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Why Can't I Eat Foods Without Kosher Certification?

Why Can’t I Eat Foods Without Kosher Certification?


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Hi JITC-

I’m traveling a lot this summer and there may not be kosher food everywhere. Why isn’t it good enough to just read the ingredients and make sure there is nothing forbidden in the product?

Sincerely,

B.B.

Dear B.B.-

Thanks for your question. Once upon a time, it certainly was sufficient to check the ingredients but food science has grown exponentially more complicated over the decades to the extent that a lay person has no way of knowing what’s in his food without appropriate kashrus supervision. Quick show of hands: how many people reading this know what sodium stearoyl lactylate is? If you don’t know what that is or where it comes from, why would you think you could determine the kashrus of a food item from its label?

Many common ingredients come from sources that are unkosher, to say nothing of potentially distasteful to kosher and non-kosher consumers alike. The three non-kosher ingredients that most consumers are likely to find disgusting are civet, castoreum and carmine. The first two are animal secretions – civet from cats and castoreum from beavers. These are used as flavor enhancers. Carmine is a red food dye made from insect shells. (In 2012, Starbucks removed carmine from its ingredients because of objections from vegetarians and vegans. Many kosher consumers likely ordered drinks containing this non-kosher food coloring before it was removed.)

Okay, so you’ll just avoid foods with these ingredients? Not likely, since they can appear under other names. Carmine, for example, is also known as “cochineal extract” and “natural red 4,” among other things. Civet and castoreum would likely appear on a label under “natural flavors.” So good luck with all that.

Does your label say polysorbate, stearate, glycerin or “mono-and diglycerides?” All of these and more can be derived from animal sources. Alcohol can be derived from grape juice, which requires kosher supervision. Vegetable oil – even “pure” vegetable oil – can actually contain some animal oil. So reading a label, while useful to a degree, is really limited.

Even if all of a product’s ingredients are kosher, the equipment used to process them might not be. This is a fact that would not be recorded on the label. When I was a child, there was a big to-do about a certain cereal that had kosher ingredients but was shot through factory tubes that had been greased with lard. Similarly, the equipment used to make cans of sweet corn might also be used for pork and beans. A few years ago, consumers opened cans of tuna to find octopus. While complete product swaps are uncommon, cross-contamination between runs of kosher and non-kosher products is inevitable if equipment is not kashered (i.e., “kosherized”) in between.

So, while a person who’s traveling might choose to rely upon certain leniencies they don’t normally rely upon at home, relying on an ingredients panel in the absence of proper kosher supervision should not be one of them. Doing so will invariably lead to eating things that are overtly non-kosher.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent

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  1. Let me start by saying that I only eat food with a Kosher certification.

    But…I’ve always heard about the ingredient ‘civet’ coming from cats. Reading this post I got to thinking: How exactly do they get civet? Are there cat farms? Are the cats killed, or is the civet something that cats excrete?

    So I asked Google. The only results for ‘civet’ were these southeast Asian cat-like mammals that eat (and then pass, undigested) coffee beans which are then used to make an expensive coffee.

    Um. Huh?

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz : July 31, 2019 at 4:08 am

      You may need to hone your search results. Here’s an example of a site that discusses it not from a kashrus perspective:

      The “natural flavors” label is quite intriguing. It is considered a way of protecting the secret formula/recipe, a way of preserving the product’s uniqueness. Would you expect regurgitated secretions produced in an animal’s digestive system to be approved by the FDA as food additives? The secretion produced by the beaver’s sacs and civet absolute (“derived from the unctuous secretions from the receptacles between the anus and genitalia of both the male and female civet cat”, according to A Consumer’s Dictionary of Food Additives; delish) are other gross ingredients found in food. Watch out for those natural flavorings & flavors!

      From: https://www.toptenz.net/top-10-disgusting-ingredients-youve-probably-eaten-today.php

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz : July 31, 2019 at 4:18 am

      Here’s another one, about how it’s made:

      CIVET ABSOLUTE. I regularly go to industrial food shows. A big one is coming up in January. That’s where I get to meet chocolate processors and their technical experts. When I come back from these shows, people sometimes ask me: “What was the most disgusting thing you saw at the show?” Well, there are a lot of terrible ingredients in commercially processed foods, but for me, the most repulsive food additive is an artificial flavoring called civet absolute. It is used to give candy a caramel, butter, or rum flavor. Civet absolute is a secretion produced by African civet cats to scent mark their territory. Civet absolute is scraped out of the anuses of civet cats. (Yes, you read that right.) This oily secretion is collected twice a week. The cats have to be sedated first because the scraping is so painful. Civet absolute has a very powerful odor. In full strength, civet absolute just smells like cat urine, but when diluted to 1/10 of 1% or less, it smells wonderful! I once smelled it myself at a food trade show. It smelled like sweet butter with a slight scent of lily. I felt ashamed of myself afterward, thinking about the suffering of those poor, miserable cats.

      From: http://www.tarses.com/blog/civet-absolute-and-castoreum/

  2. Karen Hechtman : July 31, 2019 at 7:34 am

    Thank you for your informative story. I will be traveling this summer so this is good to know. But when I Googled Civet this was the standard answer. I clicked on a couple of sites in this was basically what they’re saying. None the less, it sounds disgusting

    A French stew usually containing game, though duck and goose are used. The meat is marinated in red wine for long periods of time, then stewed with pearl onions and bacon. The sauce was once thickened with blood, but that is a method not used much anymore.

  3. Thanks. Ick.

  4. Isn’t there a matter of probability here? How high must the threshold of certainty be on Kashrut. I know when it comes to checking for bugs the common psak is that only those vegetables which contain bugs 10% of the time must be checked. Shouldn’t the same logic apply here? In other words, if it could be determined (such as through a random experiment) that reading the ingredients/checking if the product claims to be vegan will allow you to be 90% certain that a product is kosher, shouldn’t that be sufficient.

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Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Jew in the City's Educational Correspondent, is the editor of OU Torah (www.ou.org/torah) . He is the author of six books including The Taryag Companion and The God Book. For more Q&A, follow his new video series, Ask Rabbi Jack, on YouTube.

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