“May I have a steak well done, please, and a fruit cocktail?” is a request that is commonly heard in a restaurant. It’s very rare to hear someone in a restaurant say, “Waiter, I’d like an order of rotten fruit, please, and do you have any steak that causes botulism?”
It’s a fact of life that innumerable foods are perishable, and without human intervention, will spoil. People have been coping with this problem since time immemorial. In this area, necessity once again proved to be the mother of invention, and so was born food preservation.
Preservation can be defined as, “a method used to maintain the current state of a food and/or prevent damage caused by environmental factors.” In our era, preservatives have become both ubiquitous and crucial in the manufacture of food. However, methods of preservation long pre-date the 21st century.
Salting, curing (i.e., smoking); drying (i.e., dehydration); and sugaring (dehydration followed by packing the food in sugar), are some of the earliest methods employed in preserving food. Pickling (e.g., with vinegar) has a long pedigree, as well. Freezing has been used to preserve food, and is obviously much easier and much more common in this age of refrigerator-freezers. It was, however, Napoleon who ultimately brought about the first utterance of, “Yes, we can!”
Napoleon’s army was starving, and the French government offered a monetary reward to anyone who could devise a way to preserve food for the soldiers. A brewer named Nicholas Appert plunged into preservation research. After almost a decade and a half, he found that wax-sealing and heating of jars kept food from spoiling. He won the prize. This technique eventually made its way to England, and subsequently, cans were invented.
There are three major categories of preservatives: anti-microbials, anti-oxidants, and ripening retardants. Anti-microbials prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi. Anti-oxidants prevent oxidation (in this context, oxygen combining with food) and thereby prevent the food from going rancid. Ripening retardants slow down the ripening of fruits and vegetables, allowing them to last longer.
There are well-known substances used in preservation, and some are known only “to the trade.”
Salt inhibits bacterial growth by reducing the activity of water (bacteria love water); pickling with vinegar (an acetic acid solution) accomplishes that by virtue of the acid’s effect on the food. Sugar, as well, is an anti-microbial. Certain herbs and spices (e.g., cinnamon; chili pepper) function as anti-oxidants, and perhaps, as anti-microbials, as well.
Sulfites (a kind of sulphur compound) serve as anti-microbials in such foods as wine and dried fruits. Benzoic acid functions as an anti-microbial in dressings and condiments. Sorbic acid is used for preservation in products like cheese and jam. Nitrates and nitrites are used in meats. Propionic acid prolongs the freshness of bread. Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) is formed when meat is smoked; it serves as both an anti-microbial and an anti-oxidant. Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is also an anti-oxidant.
Vitamin C, Vitamin E, sulphur dioxide, natamycin…the list goes on and on! One can imagine that, with so many varieties and so many applications, preservatives would be examined and re-examined for safety. And indeed, they are. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration is responsible; in the Europe, it’s the European Food Safety Authority and the European Commission, Parliament and Council.
Guaranteeing the kosher status of preservatives has its attendant challenges. Here are just two examples:
Vinegar is often produced by introducing microorganisms into a sugar solution (e.g., corn syrup; fruit juice). The first step in this approach to vinegar production is the fermentation of the sugar by yeast. This yields alcohol. Acetobacter then convert the alcohol into acetaldehyde and then into acetic acid (which is the primary ingredient in vinegar) and water. Vinegar is a red-flag ingredient for two reasons. Firstly, it can be derived from wine. In all of kosher certification, you’d be hard-pressed to find something as sensitive as wine! Secondly, the acetobacter’s diet might be supplemented by nutrients that are not kosher.
One of the reasons that herbs and spices are so kosher-sensitive is that they may come from Israel. At one point, Israel was a major exporter of onion, garlic, and paprika. Jewish religious law regulates the use of Israeli produce more tightly than the produce of other lands. Moreover, the flow agents employed by spice manufacturers may contain animal-derived stearates; animal derivatives are always kosher red-flag items. Finally, spice blends may contain wine derivatives, which, as we have seen, can also be highly kosher-sensitive.
At the end of the day, kosher preservatives are the best way to preserve kosher status!
RABBI EIYAHU W. FERRELL: While attending Yeshivat Kesser Torah in Queens, NY, Rabbi Eliyahu W. Ferrell was awarded his Bachelors Degree in Psychology from QueensCollege of the City University of New York. He subsequently received ordination from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University. He has served as a pulpit rabbi at the Downtown Talmud Torah Synagogue in New York City; taught at the Frisch School in Paramus, NJ; and since 2000 has taught at the Passaic Torah Institute, also in New Jersey. That same year he joined OU Kosher as a rabbinic coordinator, now specializing in chemicals and assisting in areas of kosher education, including OU Radio’s Kosher Tidbits and OU Kosher DVDs. In addition, Rabbi Ferrell served as Kosher Director at two outreach summer camps in the Former Soviet Union, and is the author of articles on various Torah topics. Rabbi Ferrell and his wife, Aliza, have four children and reside in Passaic, NJ.