Don’t Forget to take Your Vitamins – Don’t Worry, They’re Kosher

A growing number of Americans across the country are becoming more health conscious and their shopping carts are showing it – packed with organic produce; soy franks and burgers; spelt bread and pretzels; and a variety of vitamins and herb products.Today’s national supermarket chains are responding to this wholesome trend, featuring an expanding vitamin and herb section with multiple shelves of every combination, brand and potency. Thanks to the foresight and business acumen of a number of major vitamin companies, more and more kosher customers are frequenting these supplement sections, happily perusing an assortment of OU kosher brands.Words like antioxidant, ginkgo biloba, and glucosamine have made it into the kosher community’s vernacular, kitchen cabinets and daily nutritional regimen.

Since vitamins are considered diet enhancers, meant to supplement the nutritional deficiencies in processed food; they are considered food and, as such, require kosher certification. Many of the vitamins on the market come in gelatin capsules, commonly derived from non-kosher sources and are off limits to the kosher consumer. Aside from the issue of gelatin in the gel cap, vitamins may also contain non-kosher ingredients.

As more kosher consumers become cognizant of the need for kosher certification on vitamins, both brand name and generic vitamin companies are responding to the need – and profiting from the initiative.

The Pioneers in Kosher Vitamins

The advent of kosher vitamins on American store shelves came about through the insight and ingenuity of a family-run “Mom and Pop” pharmacy in midtown Manhattan. Abraham Freeda, a druggist who founded Freeda Vitamins in 1928, led the way for the burgeoning kosher vitamin industry as one of its first producers and sellers, “My parents (Freeda’s daughter and son-in-law), being very innovative, decided to formulate their own nutrients,” says Phillip Zimmerman, Ph.D., current chief chemist at Freeda Vitamins.“They bought a tablet machine and started manufacturing vitamins.” The Freedas and Zimmermans chose OU kosher certification for their new products. “The OU was and still is the name of the game,” says Dr. Zimmerman. “The gold standard.”

Over seven decades later, Freeda Vitamins are sold throughout the United States and also enjoy distribution in Israel and Holland. The family prides itself on being the first kosher vitamin company and the only vitamin company in the world that provides an extra tablet in every bottle – to cover the possibility of machine miscount.

By the 1970’s, America was in the midst of an explosion of research into the impact of nutrition on personal health. “You are what you eat” became the common catch phrase and health food stores sprouted up in towns and cities across the country.

In 1974, Jack Friedman, Ph.D., founder of Maxi-Health Research Inc, opened up a small health food store in Brooklyn with the goal of developing sophisticated vitamin products for the kosher community. He worked together with physicians to create kosher vitamin and herb formulas that would address particular ailments. Over three decades later, the company currently provides a variety of one hundred and fifty nutritional supplements. “Maxi-Health keeps updated on the latest in nutritional research and continues to get the highest quality products out there for the Jewish community,” says Dr. Friedman. “One can get Co Enzyme Q from China for a tenth the price of the Japanese product, which is of much higher quality, but we aren’t interested in poor quality.”

Ninety-five percent of the Maxi-Health line is under OU Kosher certification. “We went to the OU because they were the biggest; they were the most well known,” he says. “Many of our products come from different areas of the world and the OU personnel cover the globe; it made it a lot easier for us. We were also very satisfied with their knowledge about nutrition. We have many non-kosher clientele who look for the OU certification. They feel it is a purer product and monitored more carefully.”

Dr. Friedman, who holds a doctorate in nutrition, receives over one hundred phone calls a day from health-conscious consumers around the world seeking advice on how to treat various physiological conditions. “More than half of the problems, really more, start with poor nutrition and lack of knowledge,” says Dr. Friedman. “People don’t realize that one cup of soda has seven teaspoons of sugar and how unhealthy hydrogenated fat is. They don’t even realize that they are eating poorly. Today’s foods are depleted of nutrients, hence, the need for supplements.”

He cautions that many are unaware that many vitamins on the market are not kosher. “There are not only non-kosher nutrients, but also non-kosher bindings and fillers,” he says. “We were the first to come out with the maxi-caps, a kosher capsule.” He reports that both doctors and chiropractors recommend Maxi-Health products to their patients.

Another kosher vitamin pioneer concerned about the dearth of available kosher nutritional supplements on the market, Hyman Landau, president of Lantev Distributing Corporation, which distributes Landau Natural Foods and Vitamins, opened up a health food store in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn in 1981.“Customers were requesting certain items that were not available in kosher form,” says Landau. He decided to develop items on his own private label. Lantev distributes to New York City’s five boroughs, the country’s smaller kosher communities, as well as internationally “The vitamins were very well received, especially the chewables for children.”

Mr. Landau came out with specialty items such as a more advanced pareve formula of acidophilus and chewable B12s. Like Dr. Friedman, he is not looking to cut corners in order to save money if it means compromising on quality. “A lot of companies use animal-based stearates, which are less expensive; we use the kosher vegetarian base,” he says. Lantev chose OU certification for its products in response to customers’ preferences. “We’ve seen profit from the decision,” says Landau.“The customers are happy as well as steady.”

Covering More Industry Ground

Apparently, the more mainstream vitamin and pharmaceutical companies are also catching on to the benefits of carrying kosher products. KV Pharmaceutical (NYSE:KVa/KVb) as ranked by Forbes magazine as one of America’s fastest growing small companies, is also the leading provider of non-branded (generic item based on the formulation of a brand product) prescription prenatal vitamins in the U.S. Four of their ETHEX generic products are now OU kosher; Advanced NatalCare, Advanced-RF NatalCare, NutriNate Chewable and Ultra Natal-Care(OU-D).

The company began producing prenatal vitamins in the mid-eighties and started receiving calls from patients and physicians alike asking why it didn’t provide prenatals for the kosher consumer. When the calls grew more frequent, KV’s senior executive management asked Myron Yolkut, in their Organizational Development Group, to investigate what it would take to take existing prenatal vitamins and bring them to OU certification level. Partnering with KV’s materials management group, he asked them to source and identify new kosher suppliers for all the necessary ingredients and raw materials.“

We were able to make the same quality KV product that KV is known for but with all kosher ingredients, so we applied for OU certification,” says Mr. Yolkut. “KV realized that the OU symbol is among the most highly respected and widely accepted kosher supervision around the globe. They are so easy to work with and having the guidance and assistance of Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran, Senior Rabbinic Coordinator and his staff has proven to be an invaluable resource to KV. ”

Brooke Eiler, Product Manager at ETHEX, reports that having kosher certification for its four flagship products gives the company an edge over the competition. “Walgreens, CVS, or Rite Aid are going to stock only one generic product, and that product will be the one most of their customers will choose.” According to Ms. Eiler, of all the prenatal providers in the nation, KV provides the most multi-source or generic prenatal vitamins sold to pharmacies. “Customers are happy they don’t have to pay for the brand products anymore and physicians are pleased they can provide their patients with kosher-certified multi-source prenatal vitamins.”

Sciele Pharma, Inc. (NASDAQ: SCRX), a company that specializes in sales, marketing and development of branded prescription products, also features several vitamin supplements. In 2004, the company decided to obtain kosher certification for its then new prenatal supplement, Prenate Elite. Since its inception, the product has become the number one prescribed prenatal vitamin on the market. The kosher public caught wind of this and promptly made inquiries. “We received calls to our customer service out in the field; people were inquiring about kosher vitamins,” says John Edwards MD, medical director at Sciele Pharma. “We wanted to supply products to these women, who would not otherwise be able to benefit from them.”

Both physicians and their patients made it clear to Sciele that OU was their certification of choice. Sciele has stated that their goal is to accommodate and address the needs in the market place and by attaining kosher status through the OU it has more than satisfied that objective. According to Jennifer Sears, company labeling associate, the move also made sense from a promotional standpoint. “A lot of our competitors were switching over to kosher,” says Sears. “We wanted to make sure we were up to speed.” Kosher Prenate Elite will be available to pharmacies in the near future.

Kosher consumers can now find the reassuring OU symbol on some of Vitamin Shoppe’s products. A popular retailer, Vitamin Shoppe carries four hundred different brands and fifteen thousand different products in close to three hundred stores. In 1997, the company adopted a kosher line. “Our customers requested it,” says Marvin Baron, vitamin brand manager. “And we’ve seen positive results. There is a market for it.” He reports that Vitamin Shoppe customers are delighted with having the option of purchasing kosher products. The company currently offers five kosher items and is looking into expanding the line.

From all indications, the production and sale of kosher vitamin supplements continues to reap benefits for companies, buyers, and customers. “We have found that the kosher-keeping community is loyal to products,” says Brooke Eiler, of KV Pharmaceuticals. “[Consumers] who take them and want them for their kosher certification, typically will go back to them.” In line with the trend towards a more nutritious daily intake, a kosher product designed to enhance one’s health certainly bears repeating.

Now, don’t forget to take your (OU kosher) vitamins!