Corn is one of the most versatile food substances found in nature. It has a wide variety of uses in the food industry as well as many other non-food uses such as ethanol for automobiles. There are a number of different types of corn. Today the primary types used in the USA are flint, dent, sweet corn and popcorn. Sweet corn is grown primarily for human consumption either on the cob or for further processing. Dent corn is the largest commercial corn.1 It is used for animal feed as well as for corn masa (corn flour treated with lime.) With the abundance of corn in the USA it is no surprise that there are numerous corn-based snacks produced throughout the country. Some of these snacks predate the formation of the United States. In fact one of the world’s oldest snack foods is popcorn.2 Others such as the cheese curl are relatively new as this was first produced in the 1930s.3 Today, corn based snacks provide a wide range of products for consumers. While the base material is obviously kosher, there are a number of issues that arise in the kosher certification of corn-based snacks.
A traditional tortilla consists of corn masa pressed into flat patties and cooked on griddle. The Corn masa is produced from dried corn cooked and steeped in a lime solution. The corn is then washed and ground into meal called masa. Today, some tortilla chip factories will produce their own masa while others purchase the masa. The masa is then kneaded, rolled into thin sheets and cut to the desired shape, typically a triangle or circle. It is then baked and finally fried in oil. Salt and seasonings are added after the fryer. The most common seasoning used is nacho cheese.
Often a company may choose to only certify plain tortilla chip so that they can use a non-kosher cheese for the seasoned product. In order to certify the plain-parve product the certifying agency must verify that the chip is not ‘hot’ according to halacha when going through the tumbler. This is also true even if the cheese is kosher and the plain chip is certified as pareve. In addition, the company must remove all cheese residue before it again produces kosher pareve on the line. This is verified by checking the cleaning procedure.
Corn Chips are produced by extruding corn meal and pressing it into the desired shape. They are then fried and salted. Some companies have started to produce baked corn chips instead of fried out of health considerations. Both tortillas and corn chips can be produced with white, yellow or blue corn. The difference in color is a reflection of the color of the corn, not an artificial color.
Popcorn is actually a different type of corn than the more familiar sweet corn. Inside the kernel there is an embryo surrounded by starch. The starch contains water. When this is heated the water turns to steam and the pressure forces the starch to explode. The explosion yields the odd shaped snack known as popcorn. Today, there are two common methods for producing this ancient snack. The kernels are either popped by hot air or by placing them in hot oil. The latter is referred to as kettle popped and usually includes sugar in the popping oil. Salt and or seasonings are added while the popcorn is still warm so that it adheres properly. Another popular popcorn product is microwave popcorn. The manufacturer prepares the kernels with oil and flavor, usually butter flavor, so it will have great taste when the consumer pops them at home. These flavors can be either parve or dairy so the consumer needs to look carefully. Companies have found many creative ways to embellish popcorn. Although popcorn is traditionally a salty snack, a number of companies have started to enrobe it in chocolate and thus making it a sweet snack. Thus, the kashrus issues with popcorn revolve around any oils that are used along with the seasonings and other toppings.
The production of this product is as follows. Corn meal is extruded at a high temperature using pressure. It puffs up as it moves through the extrusion die. The curls are cut to size and move through a short oven to reduce the moisture level. At this point the product is not palatable. After they exit the oven they are seasoned. There are two basic methods to do this. Seasoning can be applied by spraying oil on the curl and then applying a cheese powder or by mixing slurry that combines the two and spraying this on the product. The oil is the key to success as without the oil the seasoning would not stick. The kashrus concerns with this product are that the seasoning and oil are kosher, and that the equipment is properly cleaned.
This issue does not appear to be of a concern when it comes to corn products. Corn is in fact edible raw right from the cob. Many claim that this is the best way to eat it (footnote). Furthermore, corn, despite its widespread use in the food industry, does not appear to be a distinguished food. In fact most of the corn grown in the United States goes for animal feed.4 As such, corn would not be considered oleh al shulchan melachim. This is certainly true when it comes to corn snacks. Thus, many kashrus organizations hold that popcorn is not subject to this prohibition.
Understanding the production process of a given item enables us to determine the appropriate bracha for it. Thus, although the bracha for corn is ‘haadamah’, the bracha for corn products produced from corn masa and meal is shehakol.5 On popcorn, the bracha is haadamah as this is the kernel with a little heat added.
Manufacturers are always looking to develop new products and the corn snack industry is no exception. For example, there has been talk of fortifying tortilla chips with whey protein to make it ‘healthier’. The introduction of whey into the oven and fryer of a tortilla line would have serious kashrus implications. For obvious reasons, it is crucial that Kashrus agencies remain alert to these types of developments. With continued vigilance kosher consumers will continue to enjoy the wide and growing variety of corn snacks.
1 73% of corn production is dent in contrast to sweet corn which is < 1% (National Agricultural Statistics Service)
2 Native Americans in North and South America have popped popcorn since ancient times. It was often popped on hot stones over a fire and the challenge was to catch it flying out as it popped.
3 One Edward Wilson is credited with inventing the cheese curl. Mr. Wilson while working for the Flak all Co., an animal feed produce, noticed that workers poured moistened corn kernels into the flaking machine to reduce clogging. He found that when the flaking machine ran continuously it made parts of it quite hot. The moistened cornmeal came out of the machine in puffy ribbons, hardened as it hit the air, and fell to the ground. Wilson took the ribbons home, added oil and flavor and made the first cheese curls. Eventually the company added another flakers just for producing what they called Koran Knurls. This took place in the 1930s. Mass production of the product didn’t start until the 1950s
4 60% of corn production in the USA goes to animal feed. (National Agricultural Statistics Service)
5 See Sh. Aru. O.C. 202:7 and 208:8