Behind the Labels

OU Kosher Staff

As temperatures continue their upward climb, in many instances posting record highs, tired and thirsty families take refuge in the treats of summer: creamy ice cream bars, tangy fruit punches that paint one’s teeth, sticky chocolates that melt in the hand. These are the rewards for another day of heat endurance, pulled from the recesses of a cool refrigerator or freezer. Most will indulge without bothering to peruse the nutritional information printed on the back of the packaging; even fewer will glance at the list of ingredients. They will take for granted that the products will sweetly satisfy their cravings, and think nothing of the effort it took to create the taste, or even more, to certify it. And yet, the process of taste creation is extremely murky and the process of its kosher certification, extremely complex.

The flavor industry has grown from rather humble origins in the mid-eighteenth century to a $1.5 billion dollar industry which churns out 10,000 new flavors a year (9,000 will fail). This vast number is the result of contemporary market pressures: that is, the continuous need of flavor companies to satisfy the taste palates of increasingly savvy consumers. Today’s spicy tomato salsa pales against the extra spicy chipotle sauce of one’s competitor, and a new extra extra spicy paste must be devised if a company is to retain brand space. All these ingredients/flavors require certification, as do the ingredients of which those ingredients are composed! Thus, while certifying agencies work strenuously to ascertain the provenance of every ingredient used in each one of the facilities under their supervision, Mashgichim and Rabbinic Coordinators remain acutely aware of the enormity of the undertaking and of the Siyata Dishmayah required. The inventory of a single flavor house may consist of several thousand ingredients scattered throughout the facility: in a lab, a storage freezer, a small jar or medium-sized drum or industrial-sized tanker. A single OU certified company lists over 2,800 ingredients in the OU database!

The high stakes – mass quantities of money invested in the creation and storage of flavors – has resulted in a notoriously secretive industry. Newly developed flavor formulas are zealously guarded and consumers deliberately kept in the dark as much as possible. Thus, even if one were to take the time to scan the packaging, he would find in all likelihood a rather short list of ingredients, with sugar and/or hydrogenated oil at the top (no surprise there!), followed by a smattering of chemical names and artificial dyes for color, and rounded off with the vague and unsatisfying “with other natural flavors” (industry shorthand: WONF). This broad final phrase conceals much beneath its deceptive simplicity.

Surprisingly, and perhaps dismayingly, this satisfies Federal regulators. The Food and Drug Administration does not require companies to disclose color or flavor additives so long as all the sub-components are GRAS (“generally recognized as safe” ) and in the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 2005, the most recent attempt to codify the claims of food manufacturers, “natural flavors” are defined as: “the essential…essence or extractive…which contains a flavoring constituent derived from…plant material….meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation…whose significant function in food is flavoring.” In plain English, this simply means that “natural flavors” are extracts from non-synthetic foods. It does NOT mean that the flavor is derived from the source most commonly associated with it in nature. The “natural coffee flavor” that gives a carton of coffee yogurt its piquancy, for instance, is NOT necessarily made from coffee beans, and is not required to be, so long as all the compounds that went into the flavor’s composition were drawn from nature and were not produced in a laboratory.

The consumer is not the only one whose flavor knowledge is vague. The manufacturer himself, though he is of course privy to the ingredients used, has only the haziest idea of the flavor’s chemical and natural compounds. A strawberry flavor used in candy, for example, may be made from strawberry concentrate or strawberry extract, both derived from natural sources. But the flavor could just as easily be an artificial concoction of amyl butyrate, butyric acid, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl propionate, and several other chemicals. Therefore, the certifying agencis must review each formula and production procedures for each flavor to ensure that kashrus standards are observed.

To that end, ingredients are divided into three categories: natural, non-kosher, and “in between.” The natural category includes tea, cocoa powder, honey, lemon oil and other inherently kosher materials, as well as chemicals such as heliotropin, a derivative of petroleum. “Non-kosher” ingredients, of course, are forbidden and will immediately invalidate a formula. Examples include castoreum from beavers, a glandular secretion added to homeopathic remedies, and civet, a musky odor secreted by certain cats and prized for its use in perfumery. All remaining ingredients fall somewhere “in-between,” and require the greatest oversight, as the Mashgiach and certifier must investigate both process and source. Alcohol, for example, may be produced naturally from grain and wine, or synthetically from petroleum; butyric acid may be pareve, or derived from butter and therefore dairy.

An examination of ‘reaction flavors’, a particular subgroup of flavor production, illustrates some of the intricacies involved in certification. To produce a reaction flavor, a particular ingredient is subject to intense heat and pressure over time, causing it to “re-arrange” itself chemically into an entirely new product. This process obviously requires extremely close supervision. Unless the flavor company has dedicated equipment solely for kosher production, it will need to kasher the existing machinery, submitting all to a thorough cleaning followed by a twenty-four hour wait and immersion in boiling water (212 degrees), or other halachic kosherization procedures, as necessary. Further, the ingredients most frequently used to produce reaction flavors are particularly “kashrus sensitive.” Savory reaction flavors (as opposed to sweet reaction flavors), which strive to create tangy, smoky tastes, are often derived from meat or chicken fat; amino acids (which may be pig, or porcine, based); and enzymes (which may be meat based). Today, however, it is possible for all of the above to be certified as kosher: kosher chicken fat, amino acids from human hair, synthetic lipase ezyme (non-kosher lipase is extracted from a cow’s pancreas).

Yet the very fact that, as in the cases noted above, an identical ingredient can be purchased from both a kosher and non-kosher source – the vexing “compatibility question” – is a cause of great concern. As it remains nearly impossible to tell the kosher from the non-kosher once the ingredient has been introduced into a flavor plant, certifying agencies insist on the physical segregation of the non-kosher analogues. In addition, the plant Mashgiach is required to sign each batch of finished flavor across the top to indicate that he has personally noted the use of the kosher version of the ingredient. Today, with the advent of computers, the concern of confusion has been eased somewhat, as most certifying agencies have centralized their lists of approved ingredients in databases with multiple entry points for reference and cross-checking. Each ingredient in a plant is assigned a special “raw material code” (RMC); the RMC is unique to that particular plant, enabling all involved to speak of an ingredient with precision. (Imagine otherwise trying to track the difference between ethyl vanillin, vanillin, vanilla extract and vanillin natural NFB!) With easy access to the system, “time delay” diminishes, and Mashgichim can immediately ascertain whether an introduced ingredient has been approved.

The Halachah recognizes the power of flavors. Generally speaking, a non-kosher ingredient whose relationship to the entire mixture is less than one sixtieth the total is deemed null, and the mixture remains kosher (“batel bishishim” ). Flavors, however, fall under the rubric of “avidah leta’amah;” that is to say, their purpose is to enhance taste. This makes the flavor halachically “potent,” integral to the mixture, and thus the minutest amount of non-kosher flavoring invalidates the finished product. Yet another reminder of the complex the work done daily by kosher certifiers; truly, Siyatah Dishmayah is necessary to oversee the flavor industry.