In the times of Chazal, honey was the substance that symbolized sweetness. There may have been several reasons for this, but one of them is certainly that honey was the sweetener that was available in those days. In the last few centuries honey was dethroned by sugar as the most popular sweetener in most of the world, and in the last few years even sugar has been challenged as the king of sweeteners. In food science laboratories around the world, chemists are bent on developing sweeteners that have low or no calories, have absolutely no deleterious effect on one’s health, are odorless and, like sugar, taste geshmak . Some of these are natural and some are artificial. A few of them involve real kashrus concerns.
The most aggressive challenger to sugar is high-fructose corn syrup. It was developed as a result of research by chemists in the 1950s; they figured out a way to change the molecular structure of corn syrup, called glucose syrup, which is mildly sweet, and create from that same syrup an exceptionally sweet syrup called high-fructose corn syrup. The agent responsible for this dramatic change is called glucose isomerase. Although the production of glucose isomerase could theoretically involve kosher concerns (the raw materials may be derived from non-kosher material) the only producers of this sophisticated ingredient are, to the best of our knowledge, kosher-certified. It is thus unlikely that any nonkosher high-fructose corn syrup is on the market.
High-fructose corn syrup is sweeter than sugar. In much of the world corn syrup is cheap, and in those places high-fructose corn syrup has often replaced sugar in soft drink and food production. In Eretz Yisrael, however, there is not as much corn grown, and therefore sucrose, or standard table sugar, is still the sweetener most commonly used in soft drinks and foods.
In some parts of the world, milk is exceptionally plentiful as well. Researchers in Europe have developed some sophisticated sugars derived from milk. Lactose is the milk sugar that is filtered away from whey, a derivative of the cheese process. Lactose is a disaccharide, which means that it is composed of two different parts. Scientists there have split the two parts of lactose, which creates two new sugars: glucose and galactose. The presence of milchig glucose does not make kashrus agencies happy, because it used to be that (with the exception of Pesach) glucose was presumed to be from innocuous materials. The presence of milchig glucose on the market disrupts that presumption.
Galactose is a starting material for a heavily marketed new ingredient called tagatose. Those behind its marketing bill it as the greatess thing since … sugar, and even better than sugar It doesn’t have the aftertaste, they claim, that other trendy sweeteners have, and it even browns like regular sugar when cooked. But unlike sugar, it is low in calories, and therein lies its advantage. The drawback for the kosher consumer, of course, is that it is derived from milk.
On Pesach, many consumers who cannot drink milk and have a halachic dispensation to eat kitnios rely on rice-milk products. Rice milks are sweetened not by sugar but by an ingredient called rice syrup. Rice syrup is processed using an ingredient called barley amylase, which, as the name suggests, is derived from barley. Although the barley amylase is removed and its presence is about .02 percent of the formulations of the rice syrup (enough to be considered battel, or nullified, before Pesach), there is some question among poskim over whether the action of the barley amylase on rice syrup is a davar hamaamid, which means that its action cannot be denied by the standard principles of bittul. In such cases it’s necessary to consult one’s Rav.
A final sweetener that pops up where one wouldn’t expect it is glycerin. Glycerin is mildly sweet and has many applications, especially in low-carb baked foods. My brother-in-law’s mother-in-law uses it in muffins, because glycerin also has the advantage of retaining moisture, and so the addition of glycerin to the muffins enables the muffins to stay fresh, or at least appear fresh, for longer. Glycerin comes from vegetable oil or animal fat – both of which are bland substances that are without even a hint of sweetness. But if vegetable oil or animal fat are chemically split, one of the derivatives is glycerin – a sweet and useful ingredient.
These are only a few of the multitudes of sweeteners that have entered the marketplace – and many of our foods. Some of them are here to stay, and some of them will be gone tomorrow. Whatever the sweetener is, it should contribute to all of us having a shana tova umesuka.
Rabbi Gavriel Price is a Rabbinic coordinator at the Orthodox Union.
From a response of Rav Syshe Heschel, zt”l
For a number of years Rav Syshe Heschel, zt“l, responded to kosher inquiries submitted to the OU from people with various degrees of religious backgrounds all over the world. Here is one example of the inimitable warmth, wit and ahavas Yisrael displayed in all of his responses.
Dear Mr. Cohen,
Thank you for checking with the OU regarding your kashruth question.
We are very glad that you took the time to inquire about a kashruth question. We wish there were more like you. Too many people make assumptions rather than ask, and unfortunately, too often they make wrong assumptions.
Sugar can be derived from a cane or from a type of beet known as sugar beet. The process of making sugar from cane differs from the process of making sugar from sugar beets.
Sugar cane is a tropical plant that grows to 10 or 20 feet high and looks like a bamboo stalk. A stalk of sugar cane contains between 12 and 14 percent of sucrose (the chemical name for ordinary sugar). The process of producing sugar from the cane is done in two steps: at a sugar mill, and then at a sugar refinery.
At the sugar mills (usually located near the cane fields), the canes are washed and cut into small pieces. Big rollers then press the juice out of the cut cane. The juice is then clarified, concentrated and crystallized and is ready for refinement.
Some 150 years ago, some European Jews discovered, to their shock and amazement, that in the new large industrial plants that were processing sugar, the sugar was being refined with the aid of, of all things, animal blood.
Word of this frightening development, of course, spread throughout Europe, and soon, as one can well imagine, there was an outcry to “outlaw the use of sugar” in Jewish homes. Think for a moment what life would be like if such a calamity were to happen. All the Jewish children would demand that the Rabbi call for a day of fasting and repentance. After all, what would all the Jewish mothers use to bribe their kinderlach with? Spinach? How would all the dentists earn a living? Honey may be fine, but whoever heard of a cup of coffee with two lumps of honey? It was a dark period, all right.
The only ones that kept their heads were the Rabbinic scholars. In a famous responsum written by the Tzemach Tzeddek of Lubavitch, he tackled the halachic implications of this development. Backed by numerous sources, he stated the following logical ruling:
Given that the sugar and the blood additive were both cold, the taste of the blood was not ingested by the sugar.
Given that the blood additive also does not add anything to the food – not taste, form, color, structure or substance – the concern is no longer about the sugar itself.
Given that at the end of the refining process nothing whatsoever remains of blood ingredient in the food, then halachically, it can be considered that there is nothing nonkosher in the sugar.
Since, said the Tzemach Tzeddek the animal by-product was used only for filtering purposes, and the final result meets the criteria that none of the animal by-product remains in the sugar, and the entire process is done when the sugar and animal by-product are cold, then, he ruled, the blood filtration process would not make the sugar nonkosher.
Similar concepts are present with one of the current modes of sugar refining. Bones, called “bone char”, are used in many plants for sugar filtration, All of the bone char is completely removed from the sugar. The process used does not involve any heat and therefore, no transfer of taste from the bone char to the sugar takes place. Furthermore, the bone char is produced from bones that are completely burnt, so that they are beyond a classification of what constitutes “animal bones”. They are totally unfit for human consumption. As such, we are no longer concerned about their giving the sugar a flavor, for whatever taste the dried bones might possibly leak into a food is certainly not a “food taste” – it is a taste that not even a dog would enjoy. Hence, there are no kosher concerns present with this method of refining.
Please don’t hesitate to contact us again should you have any further questions.
With best wishes for a happy, healthy and prosperous season, we remain,
The Web(be) Rebbe