The observation of kosher law by religious Jews for thousands of years is certainly
not breaking news, but what is worth noting is how fast this category is growing.
Foods with a kosher stamp raked in more than $12.5 million in 2008—an increase of 64 percent from 2003—and sales are expected to grow another 23 percent by 2013, according to Mintel, a Chicago-based market research firm. This growth means big things for natural food stores since the same Mintel survey showed that 50 percent of those who buy kosher products associate the foods with being healthier.
“When you buy kosher, you know there’s another vigorous inspection process on the food in addition to [Food and Drug Administration] or ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ designations. Once it’s certified kosher, it’s the kosher Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” says Rabbi Morde chai Levin, Kashrus coordinator for Teaneck, N.J.-based Kof-K Kosher Supervision Service, which has certified many natural and organic companies.
A match made in heaven?
Contrary to what some may think, kosher certification never involves a rabbi saying a blessing over a food or the facility where it is made. Instead, kosher foods follow a codified set of rules derived from the Torah. In order for everything from bottled water to chicken to be considered kosher, the ingredients must first be certified by one of a handful of recognized kosher certification agencies worldwide and undergo a rigorous inspection process to ensure no nonkosher items are unintentionally mixed into the finished product.
Last year, more than half a million foods were scrutinized by the Orthodox Union, one of the largest kosher certifying agencies, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, author of Kosher by Design Lightens Up (Mesorah, 2008). To get the stamp of approval, not only ingredients but also manufacturing processes must pass muster. Equipment may not have been used for nonkosher foods, and if it has, it must undergo a “kosherization” process that involves running boiling water through the equipment to make sure it’s properly sterilized.
Natural foods companies interested in certification look at this process as another way to guarantee quality. “We have always been very picky about our teas and ingredients, and kosher certification was simply another step to ensure purity,” says Megan Rolerkite, a spokeswoman for Portland, Ore.-based Stash Tea. “Today, a growing number of consumers are looking for kosher products not for religious reasons, but because they believe those products are generally healthier and of higher quality.”
Stash Tea is subject to random drop-ins from its kosher certification agency several times a year to make sure no uncertified equipment or ingredients have been introduced into the manufacturing process. Still, based on feedback from customers, Rolerkite suggests other natural products companies look at certification as well.
“Our customers with strict dietary requirements or allergies to certain foods look for our kosher symbol,” she says. “It just makes sense for naturals brands since our customers often have special dietary needs. For example, kosher foods are a good option for consumers with shellfish allergies. A vegetarian can buy a kosher product labeled ‘parve’ and be assured it contains no trace of milk or meat.”
Jewish dietary law spells out how foods should be chosen, cleaned and prepared. At a fundamental level, foods with undesirable traits, such as animals that show cruelty by eating their prey alive or without mercy, or animals with physical defects, are not condoned.
“To understand kosher guidelines is to understand Jewish spiritual law,” Levin says. “We accept it because that’s what God commanded. Any human logic attributed to the commandments is a side benefit.”
Kosher meats must be ritually slaughtered in a way to minimize the animal’s pain—usually with a very sharp knife cutting the animal’s throat. As written in the Torah, only those with cloven hooves that chew their cud are permitted. Fish with scales and fins, aside from catfish, is allowed. Dairy and meat products can’t commingle, and cheese must not contain rennet (an enzyme derived from the stomach lining of cows) unless it comes from a kosher cow. There are only 24 birds that are not allowed, but since it’s unclear which biblical bird names relate to their names today, many kosher-keeping Jews limit the fowl they consume to chicken, duck and turkey.
More than 500,000 products are currently certified kosher, and over 2,500 are added to that list each year as more consumers take an interest. Levin is seeing younger people, who may have been raised in a nonobservant Jewish family, exploring their roots; gentiles taking an interest in the spiritual nature of kosher food preparation; and perhaps the biggest converters, natural products consumers, drawn to the additional food-safety processes in kosher certification.
“I think consumers are connecting that just as natural food is healthy for the body, so too is kosher food—and perhaps even more so for the soul,” Levin says.
Lynn Ginsburg, a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer and author of What are You Hungry For? (St. Martin’s, 2002), is looking forward to checking out what foods are marked “parve” in her store.