is coated, and those few quick sprays might, if you overspray the pan, contribute about 1/2 teaspoon of oil to the kugel. Third, heat the oiled pan in the oven before putting in the kugel mixture. This ensures that when the kugel mixture hits the hot pan it will immediately be seared, preventing sticking, preventing absorption of any further oil, and providing for a browned bottom crust. Next, smooth the top of the kugel mixture and give a couple of sprays of oil across the top. This will ensure top browning of the kugel.

It's not potato kugel that is the problem--it's preparation method. Prepare the kugel with healthy eating in mind and it's no worse for you than any other type of food product you ingest.

And while we're at it, let's remember that kugel doesn't mean potato; there are any number of other items that can be made into a kugel--sweet potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, rice, pasta, lentils etc.


Anonymous said...

The issue isn't so much potato kugel by itself, it's that if that's the only high glycemic food one had at the meal and it was balanced with high fiber foods at the meal, it would be fine. The problem is its often eaten at meals with other high glycemic foods, like challah. There also are some recent studies suggesting that even people who are not diabetic or prediabetic need to watch their glycemic loads. That makes sense -- if sugar spikes can damage the blood vessels of diabetics, surely they are also damaging to the blood vessels of others. However, I agree that focusing on kugel as the baddie doesn't make a lot of sense, and as with so many other things, balance and moderation are key.

Anonymous said...

Good post. I would note, however, that if you are having guests, you may wish to take care with what type of salt substitute is used. Many contain high levels of potassium and some people are on blood pressure medication that caution against using potassium-containing salt substitutes. I make everything without salt or salt substitutes and instead put salt and pepper shakers out for those who want to add their own. If you go a few weeks without salt/substitutes and use other seasonings instead, soon you won't miss the salt at all. In fact, salted foods will taste horrible. The one exception is that it is hard to make a good soup without salt.

ProfK said...

Thanks for mentioning the potassium issue--I meant to include it in the posting and forgot. The following gives the sodium and potassium count for common salt substitutes.

Another alternative to salt is salt substitutes. It is important to be careful with the use of some
substitutes because of their high potassium content. People with liver disease must NOT use
salt substitutes at all. Individuals with kidney disease or anyone watching their potassium intake must choose salt substitutes that are low in potassium because these products are made with potassium chloride (vs. sodium chloride). The products listed below with an asterisk (*) contain
high amounts of potassium and should not be used without your doctor’s permission.
Product Serving Size, Sodium
(mg) and Potassium

Salt 1 tsp 2300 0
Mrs. Dash 1 tsp 0 40
Shilling Salt-Free Seasonings ¼ tsp - -
Spike (Salt-Free) 1 tsp 0 96
Veg-It 1 tsp <65 <65
Adolph’s Sodium Free Tenderizer ¼ tsp - 420
Accent Low Sodium Seasoning 1 tsp 600 0
Salt Sense 1 tsp 1560 0
*Morton Lite Salt 1 tsp 1100 1500
*Estee Salt-It 1 tsp 0 3520
*Morton Nature’s Seasons 1 tsp ? 2800
*Morton Salt Substitute 1 tsp ? 2730
*No Salt 1 tsp 5 2500
*Nu-Salt 1 tsp 0 529

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the potassium info Prof. I've been afraid of all salt substitutes (and meat tenderizer) but it sounds like some might be ok.

Leahle said...

Thanks for the tips on making the kugels lower in fat. But isn't one of the problems not the content of the kugel but how and where people eat it? Portion size and moderation are also important.

You see some of the men in shul take 1-3 pieces of kugel at a kiddush (and I doubt that the caterers are watching the oil/salt/eggs), some herring (lots higher in salt then kugel is) and some cholent, maybe some gefilte fish and some cake and also some shnapps. Then they walk the five minutes home from shul and sit down to a lunch that may have a lot of the same items that the shul kiddush had plus challah and meat. Even if you prepare the kugel in a healthier way at home you're fighting what is eaten outside the home and not prepared so healthily. And 3-5 portions of even a healthy kugel isn't healthy.

tesyaa said...

