Aged Cheese and Cheese Powders: New Discussion of an Age-Old Issue

We are familiar with the rule of refraining from consuming meat after eating certain types of cheese. In Yoreh Deah 89:2, the Rama writes, “And there are those who are strict and do not consume meat after eating cheese (source: Mordechai and Beis Yosef in the name of Maharam; v. Tur Yoreh Deah 89), and such is our minhag, that we do not eat any meat, even poultry, after hard cheese…” This is the basis for waiting the same time period after eating certain cheeses before then partaking of meat that one waits after eating meat before then partaking of dairy. (V. Taz ibid. s.k. 4.)

The Shach (ibid. s.k. 16) explains that “hard cheese” as referenced by the Rama means cheese which has aged (approximately) six months. Poskim note that after eating pungent, strong-tasting cheeses, one should similarly wait before eating meat, regardless of the cheese’s age. (V. Taz ibid. s.k. 4.)

Advanced food technology and a mushrooming kosher market have resulted in a proliferation of products that contain cheese powder, such as Parmesan-coated popcorn, cheddar cheese crackers and mashed potatoes with real cheese seasoning. Consumer questions commonly arise as to whether or not one must wait after eating such foods that are coated with or contain cheese powder, before consuming meat.

Let’s take a look at how cheese powder is made, and then analyze the Halacha. The halachic discussion below is for informational purposes only; each reader should consult a competent rav to provide personal guidance for him or her on this matter.

Real cheese powder – as opposed to “cheese-flavored powder”, used in non-dairy and in very inexpensive cheese-flavored foods, and as opposed to grated or shredded fresh cheese, which is sprinkled onto some foods (including one brand of crackers) in the form of real cheese bits – is made from cut-up cheese (usually fresh, non-aged cheddar), unless specified otherwise. The cut-up cheese is mixed with water and blending agents and is heated to a liquid, after which it is dried into powder in large, multi-storey spray-dryers.

The truth is that even though Parmesan cheese intended for use in its natural form is aged for at least ten months, Parmesan cheese powder is commonly made from Parmesan that was only aged for a few months at most, as the same basic flavor can be achieved in far fewer than ten months, and the brittle, easy-to-grate texture for which Parmesan is known and which takes at least ten months to develop, is not necessary to achieve when the Parmesan is going to be liquefied and powdered. Hence, unless a product that contains cheese powder states specifically that it is made from aged cheese, there is no basis to assume that the cheese powder is made from cheese that is halachically “aged”. (Aging cheese costs money, and companies do not allow their cheese to age unless necessary.)

What about cheese powders made from very pungent cheeses? And what about cheese powders made from cheeses which are enzymatically treated in order develop very strong flavors? Since one should wait after eating such cheeses in their natural form, due to “Meshichas Ta’am” (lingering aftertaste), does one need to wait after eating potato chips coated with strong, “very cheesy” cheddar powder?

The Aruch Ha-Shulchan (Yoreh Deah 89:11), in discussing waiting after consuming such powerful-tasting cheeses (in their natural form), writes that one should wait after cheeses such as “…Swiss and Hollander cheese, which have a lot of fat and their taste endures for a long time”. This parallels Rashi on Chullin (105 a), who explains that one must wait after eating meat before then partaking of milk, “because meat releases fat, which adheres to the mouth and creates a prolonged taste”. It is clear that this concern does not pertain to cheese powder that is lightly sprinkled onto foods or that is added to a seasoning blend, as there is obviously an absence of a fat-emitting mass that leaves a long-term aftertaste.

Thus far, it would not seem that one would need to wait after eating foods that contain cheese powder, as 1) cheese powder is not normally made from aged cheese, and 2) “Meshichas Ta’am” applies to chunks of real, fatty cheese, and not to lightly-sprinkled cheese powder.

But what if a food in fact contains cheese powder made from real aged cheese?

This seems to be more of a machlokes (halachic dispute). On the one hand, many poskim, including the OU’s poskim, rule like the Yad Yehudah (YD ibid., s. 30 in Peirush Ha-Katzar), that aged cheese which is melted into foods does not necessitate waiting; more on this later. On the other hand, some poskim do not accept the Yad Yehudah’s position and require one to wait after eating aged cheese in any form. According to this latter position, one would have to wait after eating products that contain aged cheese powder. (Again, unless a product specifically states that its cheese powder is made from aged cheese, one should assume that the cheese is not aged.)

The Yad Yehudah reasons that the main concern with aged cheese – that its brittle texture adheres to the mouth and remains there for a while (and thus would mingle with meat, unless one waits a long time before eating meat) – does not apply once cheese is melted, as the texture of melted cheese is soft. In truth, even after melted aged cheese solidifies, it no longer has the same brittle texture, especially if it is first mixed with water and additives and is then dried into a powder.

The Yad Yehudah presents his axiom in the context of discussing foods into which cheese is melted and blended somewhat indiscernibly, and does not address the issue of melted cheese that is not blended into other foods. Some thus interpret the Yad Yehudah as limiting his heter to the case of, for example, aged cheese melted into soup, such that the cheese’s presence is not fully visible. However, since the logic of the Yad Yehudah is that melting aged cheese removes its brittle status and hence its halachic stringency, one can argue with the above limited interpretation. In fact, the Badei Ha-Shulchan (YD 89:3 in Bi’urim) understands the Yad Yehudah to not require waiting after melted cheese and does not stipulate that the heter only applies to melted cheese which is mixed into another dish, and other poskim as well seem to have a similar understanding, as quoted in Mesorah Journal 20, p. 92.

Based on the above reasoning and sources, even aged cheese powder that is sprinkled onto a food (and is still fully discernible and independent) would not require waiting before partaking of meat, if one adopts the latter approach to the Yad Yehudah, as the aged cheese has lost its unique texture that was the basis of the chumra (stringency) to wait. (Again, everyone should ask his or her rav for halachic guidance, as this is an issue of overall dispute.)

The need to wait after eating aged (or pungent) cheese is a custom that is advised and codified by the Rama. However, there exist so many more basic kashrus concerns that proper kosher certification of cheese must address. Although these concerns were presented in previous Kashrus Kaleidoscope articles, consumers must take note of the general fact that cheese should never be purchased unless the kashrus agency that certifies the cheese has been verified to be fully reliable. This writer is aware of terribly inadequate kosher certification of cheese, including one cheese bearing a “heimishe-looking” symbol, yet which has no mashgiach for production and is thus rendered non-kosher as gevinas akum, as well as another heimishe European hashgacha which certifies cheese made with rennet-lined moist animal stomachs, using non-kashered equipment with residue of non-kosher cheese (!!!). One must be very careful to only purchase cheese with verified reliable hashgacha.

Cheese is one of those products whose halachic and kosher issues present so much to discuss, and we look forward to presenting new discussion on cheese issues as they arise.