What Is Kosher?

Today it is nearly impossible to look through a supermarket, a cookbook, or any reference to food without seeing the term “kosher.” In the United States alone, some 10,000 food manufacturing facilities are kosher certified. What does kosher certification mean, and what are its benefits for you? Definition, Please The Hebrew word kasher (“kosher” in English), means “proper” or “acceptable.” Kosher is, at its core, the body of law governing what food is permitted to the Jewish people. For observant Jews, as well as many Moslems and Seventh Day Adventists whose religions dictate similar regimens, kosher is adhered to for spiritual reasons. It is a misconception that rabbis bless kosher food. Rather, kosher involves thoroughly examining each certified item’s ingredients and manufacturing to ensure that it complies with kosher law. Each certified company enters into a contractual agreement with the Orthodox Union (OU) delimiting acceptable ingredients and processes, and each further agrees to periodic unannounced inspections. After the prohibition of pork, perhaps the best known kosher requirement is the absolute separation of meat and milk. This means much more than no cheeseburgers, classic lasagna, and pizza. Kosher meat items cannot have dairy components; likewise, a kosher dairy item may not contain any meat. Furthermore, preparation of meat and milk are strictly separated. Foods combining meat and milk—or even eating them together at the same meal—are strictly forbidden. What is Pareve? Foods that are neither meat nor dairy fall into the pareve or neutral category and may be consumed with either meat or dairy. In kosher certification nomenclature, this status is indicated in one of two ways—either by the symbol with no further designation, or by use of the word pareve after the symbol (e.g., U or U Pareve). While produce, eggs, and many other foods are naturally pareve, care must be taken in processing, as manufacturing environments, additives, or processing aids may present problems. Even equipment must be fully cleaned and purged (koshered) when transferring from one kosher category to another or from non-kosher to kosher. Take, for example, an OU-certified milk plant that wants to produce pareve orange juice on the same equipment. First, the equipment is thoroughly cleaned and checked to verify there is no visible milk residue. Then following a rest period (usually 24 hours), pasteurizers and other heating equipment are boiled. Only after it is again rinsed is the equipment ready for the pareve juice. If the equipment is not adequately cleaned and/or separated, the juice would mimic the dairy status of the milk that proceeded it. That is why you may see orange juice with a kosher dairy designation. Who’s Buying Kosher—And Why We know Jewish consumers buy kosher products. But did you know that other consumers make up a growing segment of kosher shoppers? In fact, some 80 percent of all kosher food sales are made outside of the “traditional” Jewish market. For many in the broader public, kosher certification stands for important guarantees. Many vegetarians who consume dairy want assurances that no meat ingredients are present. For vegans, pareve offers assurance that there are no animal components in the food. Those who are lactose intolerant commonly rely upon pareve when looking for foods that are safe to eat. As Jewish law forbids shellfish, kosher is a benefit for those allergic to this category as well. Ingredient Surprises Interestingly, many “non-dairy” creamers are actually dairy, as they contain caseinates derived from milk protein. Other common dairy ingredients that consumers might not recognize include lactose and whey protein. Other foods contain animal-derived compounds such as gelatin and rennet, and many flavorings are based upon meat or dairy components. The pareve designation is an assurance that none of these is in the food. Likewise, dairy certified products will not contain meat derivatives and vice versa. Whether the issue is equipment residue or an obvious (or not so obvious) conflicting ingredient, kosher designations can help. ( (U) D indicates "dairy;" (U) Meat or (U) Glatt indicates "meat") Other Concerns Sometimes the non-kosher ingredient is a subingredient of what is listed on the panel. For example, flavorings and vitamins commonly contain diluents or carriers that present kosher issues. Glycerin, for example, can be of animal, petrochemical, or vegetable origin. Kosher items will not have animal glycerin; vitamins in kosher products are not microencapsulated in animal gelatin, again important to vegetarians as well as Moslems. The list goes on and on. What About Produce? Another concern - especially as people seek to eat more fruits and vegetables while minimizing exposure to pesticides - is insect infestation. Kosher law abjures consuming insects, and so significant resources are invested in checking foods including produce and flour. While all fruits and vegetables are naturally kosher in their unprocessed forms, many cannot be easily kosher certified. Leafy greens, for example, rarely have kosher certification. Instead, the kosher consumer must carefully check these items at home. Kosher Meats Even in a kosher species, not all animals qualify for kosher. In fact, a significant proportion of kosher slaughtered meat is rejected. Humane treatment of animals is key, and thorough inspections before and after slaughter are required to earn kosher certification. For example, if an animal is too sick to stand or has scar tissue on the lungs, it is not permitted in the kosher meat supply. Certifying Agencies To monitor all of this, premier kosher agencies like the OU have significant infrastructures, including experts in industrial processing, ingredient specialist, on-staff Jewish legal experts, as well as hundreds of field representatives around the world. Their databases contain information on hundreds of thousands of ingredients and products, and every company is regularly reviewed for compliance. Because kosher certification requires such meticulous involvement in all areas of food production, the public has come to look upon kosher supervision as a sign of quality and accountability. Yes, kosher certification truly does inform the savvy consumer about the food he or she eats!