I'm still convinced that potato kugel is worse for you than a baked potato, even if you put a bit of salt or butter or chicken gravy on your potato. Pasta with a little butter or olive oil or marinara sauce is healthier than the same noodles baked with eggs, oil, and sugar. Sometimes I wonder why we need to bake everything into a pudding and cover up its natural taste. Did you know that some pastas taste better than others? Buy Italian dried pasta when it goes on sale. It really tastes better than the domestic brands.

Rae said...

I think you're right prof that the preparation can make a big difference but I also think Leahle raised an important point. Portion control and size matters. Even purely healthy foods can be bad for you if you are overeating them. Most people don't know what a healthy or recommended portion is or ignore what is recommended.

I looked up what a portion of french fries is supposed to be--10 fries that fit into 1/2 cup. Not at all what the kosher fast food places or even regular restaurants give you as a portion and not too many people in their homes who measure out this small a portion either. And I've seen what Leahle has seen. Even if the caterers at kiddushim are cutting their kugels into pieces that equal a portion, people take more than one portion and then head home to eat some more portions.

Anonymous said...

It's very hard to eat just one piece of kugel. These types of carbs just make me more hungry.

Toby said...

It's interesting Tesyaa that you consider baking potatoes into a kugel or pasta into a kugel as trying to cover up their natural taste but you don't consider putting salt or butter or chicken gravy or oil or marinara sauce on those items as also covering up their natural taste. You want pure natural taste then you eat that baked potato absolutely plain or that pasta straight out of the boiling water with nothing on it.

Adding anything to a basic food or changing its way of being prepared isn't about covering up the natural taste but about enhancing that taste or providing for different taste experiences, and that's what you are doing with that gravy and marinara sauce. Nothing natural about gravy on a potato or oil on pasta.

tesyaa said...

Toby - I disagree. First of all, it depends how much salt or butter you use - I am talking about SMALL amounts, because a little goes a long way. Second - I have eaten plain baked potatoes on the same plate with a piece of chicken. A little gravy gets on the potato, and it tastes better. How is that unnatural? It would be more unnatural if I ate it on a plate with partitions, so the gravy would never touch the potatoes.

Enjoy your Shabbos kugel! There are many great reasons to eat kugel, from the taste to the memories of Grandma's meals - but unless you use minimal oil and only egg whites, health isn't one of them. (And I don't find a kugel made with only "light" ingredients to be very tasty - but maybe that's just me).

Toby said...

You can't have it both ways Tesyaa. Natural means no enhancement, none whatsoever. And the opposite when it comes to food is not unnatural. If the gravy touches the potato that's not unnatural and no one is telling you to use partitioned plates. But you say it tastes better with that little bit of gravy, so you can't at the same time be arguing that natural tastes the best.

About those kugels made with lighter ingredients, you can't argue taste. But sometimes people don't react the same if they know that a product is lighter or dietetic. They are mentally programmed when they hear that to find some fault with the taste.

Anonymous said...

Make a baked sweet potato or yam and you don't even need butter since they are so moist. I have mine with just some pepper and prefer it to a potato kugel. If you are having milchig, then a little non-fat sour cream or plain yogurt and maybe some chives or parsley is enough to make a plain baked potato quite tasty. There's no need for a kugel with sugar, salt, oil, eggs, etc. If I have kugel, I consider it my dessert.

Debbie said...

Anon, just like you say There's no need for a kugel with sugar, salt, oil, eggs, etc. there is also no need for a baked potato with sourcream or yoghurt. It's not about need. You used a better word when you said you prefer a baked sweet potato. I don't think the posting argued that potato kugel is a need for frum people, just if you like it there is a healthier way to prepare it.

JS said...

