December 22, 2004

The world’s food chemists and production engineers are very resourceful. They are charged with improving both the products we eat as well as the efficiency by which they are produced. The field is dynamic, with constant attempts to make products better and more cheaply. Unfortunately, changes in the way food ingredients are produced or their raw materials can have significant impact on their Kosher status. For this reason the job of those in the Kashrus world charged with keeping abreast of these changes is a constant challenge. While many ingredients have historically been considered inherently Kosher, their status is always tenuous and subject to the caprice of the wizards of the food industry.

In recent years, several categories of ingredients have been de-listed from the “Group 1” (inherently Kosher) category. The purpose of this article is to explain the background of these changes.

A seemingly minor change can reverberate throughout the food industry, and seldom in the field of human endeavor can so many products be affected by changes in so few ingredients.

The first item recently changed was food starch. Interestingly, nothing actually changed in the production of conventional starch. Most starch in the United States is made from corn — we’re up to our ears in it. The plants which process corn into starch are called “wet millers”, as opposed to “dry millers” which make corn flour. Dried corn is steeped in water for several days, after which it is ground with water to make a slurry. The hull is removed and sold as fiber, and the protein portion of corn called gluten is centrifuged out of the slurry, and it is from this portion that corn oil is expressed. The remaining slurry is a mixture of water and starch, and the rest of the processing involves removing the water and drying the starch in specialized dryers. Wet milling operations do not pose significant Kashrus concerns, and conventional starch coming from these plants is inherently Kosher. However, starch companies have developed new products which call for re-mixing conventional dry starch with water and spray drying the liquid into a product which has a functionality different from the original starch. Since wet millers do not generally have spray dryers in their plants, they contract with toll spray dryers (companies which rent the use of spray dryers to outside companies) to produce these items. These spray dryers are used by many customers, often for the production of non-Kosher and Dairy products. Even though these new products have names which differ from those of conventional starches, these differences are not always apparent. It is therefore impossible to consider “starch” as a Group 1.

An additional complication stems from the fact that starch is “recycled”. Starch which has become unusable (perhaps it has been slightly contaminated or caked) can be reprocessed into usable starch. A number of companies purchase such distressed starch on the open market and reprocess it into “conventional” product. Since the source of such starch could very well be from (non-Kosher) spray dried material, we can no longer assume that all starch is inherently Kosher.

Another category change involves fermentation products such as citric acid, lactic acid, and monosodium glutamate. These products are produced by growing certain microorganisms (fungi, bacteria, and yeasts) in large tanks called fermentors. Ingredients in the fermentor, as well as those which are used to grow the microorganism in early stages, can pose Kashrus concerns. Such ingredients can include beef extracts, porcine extracts, casein hydrolyzed with animal enzymes, and animal fat based antifoams. While many of these ingredients may be Batul, the OU has worked with a number of companies to produce these items without Sheilos. The OU therefore requires a reliable supervision for these products to ensure that they are Kosher L’Chatchila.