What could be wrong with… ? – Part I
When I was a child, shopping for a kosher candy bar was a simple matter. In those days, a candy bar was only a nickel. We would carefully review the ingredients printed on the back label. If there was no gelatin in the candy, we wisely concluded that the product was unquestionably kosher. No matter that the ingredients listed polysorbates and sodium stearoyl lactylate; we had no idea what they were. They sounded too technical to be non-kosher. We simply believed, “What could be wrong with a candy bar?” Today, our innocence is gone. You can no longer purchase a candy bar for five cents, and most people know that you cannot judge a candy by its wrapper. Nonetheless, while kosher consumers today are generally more knowledgeable than years ago, many myths still prevail. “What could be wrong with…” remains a common refrain among kosher consumers.
WHAT COULD BE WRONG WITH FRUIT COCKTAIL?
Some people still believe you can tell if a product is kosher by reading the ingredient declaration on the label. Many will concede that you cannot eat a candy bar without supervision but they will rely on this method for foods that seem to be straightforward and uncomplicated. In truth, it is generally not possible to gather enough information from the label to judge the kashruth of an item, for a variety of reasons.
First, the product may be made from kosher ingredients but processed on non-kosher equipment. For example, canned vegetables may be cooked in kettles used for pork and beans, tuna fish may be processed in retorts used for canned shrimp, and tomato products (canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato puree, tomato juice and ketchup) may share common lines with tomato and meat or cheese sauces.
Second, the USDA does not require the listing of certain processing aids, such as pan liners and oils that serve as release agents. Though not technically classified as ingredients, these items could nonetheless render the product non-kosher.
Finally, many ingredients can be kosher or non-kosher depending on their source of supply, and there is not enough descriptive information on the label to make a clear analysis. Following is a partial list of some food ingredients which are red flags. If any are listed on a label, the product requires a reliable hechsher. (I’ve chosen these very common items, but this is by no means an exhaustive list of all problematic ingredients.)
Wine, Grape Juice, Alcohol and Vinegar: Wine and grape juice are only kosher when produced with full-time rabbinic supervision. Alcohol can be derived from grape juice and therefore requires supervision as well. Vinegar is manufactured from alcohol. Most people are aware that wine vinegar requires supervision, but do not realize that any form of vinegar may contain wine-derived alcohol.
Vegetable Oil: Lard and tallow, which are animal products, are obviously not kosher, but vegetable oil can be problematic as well. This is because many companies manufacture animal and vegetable oil on the same equipment. As a matter of course, companies do not clean the machinery between animal and vegetable oils, because these oils are compatible with each other. It is therefore possible for “pure vegetable oil” to contain a significant percentage of animal oil.
Emulsifiers (sometimes referred to by other names, such as mono-and diglycerides and polysorbates), stearates, stabilizers, dough conditioners and glycerine: These are all made from either animal or vegetable sources and may be either kosher or non-kosher.
Natural and Artificial Flavors and Food Coloring: These are made from thousands of ingredients which may be kosher or non-kosher. When fully broken down to subunits, a simple strawberry flavor may contain over a hundred ingredients. The words “flavors and colors” provide very little information about the true composition of these items. Three of the most common problematic ingredients used in flavors and colors are what I often refer to as “The Three C’s”: carmine, civet and castorium. Carmine is a bright red coloring agent derived from the pulverized shells of a beetle-like insect. Civet is extracted from a cat secretion and castorium is produced from a beaver secretion. Civet and castorium are used as flavor enhancers. Flavors can also contain ingredients produced by biotechnology (this process may utilize non-kosher nutrients such as blood or animal tissue) as well as derivatives of grape juice and animal oil.
What could be wrong with fruit cocktail? Would you believe there may be animal derivatives mixed into the fruit? Until a few years ago, the cherries in fruit cocktail were dyed with an artificial red color. That particular dye was banned because it was suspected to be carcinogenic. Today, all fruit cocktail companies without reliable supervision use carmine to color the cherries. In addition, some fruit cocktails have flavors which may contain other problematic ingredients.
There are some processed foods which do not require any supervision. However, consumers should not make such determinations without the assistance and guidance of a kashruth professional or an informed local rabbi.
In spite of the limitations of the ingredient panel, certain useful information can be gleaned by reading the ingredients. In particular, it is sometimes possible to establish that a product is dairy by reviewing the ingredients. While most kashruth agencies generally require that a D appear on dairy products, instances of missing “D”s abound. All kosher consumers should be familiar with the basic dairy ingredients. In addition to ingredients which are obviously dairy (milk, cream, butter, cheese), there are three common dairy components: lactose (milk sugar), casein or caseinate (milk protein), whey (the liquid residue which remains when milk is curdled).
-to be continued-
WHAT COULD BE WRONG WITH…? Baked goods: flavors, oil, emulsifiers and dough conditioners Banana chips: fried in oil Candy bars: flavor, food coloring, emulsifiers and stabilizers Canned vegetables: may share equipment with pork and beans, tomato and cheese and meat sauce Canned capers: vinegar Canned grapefruit: may be product of Israel (This information would appear on the label. Israeli produce requires separation of terumah and ma’aser and may be product of shmittah year) Canned tuna and sardines: oil, may share equipment with non-kosher fish products Cereals: flavors, food coloring, oil and emulsifiers Chewing gum: flavors, food coloring, glycerin, emulsifiers and stearates Chips (potato, corn, taco etc.): oil and seasonings Chocolate: flavors, emulsifiers and oil. Even if it does not contain these ingredients, may share equipment with non-kosher chocolate Extracts (almond, vanilla etc.): alcohol and glycerin Flavored coffee and tea: flavors Fruit cocktail: flavors, food coloring, grape juice Garlic and onion powder, garlic and onion salt: stearates Hard candy: flavors and food coloring Herbal tea: flavors Ice cream: flavors, food coloring, emulsifiers and gelatin Juice drinks: grape juice and flavors Mayonnaise: vinegar, oil, flavors and eggs Mustard and ketchup: vinegar, seasonings and oleoresins Peanut butter: emulsifiers and stabilizers Popcorn: oil and flavors Puddings: flavors and emulsifiers Roasted nuts: oil, may share equipment with nuts processed w/gelatin & seasonings Salad dressing: oil, vinegar, flavors and stabilizers Soda and flavored seltzers : flavors and food coloring Syrups, jams, jellies: sweetener may be grape juice and may share equipment with grape juice Vegetable oil: may share equipment with animal oil
NOTE: This is not an exhaustive list of products and concerns. Readers should not make any inferences from omissions.
Rabbi Luban’s classic article “What Could Be Wrong?” was featured in the spring 1995 issue of the OU’s Jewish Action Magazine. This is an updated version of that original article reprinted here with permission.