Retail Dairy Products: Whats, Hows and Whys

Previous installments in this series have investigated dairy foods from the perspective of the posek, mashgiach and kashrus administrator. We delved into halachic and highly-technical material, attempting to gain insight into the many complexities of dairy kashrus.

This presentation will address the kashrus of dairy products from a different perspective – that of the retail consumer, who shops the aisles and seeks practical advice and a basic, yet firm understanding of which dairy products do and do not pose kashrus concerns, how these concerns affect the kashrus of the products, and why the consumer should or should not exercise caution when purchasing these products.

It should be noted that although much of the information will be presented in brief – as this is a practical guide and not a research paper – this forum provides us with the flexibility to include some interesting products which heretofore were not addressed at all in previous installments of this series.

One more point: Consumers occasionally assume that the presence of an OUD symbol on a dairy product – especially milk – indicates that the product is chalav Yisrael (made from specially-supervised milk). Such products are not chalav Yisrael unless stated specifically on the label. The OU, as well as most national kashrus agencies, relies on the position formulated in Igros Moshe (YD 1:47-49) which rules that regular domestic commercial milk (in the United States and most developed countries) is acceptable. That having been said, OU-certified products which do bear a chalav Yisrael statement are produced with the most meticulous chalav Yisrael standards and are often supervised in active partnership with other well-respected kashrus agencies which cater exclusively to the chalav Yisrael consumer base. This presentation follows general OU dairy policy, but – as you will see – the issues addressed in the vast majority of the discussion pertain to chalav Yisrael products as well.

Enough introduction – let’s begin:


For those who consume chalav stam (regular commercial milk without special rabbinic supervision): Unflavored whole, skim and low-fat milk in the refrigerated section of one’s supermarket may be purchased without any kosher certification in the United States and most developed countries.
Although dairies which pasteurize, homogenize and bottle milk are at times also shared by kosher-sensitive products, there are several factors which alleviate concerns posed by possible sharing of equipment by milk and other products.

1. Use of regular milk production lines for other products is not the norm.
2. Milk plants’ “Cleaning In Place” (“CIP”) sanitization systems serves to kasher or nullify the effects of equipment’s shared use with other products.
3. Even in a situation where another product is manufactured on the milk line, the residual taste of other products in milk, if any, is often negative (nosain ta’am li-f’gam), resulting in no ta’am issur (prohibited absorbed taste) in the milk. (See Yoreh Deah siman 103.)
Commercial milk contains vitamins A and D. [how often are these not kosher?]Although these vitamins may be kosher-sensitive – as they can derive from non-kosher fish oil -, they are used in extremely miniscule quantities and do not affect the kosher status of the milk.

It must be noted that any milk which bears an OUD symbol means that the OU visits the milk facility and assures that the production equipment is either dedicated exclusively to milk or is formally kashered for milk production. Presence of the OUD symbol on milk also indicates that all vitamins in the milk are kosher. (The OU does not rely on bittul – halachic nullification – in its certification, and the appearance of an OU symbol indicates that an OU mashgiach personally visits the production facility on an ongoing basis to verify the kashrus of the certified product, even if it is milk, bottled water, or any other innocuous food.)

Flavored milk, such as chocolate milk, always needs hashgacha (kosher supervision). Aside from the not-so-innocuous flavors used, flavored milks also utilize stabilizers (kosher-sensitive ingredients which contribute to smooth texture) and sweeteners. Egg nog likewise needs reliable kosher certification, sharing the same concerns as flavored milk (and it also requires kosher-sensitive egg nog flavor or base).

Juice, Punch, Iced Coffee and Iced Tea

These products are often manufactured at dairies. The reason for this is that these beverages are usually pasteurized (heat-treated to destroy harmful bacteria), and their packaging requirements are similar to those of milk. Since these pasteurization and packaging requirements are somewhat compatible, dairies find it efficient (and profitable) to share their equipment with production of these non-dairy beverages.

In theory, pure orange, grapefruit and apple juice are always kosher (unless they are from Eretz Yisrael, in which case Terumah and Ma’aser must be taken). However, dairies which process these juices often share lines with various other products (most notably non-kosher grape juice and – of course – milk). Although the three rationales presented earlier which permit milk to be purchased without hashgacha apply here, the various factors involved in the case of juice production (such as the likelihood of non-kosher grape juice sharing juice equipment and the potential use of juice lines for other beverages) may be reason for the consumer to exercise caution. If one does purchase orange, grapefruit or apple juice without kosher certification, it is important to be sure that there are no additives. Ruby red grapefruit juice often has non-kosher carmine color added.

Iced tea and iced coffee contain various additives and need reliable hashgacha.

Punch is a blend of juices, flavors and often colors, and it needs kosher certification. (Punch frequently contains non-kosher grape juice or is made on equipment shared with non-kosher grape juice.)

Long Shelf-Life Beverages

Unlike refrigerated beverages, long shelf-life milk and juice box beverages are much more prone to share equipment with various other dairy and non-kosher products. These items are aseptically pasteurized at extremely high temperatures, and the plants which manufacture them are commonly multi-functional facilities which frequently process anything and everything – from milk to chicken broth to grape juice to (non-kosher pork and beef) gelatin-based confectioneries. Although the actual aseptic pasteurizer is sterilized at very high temperatures, related equipment is often not cleaned at temperatures which kasher, and caustic solution (to be pogem (embitter) non-kosher absorbed flavor and render it null) is often not used between all products. One should not purchase long shelf-life beverages without reliable certification.


Most retail buttermilk is not at all the same as natural buttermilk, which is derived from the production of butter. Retail buttermilk is milk which is inoculated with lactic acid, and it may contain non-kosher emulsifiers or stabilizers. Please never purchase without reliable hashgacha!

Powdered Milk

Fluid milk is dried into powder on equipment called “spray-dryers”. In order for it to be instantly soluble, powdered milk is agglomerated, meaning that the powder’s particles are lumped together with moisture. This enables them to dissolve better into water. The equipment used for drying milk into powder and for agglomerating it is often shared with non-kosher foods; therefore, powdered milk should always be bought with kosher certification.

Condensed Milk

This product is often sold in small cans reading “Sweetened Condensed Milk”, and is particularly useful in many baking applications. Although it is not loaded with ingredients, it does require hashgacha. Here is why:

When products are condensed, much of their excess water is removed, thereby forming a concentrated version of the original product. Condensers (often referred to as “evaporators”) vacuum water out of liquids and operate at very high temperatures. Evaporators at dairies and other types of plants are often shared by a variety of different products and are not sanitized in a manner which constitutes a kashering. Hence, when purchasing condensed products, seek out those which bear a reliable hechsher (kosher symbol).

Half and Half

Half and half is presumed by some consumers to be automatically kosher. These consumers reason that since half and half is half milk and half cream, which are of course kosher, one can use half and half without concern. Whereas consumer presumptions are sometimes accurate, this one is surely not!

Half and half – from a kashrus perspective – suffers from two maladies:

  1. Cream (dairy fat) is not always kosher. There are two types of cream: sweet cream, which is derived from milk (and is kosher), and whey cream, which is derived from cheese-making. Whey cream is often non-kosher, and the cream in many dairy products can be in the form of pure whey cream or a blend of sweet cream and whey cream.
  2. Half and half contains emulsifiers which enable the milk and cream to mix properly. These emulsifiers may be animal-derived.
    Bottom line: Half and half is not innocuous. Its kashrus needs a thorough interrogation and must be certified by a reliable agency.

Nutritional Fluids (Protein Beverages, Infant Formulas)

If you thought that half and half posed potential problems, wait ‘til you find out what these nutritional products contain.

Protein beverages usually contain casein – the predominant protein in milk, which is spray-dried into powder, and they also often contain whey proteins – which come from cheese-making. The casein in these products is usually spray-dried twice: once when converting it from its liquid state into a powder, and again after it is rehydrated and made into a soluble casein salt called a caseinate. The drying equipment used for casein/caseinate may be shared with anything, thus making casein/caseinate a kosher-sensitive product.

Whey is even more sensitive from a kashrus standpoint. Whey can become non-kosher in any of three ways (pardon the bad pun):

  1. The cheese from which the whey is derived was made with non-kosher animal-based rennet (the enzyme which forms milk into cheese). Non-kosher rennet forms the cheese and whey and is a davar ha-ma’amid (an ingredient which gives form) in both the cheese and whey and is never batel (nullified) in them when non-kosher (ShuT Chasam Sofer Yoreh Deah 79), even though the amount of rennet used in cheese-making is very minute.
  2. The whey is derived from cheese made at hot temperatures. As we will address later, cheese made without special on-site kosher supervision is deemed non-kosher; it is called “Gevinas Akum”. However, the whey which derives from Gevinas Akum is not per se non-kosher, as whey is the portion of the milk which did not become converted into cheese, and it is therefore not subject to the unique kosher stringencies of cheese. If otherwise-kosher whey has hot contact with Gevinas Akum, the whey is rendered non-kosher as well, just as any kosher food which has hot contact with a non-kosher substance becomes non-kosher. (Among the more common hot-temperature cheeses are some varieties of Swiss, plus Parmesan and Romano. It should also be noted that some Dutch and Scandinavian cheeses undergo a hot wash in their vats, along with their whey, right after these cheeses are produced. This process renders the whey non-kosher, as it causes the hot absorption of non-kosher cheese taste into the whey.)
  3. The whey comes from Mozzarella or Provolone cheese production. Although these cheeses are not coagulated with very high levels of heat, they are transferred from their vats after coagulation to a hot cheese cooker. While being cooked, these cheeses are stretched and pulled, endowing them with an elastic texture, making them ideal for melting into Italian dishes. The cooker’s water (now full of taste, fat and assorted residue from these non-kosher cheeses) is commonly salvaged and incorporated into whey, making the whey non-kosher.

Whey is clearly a kashrus minefield, and any product containing it needs very tight hashgacha.

Now that we have dealt with powdered milk, condensed milk, casein/caseinates and whey, touching upon emulsifiers as well, we are ready to address infant formulas – as they contain all of these ingredients and more. There is no rationale for purchasing uncertified infant formulas, as the kashrus risks they pose are immense. In the event of lack of availability of kosher formulas (or nutritional supplements, for those who truly require them), the consumer must consult a competent halachic authority for guidance.


The manufacture of yogurt begins with milk, plus the frequent addition of condensed skim milk and skim milk powder (to lower fat ratios) and cream (to raise fat ratios). Stabilizers, such as gelatin, gums and starch are dosed in, and the product is pasteurized. Subsequently, the yogurt is cooled, and it is inoculated with cultures and kept warm for several hours. Fruit blends and flavors are also commonly incorporated into the product.

It is clear that yogurt needs reliable kashrus certification. The potential use of cream (which may contain non-kosher whey cream), condensed skim milk and skim milk powder (which may be processed on non-kosher equipment) themselves warrant vigilance. Gelatin,- unless specially ordered as kosher and bearing reliable hashgacha – is from non-kosher animal sources, even when identified as ‘kosher gelatin’. Yogurt fruit blends sometimes contain carmine color, which is a deep red shade extracted from beetles. Yogurt cultures may be grown from non-kosher nutrients and may be processed in culture laboratories on equipment shared with all types of things (including proteins from animal organs). Unlike many dairy products which in previous times were often somewhat innocuous in terms of kashrus, yogurt was never considered to be free of kosher concerns even in its most simple, primitive form. Bottom line: don’t purchase yogurt without a good hechsher.

Ice Cream

Ice cream is made from a base of cream, which – like yogurt – often includes skim milk powder and condensed skim milk to control fat ratios. The base (referred to as a “mix” in ice cream plants) is pasteurized and cooled, and stabilizers (to prevent ice cream from turning into ice crystals) and sweeteners are added. The mix is whipped (to incorporate air into the mix, so that it is not a heavy, think ice cube-like chunk), and flavors, variegates (soft syrupy materials, like fudge and caramel) and particulates (bits and pieces, such as nuts and chips) may be added. The ice cream is then immediately frozen.

Clearly, the cream, condensed skim milk and skim milk powder are issues, as are the stabilizers, variegates and particulates. There is no need to elaborate here on the need to only purchase ice cream with reliable kosher certification.

Sherbet and Sorbet

No, these are not two ways to spell the same product. Sherbet and sorbet are very different foods, and their differing halachic status is critical (yet sadly sometimes overlooked).

Sherbet (according to the legal definition, per the US Food & Drug Administration) is dairy dessert which has 1-2% dairy content. Sherbet is milchig, similar to ice cream, but the majority of its ingredients are fruit bases and flavors.

On the other hand, sorbet is officially a non-dairy frozen dessert. Because the words “sherbet” and “sorbet” sound similar, some consumers mistakenly assume that sherbet is a pareve food. By definition, sherbet is dairy.

Both sherbet and sorbet require kosher certification. Here is why:

Sherbet often contains skim milk powder and condensed skim milk. Both sherbet and sorbet contain stabilizers, which provide smoothness of texture and prevent the product from forming into ice crystals. Fruit bases, flavors and artificial colors used in sherbet and sorbet are likewise kosher-sensitive. In order to enable the various components of sherbet and sorbet to blend properly, emulsifiers are often used. As noted earlier, emulsifiers can be animal-derived. This is serious stuff…

Although the FDA defines sorbet as non-dairy, Halacha occasionally begs to differ. While in theory, sorbet should be pareve, and much of the sorbet on the market is indeed pareve, some sorbet is certified as dairy – even though it contains no actual milk. Why is this?

Two things can render sorbet dairy from a halachic point of view:

  1. Production on dairy equipment: Sorbet is almost always manufactured on equipment used for ice cream. This equipment is often not koshered when transitioning from ice cream to sorbet, and the sorbet made after ice cream is therefore considered to be dairy. (One can eat such sorbet after a meat dish, but it may not be consumed with meat. It is halachically classified as “Nat bar Nat”, as it has absorbed dairy taste but no physical dairy content. See Remo in Yoreh Deah 95:2.)
  2. Actual dairy content: Some sorbet ingredients may have dairy content. For example, berry flavors can contain milk, which provides for smooth mouthfeel.

Coffee Creamers

To the surprise of many, creamers are truly just about anything but cream. Although they may contain cream, these products are loaded with emulsifiers, starches, sweeteners, and often caseinates. It is quite common for such products to have no cream and to therefore bear on their packaging “Non-Dairy Creamer”, while they really contain caseinates, which are purely dairy. The reason for this apparent deception is that casein is not manufactured in the United States, and the US dairy lobby – which seeks to keep casein out of the country and promote the use of domestic milk powder instead – has succeeded in compelling food labeling regulations which attempt to sway consumers away from products which contain casein and caseinates. These products are thus termed “non-dairy”, so that consumers will have the impression that the products are not natural and contain some type of artificial chemical imposter rather than real, natural dairy ingredients.

Kosher consumers occasionally see “non-dairy” creamers “AND” assume that they are pareve. Unless these products (which obviously need hashgacha) bear a “pareve” symbol, they must be treated as dairy.


Traditionally, butter was made by taking a bucket of sweet cream and churning it, so that its fat coalesced and clumped together (into butter), and the excess liquid (buttermilk) was removed. Because milk from non-kosher animals does not churn into butter, many halachic authorities ruled that butter is exempt from the requirement of chalav Yisrael and that butter, therefore, can be purchased from anyone. (See Rambam Hilchos Maachalos Asuros 3:16 and Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 115:3.)

For the most part, times have changed. Butter is often made from whey cream or from blends of sweet cream and whey cream; some butter, more common in Europe than in the US, contains cultures, and Europe also has something called “traced butter”, which contains food-grade chemical tracers which can inform the recipient of the butter’s cream source; these tracers are often non-kosher. Furthermore, butter often contains starter distillate, which is a flavor agent derived from whey and milk condensate. In short, butter today is markedly more complex than in the days of Chazal.

In theory, if one could determine that butter in a certain location were only made from sweet cream and had no additives, such butter would be kosher and would not require certification. European Union dairy regulations bar butter plants from manufacturing sweet cream and whey cream butter under the same roof. If one could ascertain that an EU butter plant is a sweet cream facility and that no additives are used, there is room to permit such butter without hashgacha. The problem is that one usually needs a kosher certification agency to make such verification; it is therefore not practical or accurate to say that one can purchase butter from EU facilities without hashgacha.

In the US, butter is graded according to its purity of taste and mouthfeel. AA grade butter is bland and smooth, while lower grade butter is more tangy and may be rougher to the palate. Some have argued that AA butter may be purchased without kosher certification, as only sweet cream can provide purity and blandness of taste (and AA butter does not contain starter distillate). Whey cream, which comes from cheese production, is naturally more tangy and flavorful. The truth is that even AA grade butter can contain some whey cream, so long as the whey cream doesn’t detract from a pure and bland taste. The OU therefore does not accept or endorse butter without reliable hashgacha.

Hard Cheese

As noted earlier, Chazal forbade cheese which was not manufactured with supervision. (See Avodah Zarah 29b and 35a, Rambam Hilchos Ma’achalos Asuros 3:13 and Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 115:2.) Although the Amora’im in the Gemara present various rationales for this ban (AZ 35a and 35b), the rationale advanced by Shmuel – that we fear that unsupervised cheese may have been coagulated via rennet from the stomach of a neveilah (non-kosher slaughtered) animal – is adopted by the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch. The Shulchan Aruch rules that even if one knows that a certain cheese was not manufactured with non-kosher rennet, such cheese is nonetheless totally prohibited. This is the Halacha.

The Remo (YD ibid.) rules that for a cheese to be kosher, there must be supervision; the mashgiach thereby verifies that only kosher enzymes were used. However, the Shach (ibid. s.k. 20) and the Gra (ibid. s.k. 14) argue with the Remo and postulate that the supervisor must himself physically add the (kosher) rennet to the milk to form the cheese. These authorities maintain that the requirement for Gevinas Yisrael is akin to those of Pas Yisrael and Bishul Yisrael, such that there be physical action by the Yisrael in creating the food. Many poskim rule like the Remo and several rule like the Shach and the Gra; most recognized kashrus agencies are careful to make sure that both opinions are satisfied when certifying cheese.

It is imperative that consumers know that all hard cheese requires reliable hashgacha. It is unfortunate that many cheeses bear unreliable kosher symbols – some of which appear to be very elaborate, religious-heimishe hechsherim – but are actually representative of agencies which have inferior standards (such as relying on an extreme minority opinion – rejected by most Rishonim and poskim – that hard cheese does not need a mashgiach present – see Remo in Yoreh Deah ibid. s. 2), [ can you give examples of lower standards?]or represent agencies with a lack of adequate and trained mashgichim. Never purchase cheese unless you are fully sure that the agency which certifies it is reliable and maintains acceptable halachic and supervisory standards. Cheese without proper hashgacha is Gevinas Akum and is considered by Halacha to be wholly non-kosher, even if its ingredients are themselves kosher.

Soft Cheese

Some poskim rule that even soft cheese, such as cream cheese and cottage cheese, is subject to the special Gevinas Yisrael requirements explained earlier, and that lack of fulfillment of these requirements renders such cheese Gevinas Akum. Other poskim hold that only hard cheese is encumbered by these special regulations, but that soft cheese is automatically kosher so long as its ingredients are kosher and it was made on kosher equipment. (See Aruch Ha-Shulchan YD 115:16, Chochmas Odom 53:38 and Igros Moshe YD 2:45.) The OU and most national kashrus agencies adopt the latter position.

Regardless of the position adopted, soft cheese does have many basic kosher issues. Many soft cheeses (cream cheese in particular) use cream as an important ingredient. Soft cheeses utilize many stabilizers, necessary for a smooth and uniform texture. (For example, cottage cheese is often thickened by using gelatin, and cream cheese is made dense and smooth by the use of powdered gums.) Whey powder is likewise a common additive in the manufacture of these products. Thus, even if one does not require Gevinas Yisrael for soft cheese, it cannot be purchased without kosher certification, due to its many kosher-sensitive ingredients.

(It should be emphasized that the terms “hard cheese” and “soft cheese” are not precise. What we call “hard cheese” refers to cheese which can only be made by using rennet – which itself can be animal-derived or artificial. Some rennet-set cheeses (such as Danish bleu cheese, feta and many goat milk cheeses) are indeed soft to the feel but are classified as Gevinas Akum in the absence of rabbinic supervision or involvement, as these cheeses require rennet to form. “Soft cheeses” are those which coagulate via acidification; no rennet is needed. These acid-set cheeses are often actually hard, but they are not subject to the rules of Gevinas Yisrael and Gevinas Akum according to many authorities, as they do not use rennet and were therefore never included in the gezeirah (rabbinic decree) on cheese.)

Imitation Cheese

There are two types of imitation cheese. One type is totally not a cheese product; rather, it is a concoction of soy, oils, flavors and stabilizers. This type of imitation cheese may also contain dairy ingredients. In any case, its many ingredients are quite kosher-sensitive, and kosher certification of such product is necessary.

A second type of imitation cheese is made from rennet casein. Rennet casein is milk’s casein protein when curdled via rennet, exactly like rennet-set cheese. Rennet casein has the same halachic status as hard cheese. Imitation cheese made from rennet casein surely requires tight hashgacha.

Imitation cheese of all types is made at very high temperatures and is often made on equipment shared with non-kosher products. Supervision of these items commonly entails kashering and very careful monitoring by the mashgiach.

It is interesting that kosher rennet-set cheese and imitation cheese made from rennet casein is more costly than its non-kosher counterpart. This is because the cost of the full-time on-site rabbinic supervision which is necessary to manufacture these products as kosher is passed on to the consumer (as is the case with kosher meat and wine, which likewise require full-time on-site rabbinic supervision). Kosher-certified acid-set cheese (and some imitation cheese which does not contain rennet casein – when made in all-kosher facilities) is not usually more expensive than non-kosher varieties of these items, as full-time on-site supervision is often not needed.

The kosher concerns of retail dairy products are many and complex. It is hoped that this presentation assists in clarifying these concerns and assisting in their understanding on a practical level.

OU Kosher Staff