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?
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.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
JITC Educational Correspondent