I agree with leahle above regarding the kiddush issue. I will never cease to be amazed about how a person can shovel mounds of unhealthy food just to do it all over again for lunch and then yet again for shalashudis. I don't even want to calculate the amount of calories and fats consumed in just a few hours (even worse in the winter). I wish we as a community would put pressure on caterers to make healthier foods, but, of course, everyone would complain how the food is bland.

I think a lot of this has to do with the family you come from and what the eating habits and foods were. Growing up we never, ever had desserts or junk food in the house. We had cake for a birthday or when grandparents visited, but that was it. Compare to my wife's family where a meal isn't a meal without several cakes and cookies. My mom makes only 3-4 dishes for a meal, small portions with low carbs and veggies. My mother in law cooks nearly everything in oil or fat with lots of eggs, lots of carbs, huge portions, and tons of everything. Thankfully, my wife adopted my family's "custom" as she feels it is healthier and there's no doubting her family members are all overweight with associated health issues.

The point is, my mother in law does what she does because she feels this is how a meal should look when family gets together. It's a mental training about what tastes good and what a good mother does for her family. I think part of her would be aghast if she served the way my mother does - not because she thinks my mom's food is bad, but because it's not "her" it's not the way she does things.

I think these attitudes need to be unlearned in light of all the scientific and medical information we now have about diet and nutrition. We especially need to stop justifying it with the mistaken idea that this is how we ate in the old country.

Anonymous said...

We especially need to stop justifying it with the mistaken idea that this is how we ate in the old country.

We didn't have cellphones and dishwashers in the old country either. Why do people even try to justify one thing but not the other?

Anonymous said...

And in the "old country" people didn't sit on their tucheses all day. They walked every where, chopped wood, pumped water from the well and carried it in, used scrub boards for laundry, etc.

Shoshanah said...

So I followed your suggestions in making a kugel today. So far so good. It looks like a kugel and it smells like a kugel. Okay I cheated just a little and took a tiny taste from a corner and it tastes like a kugel to me but the real test is going to be my husband and middle son who are the kugel lovers. If they like it I don't think I'm goinhg to tell them I fooled around with the recipe.

Offwinger said...

Potato kugel isn't particularly unhealthy if you use a reasonable amount of oil and salt. When peope talk about unhealthy kugels, they usually don't mean potato.

Many people serve the following kugels on Shabbat:

- noodle/luckshen kugel
- carrot kugel
- an extra-sweet version of yerushalmi kugel
- squash kugel

These are typically laden with sugar and oil (sometimes margarine), and they are often nutritionally equivalent to cake.

As for the vegetable based kugels, there are people who make brocolli or spinach kugel, but they use mayonaise to bind things together!

ProfK said...

Again, there are some people who prepare their vegetable and noodle kugels laden with fats/sugars/mayo etc. But just as in making a lighter version of potato kugel, the same is possible with all the other kugels. I make some of those veggie kugels and I apply the same methods I described for potato kugel--spray oil, egg whites or egg substitute, low salt and a variety of spices for flavor. And re the mayo, there are, for those times that you want mayo in something, lighter versions with less fat or no fat.

None of the foods we point fingers at would be so bad for you if they were part of a balanced diet with portions in the recommended sizes.

Lion of Zion said...


"they are often nutritionally equivalent to cake"

i love it when my friends serve these types of kugels. i always tell them it's like eating dessert without waiting for the end of the meal


i guess kugel doesn't have to be unhealthy, but my original point had to do with the fact that most of the hungarians i know don't cook the way you do.

Lion of Zion said...

btw, i tried that spray bottle for the oil, but i think i'm using the wrong type of bottle. what type do you use?

Offwinger said...

Prof K,

You can make apple, carrot and squash kugel healthier by using egg whites or oil substitues or less sugar/sugar substitutes.

Then they become nutritionally the equivalent of healthier cake. I'm not speaking of savory kugels here. I'm talking about the sweet ones.

Taking a vegetable or fruit and adding flour, eggs, fat, and sugar = making cake. You can have lower fat or lower sugar cake. It's still the equivalent of cake.

