Thursday, January 24, 2008

Kosher Chic

Kosher: It's hip, it's hot, it's happenin'.

According to an article in this week's U.S. News & World Report, "New Taste for Kosher Foods," "kosher" is now the most popular claim on new food products, more popular than "organic," "all natural" or "no additives or preservatives." According to the article, sales of kosher foods have risen 15 percent a year for the past decade, and only 20 percent of kosher food buyers are Jewish. A sales figure like that should be sufficient to debunk the "Jewish tax" conspiracy theory nonsense, but I'm sure the people who believe in that nonsense will simply attribute the USN&WR article to the Jewish media conspiracy.

There are many reasons why people prefer kosher foods, some of which are valid and some of which are... less valid.

The biggest advantage to the kosher label is... it actually means something! A label like "organic" doesn't really mean anything: all food is "organic" ("of, relating to, or derived from living organisms"); it certainly isn't "inorganic"! Of course, we all have a vague sense that "organic" food is food that is grown in accordance with certain principles, but the word "organic" doesn't have a legal definition, so it's hard to know what you're getting when you buy "organic" foods.

Kosher, on the other hand, has a fairly clear meaning, and while different movements of Judaism and different rabbis may quibble about some of the intricate details, the basics are firm and consistent. Unfortunately, most people have no idea what kosher means, including, I'm sure, many who seek out the kosher label. Many people think "kosher" means that the food is cleaner, safer, healthier, or blessed by a rabbi. That's not what "kosher" means.

"Kosher" means that the product does not contain any food that Jews are forbidden to eat under Jewish law, most notably: no bugs and no meat from forbidden animals (pork, shellfish, etc.). If meat is from permitted animals (beef, chicken, salmon, etc.), then the animal was slaughtered in the method required by Jewish law and the meat was drained of blood and soaked and salted to remove any remaining blood. "Kosher" also means that the product does not combine items that cannot be eaten together: meat and dairy cannot be eaten in the same meal under Jewish law, so if the product includes even the slightest trace of a dairy ingredient, it cannot include any meat ingredient, and vice versa. In fact, meat and dairy must be so thoroughly separated that the manufacturer must thoroughly clean any ingredient that touched a dairy product before that equipment touches a meat product, and vice versa.

There are many organizations around the world that certify products as kosher. The best ones have a rabbi inspect the list of ingredients to make sure all ingredients are kosher, then inspect the facilities to make sure the process is kosher. The certifying organization will also periodically send a rabbi around to perform surprise inspections, making sure that the product is in fact made with the ingredients claimed and is in fact prepared in the method claimed.

The best kosher-certifying organizations have trademarked symbols (referred to as a hashgachah) that are placed on the products they certify as kosher. Examples of four of the best-known, most widely-accepted symbols are shown at right, but there are dozens of other well-respected symbols around the world. It is a violation of U.S. trademark law to place these symbols on a product without the permission of the trademark owner, that is, the certifying agency, so you know the product meets their standards.

So the presence of this symbol means that the product is carefully monitored to make sure that it satisfies the rules described above. Contrary to popular belief, however, the symbol does not necessarily mean that the product is any cleaner, safer or healthier than an uncertified product, though cleanliness and safety may be an unintended byproduct of kosher food production. For example, bugs are not kosher, which means that vegetables must be thoroughly cleaned to remove any bugs, which will of course promote cleanliness. The need to clean equipment as part of the process may also promote cleanliness. The soaking-and-salting process also has certain germ-reducing benefits, though it does not eliminate things like salmonella.

But the most significant genuine advantage to kosher certification is the ability to easily identify foods that do or do not have certain ingredients, for those who are sensitive to such things. If you are allergic to shellfish, you can be sure that no legitmately kosher-certified product will have any trace of shellfish in it, because shellfish is not kosher. If you are sensitive to dairy products, you can rest assured that a kosher product that is marked "pareve" or "parve" (neither meat nor dairy) or "meat" will not have the slightest trace of any dairy ingredient. In fact, you can rest assured that the product was not even made on equipment that ever had a dairy ingredient on it, unless the equipment was thoroughly cleaned first. If you wish to avoid meat and poultry, you can rest assured that any kosher product marked "dairy" or "parve" or "pareve" has no trace of meat or poultry. Vegetarians and vegans, however, should be aware that eggs and fish are considered to be pareve (neither meat nor dairy), so a product marked pareve or dairy could contain eggs or fish. As you can see, kosher certification is a useful shortcut for those who want to avoid certain foods and don't want to memorize every ingredient that contains unsuspected dairy, meat or shellfish derivatives.

For more information, see: