Getting the Flavor of Certifying Flavors: A Primer

The flavor industry has grown from rather humble origins in the mid-nineteenth century, when processed foods first came to prominence, into a $1.5 billion dollar industry that churns out 10,000 new flavors a year. For purposes of kosher certification, chemicals and natural ingredients the raw components of a flavor 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 derived entirely from natural sources, such as heliotropin, a transmutation of petroleum.

The balance is a delicate one in an era when brand loyalty has diminished and tastes are ever more fickle. The balance is a delicate one in an era when brand loyalty has diminished and tastes are ever more fickle. Non-kosher ingredients, of course, are forbidden and will immediately invalidate a formula, although the list is actually quite small. 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 OU must investigate both source and process. Of particular concern are ingredients derived from one of the following: animals, dairy, and wine. The first, animal derived ingredients, includes fatty acids, fatty alcohols, emulsifiers and enzymes. (Today, however, it is possible to develop kosher equivalents from vegetable and petrochemical sources: synthetic lipase enzyme, amino acids from human hair.)

The second, dairy derived, includes cheese, cream, butter, and butter oil. The third, wine or grape derived, includes ethyl alcohol, wine, brandy, and cognac. (Again, it is possible to formulate synthetic alternatives, such as ethyl alcohol from petroleum, or to obtain the ingredient from grain, which reduces concern.)

The market pressures facing flavor houses are immense. On the one hand, increasingly savvy consumers schooled in an ever-widening variety of cuisines are developing “global” palates. On the other hand, studies consistently demonstrate that the broad parameters of flavor preference form early in life – hence the return in times of anxiety to the “comfort foods” of youth. Thus the conundrum: fail to innovate and a product grows stale; tamper with a cherished classic and consumers boycott.

The balance is a delicate one in an era when brand loyalty has diminished and tastes are ever more fickle – yesterday’s spicy tomato salsa pales against the recently unveiled extra spicy chipotle sauce of one’s competitor, and a new extra extra spicy paste must be devised if a company is to maintain shelf space. The faster the turn around, the greater the chance of retaining a wavering consumer or luring a new one into the fold. As a result, time-to-market is a critical success factor for flavor makers and food companies.

The Orthodox Union is always eager to minimize delays caused by “kosher confusion.” Often the result of easily avoidable mistakes or misunderstandings, the confusion, once introduced, can result in unnecessarily frustrating interruptions to production. The following simple suggestions are intended to assist flavor companies in their efforts, thereby reducing the time from conception to creation and then to market.

With Regard to Ingredient Use:

  • In the development of a flavor, it is vital for flavorists to note the provenance of an ingredient, as once a flavor has been designed with a non-kosher analogue it becomes time-consuming to reformulate. The list of OU approved raw materials, or “Schedule A,” should be maintained and updated regularly so that it can be consulted with confidence. Relevant information, such as specs or letters of certification, should be forwarded to the OU office prior to purchase. This alleviates future inconvenience caused by expenditure on material then deemed unacceptable by the OU.
  • Flavorists should also be aware that certain kosher flavorings alternatives to popular chemicals are difficult to obtain. Kosher gelatin, for example, generally extracts the necessary collagen material from (kosher) fish, occasionally (kosher) animals. It may be difficult, however, to procure the large number of fish skins necessary to produce the quantities or bloom of gelatin desired; the animals are likewise not available on demand.
  • Contrary to presumption, synthetic ingredients, wholly sprung from the laboratory, still require as much oversight as natural (i.e. plant or animal-based) ingredients to confirm that they were not created on non-kosher equipment, which might render them non-kosher as well.

With Regard to Ingredient Management:

  • As most flavor facilities manufacture both kosher and non-kosher products, it is essential that raw materials be thoroughly scrutinized as they arrive and the symbol and manufacturer on the label matched with the Schedule A database of pre-approved ingredients. Non-kosher chemicals, of course, should immediately be sequestered to avoid later confusion. Should an identical ingredient arrive in both kosher and nonkosher form, the kosher analogue must bear not only the appropriate symbol (as stated above) but the additional signature of the Rabbinic Field Representative from the plant of origin across each batch. (The fact that an identical ingredient can be purchased from both kosher and nonkosher sources is known in certification circles as the “compatibility question. ” )

A special production run may be required in instances of particular “kosher seriousness.” Examples include:

  1. If the flavor contains grape products. This is because wines and spirits occupy a uniquely important place in Jewish ritual as a sacramental beverage over which blessings are pronounced. As such, they are subject to additional rabbinic injunctions beyond those associated with “regular” foods.
  2. If the flavor is spray dried or otherwise subject to heat, as with reaction flavors, where exposure to intense temperatures induces chemical rearrangement. Since the machinery involved is expensive to purchase and maintain, it is generally kept in continual use to maximize benefit and may alternate between non-kosher and kosher flavors. The scheduling of kosher runs, therefore, should be done well in advance of production, and the RFR notified in timely fashion.

This ensures that equipment previously used for non-kosher flavors can be properly “kosherized,” a process that involves submitting the machinery to a thorough cleaning followed by a twenty-four hour wait and immersion in boiling water (212ºF) or other procedures as deemed necessary by Jewish law. It also allows the RFR to consult the necessary formulas and ingredient tanks to avoid the problem of compatibility noted above.

As always, prior approval of desired raw materials is essential, as is close contact with the central office. Problems can more easily be avoided if they are noted before production commences. In this way, the OU can better assist its certified companies in bringing the finished flavor to market with speed and ease.

Rabbi Moshe Zywica