Or to rephrase it: there is nothing particularly nutritionally redeeming about these kugels as actual food. You get a minimal amount of carrot or apple or butternut squash + lots of filler ingredients.

Sure, it's ok to eat these foods in moderation. However, to pretend that these are nutritionally valid choices for a main course of a meal is ridiculous, whether you use the healthier tricks or not.

Rochi said...

You could apply your comment Offwinger to a whole lot of food, not just foods of Jewish origin. What is any casserole if not a way to stretch ingredients that cost more or are in short supply? Why even bother putting noodles or rice or matza balls in soup if not to stretch it out and make it more filling? Grains and other starches could be stored for longer in most temperatures without going bad. They were more plentiful than veggies a whole year round. Re the sweet and sugar, I use very little sugar in any of the sweet kugels. I use dried or fresh fruits to give that sweeter taste.

Anonymous said...

Rochi - fruit sugar is still sugar. The sugar in dried fruit is very concentrated, so even a little dried fruit has A LOT of sugar.

Offwinger9 said...


I *do* use that criteria when deciding how to cook healthy meals. It isn't just about kugel. There are lots of foods that were created with fillers to 'stretch' the ingredients: casseroles, meatloafs, etc. It made perfect sense when people could not afford proteins or fresh produce, and you had to make everything last/feed as many people as possible. In that era, they were fighting the effects of malnutrition, not the poor consequences of overabundance. And you are correct, this was not just a Jewish phenomenon.

The problem is that many have not adjusted recipes to account for how these foods were actually eaten. "Noodles + matza ball + vegetables + chicken + soup" is an ENTIRE meal. Not just ONE course in a multi-course meal. Yet it is served as such at many Shabbat dinners.

Beyond that, thanks to "Kosher by Design" style cookbooks permeating our community, many frum families believe that glorified cakes called kugels or salads "fancied up" with sugary/fatty dressing, french fried onions and dried fruit is the *proper* food to serve Shabbat guests.

PS Please don't tell me there is a 'healthy' Kosher By Design book. I know. That book ranges from genuinely healthy recipes to healthier versions of food that will never be more than marginally nutritionally redeeming.

Barbara said...

It made perfect sense when people could not afford proteins or fresh produce, and you had to make everything last/feed as many people as possible.

And it still makes perfect sense Offwinger for a lot of people even in the frum community. They aren't wealthy and they have large families. Food today, kosher food for certain, is not cheap. Protein costs and so does fresh produce. Given the USDA recommendations for the number of servings per day of basic foods such as fruits and vegetables a food budget can be blasted away for those who aren't making large salaries and/or who have other large expenses they are covering.

If you choose minimalist eating patterns then fine for you, your choice to make. But please don't make generalizations that don't hold true. Putting fruit or dried fruit into a kugel or a salad, if you adhere to the recommended portion sizes is not a glorified cake. Not every kugel uses flour/sugar/fat/salt that would make it unhealthy. Some fats are not only good for you but we don't get them in sufficient amounts to provide their benefits, particularly in a diet crazed society.

What makes for healthy eating is a balanced diet, one that contains variety and is prepared in ways that don't destroy the benefits of the foods being used. Even there, a "healthy" diet can sometimes contain those "treat" type foods with no harm done.

Man does not/can not live by bread alone. And he can't live by veggies and lentils alone either.

Anonymous said...

You’re all hilarious. Non-sweetened kugel is the best! Shuva Tov

Anonymous said...

I also have been eating more natural foods in the last few years. I stopped making kugels and stir fries. recently, i started to crave potato kugel.i made a loaf last night. I used 2 medium potatoes, 2 eggs, a large carrot and a large onion. I added a a few tbs of chick pra flour and a drizzle of olive oil. I ate almost the entire kugel. I believe these type of foods peak our binge reflex. there is no way I would have eaten 2 potatoes and 2 eggs at one sitting. I think I will nix the kugel from now on.