Snacking Kosher: It’s Harder Than You Thought

OU Kosher Staff

Potato chips, corn chips, puffed snacks and tortilla chips – they all seem so simple – but they aren’t. Today’s snack food industry aims to please a wide variety of tastes. Add in allergen concerns and the never ending desire to “have your snacks but cut the fat” and the permutations on a theme grow astronomically. The OU certifies many of the items in the snack food isle and is proud to work with most of the major players in this industry. Familiar OU certified brands include Bachman, Cape Cod, Frito Lay, Herr’s, Snyder’s of Hanover, Utz and Wise. Additionally, many regional players like Bettermade, Wyandot, Inventure and Condor are also OU certified. In addition, many popular store brands like Albertson’s, Kroger, and Price Chopper all display OU kosher.

Potato chips are deceptively simple. Basically, they are flavored, fried slices of potato. Simple and kosher – right? Not so fast. The first question – what are they fried in? True, most product today is in pure vegetable oil, but there are strong regional markets for lard fried chips – especially in central Pennsylvania and the South. I recently visited a facility making a large number of specialty products for various manufacturers. The same fryers are used for lard chips and those made in a variety of vegetable oils. Just because the label doesn’t mention lard, it doesn’t mean the fryer is not common.

Moreover, one of this plant’s specialties was a brand of “healthy” chips fried in oils like olive and avocado. All shared the same equipment. Many common kosher brands sold in major kosher markets have lard fried products. Utz, for example, has the Grandma Utz line and Herr Foods sells a product labeled “Old Fashioned.” Specialty chips, like sweet potato, may also be made on these lines, as their small production volume complements the niche lard chip production. One must be diligent to look for the OU symbol and not assume that “plain” or “vegetable oil” only chips are not problematic.

Once fried, most potato chips are salted while still hot. However, secondary flavor applications are usually at ambient temperature. The days of nothing but plain and barbecue chips are long gone. Today, someone makes a potato chip with just about any flavor one can imagine. Most plants have both dairy and non dairy seasonings. Many also have non-kosher –especially for cheese flavors. The OU works closely with manufacturers to insure proper separation of the kosher categories. This is one place where allergen concerns are our ally. Allergen level cleanouts are very thorough and companies are careful to remove all residues between high allergen categories like dairy.
Scheduling is another tool we use. Weekend cleanouts are generally less pressured – and more thorough. When possible, we implement a series – kosher non-dairy at the beginning of the week, then kosher dairy, then non-kosher. However, there are many plants where the changeover pressures and other concerns like line proximity or the design of flavoring equipment create an environment where kosher acceptable separation cannot be achieved. This is one reason why consumers find otherwise non-dairy chips labeled OU-D(dairy).

Tortilla chips, corn chips and similar rolled dough based products (many rice and multigrain chips for example), are also traditionally fried. Normally seasoned directly after frying, these chips, which are thicker and denser than potato chips, retain their heat. Between the residual heat and the volume of production, the tumblers and belts themselves get hot enough to absorb the flavors and attain their kosher status. For example, if the company makes a kosher nacho chip (dairy), all subsequent chips are considered dairy, unless a koshering process is completed. As koshering can be quite involved, time consuming and messy – usually including boiling water or even direct fire, companies that make pareve corn and tortilla chips split the lines so that necessary equipment never has dairy or non-kosher contact. The OU works closely with companies to design dedicated and easily monitored systems.

Baked chips are commonly also quite hot when seasoned and present similar issues. Some of these products – like baked potato crisps – are made from shaped dough that contains much more than potato flour and water. As they are not fried, oils and emulsifiers, as well as flavor components, are incorporated into the dough itself. Many of the ingredients are highly kosher sensitive and must be monitored carefully. Similarly, many shaped extruded items – some of the fancy vegetable straws and chips for example, start out as a manufactured pellet. These pellets contain many kosher sensitive ingredients and the pellet manufacturers regularly make a wide variety of items, not all necessarily kosher, on the same production lines. The end snack producer then fries or bakes the pellets and seasons according to customer tastes.

Puffed snacks – including rice cakes and similar appearing items – are increasingly popular. In essence, these involve popping grains in a mold. When the whole grain kernels explode under heat and pressure, they form a basic platform for the snack maker. The fundamental product is low fat and often whole grain, making these items increasingly popular with snackers. As the fundamental product is dry, adding seasoning requires a carrier like vegetable oil. In many applications, the seasoning itself is added at room temperature. While the equipment itself does not absorb multiple kosher categories through heat, it is much more difficult to clean properly because of the oil. Therefore, certifying multiple kosher categories in these environments takes diligence on the part of the manufacturer and the OU. Like with potato chips, a number of strategies are employed and not all manufacturers are able to comply.

Many times, the application of seasonings is more complicated. Chocolate drizzled rice crackers, for example, go through a machine called an enrober. Here, chocolate is melted and drizzled onto the base cracker and/or the cracker itself travels through a bath of chocolate. While generally a cool process, these machines are difficult to clean. As the chocolate is usually dairy, so are the products.

In some applications, seasoning is sprayed onto the unflavored popped chip which then runs through an oven. In these situations, the oven belts absorb through heat and can become dairy or non-kosher depending on what the company makes. These belts are difficult to kosher and companies using these systems routinely label all products dairy or non-kosher. Some do have dedicated belts or choose to run campaigns of kosher or pareve product with the OU providing koshering and necessary supervision.

Extruded corn snacks like cheese balls and curls present a somewhat different problem. Here, the basic “ball” or “curl” is little more than extruded corn flour and water. Immediately after the extruder these look – and taste – something like Styrofoam! They are flavored with a slurry of oil and the appropriate cheese flavor. Mixing the slurry is generally hot, so the mix kettle is problematic. The hot mix is then sprayed onto the pellet and tumbled to get the desired end consistency. If the company uses non-kosher cheese, the entire system is non-kosher. Even if kosher cheese is used, the system is certainly dairy. Hence, companies generally sell the entire category as non-kosher or kosher dairy, depending on the seasonings. Flavored popcorn is very similar.

While many snacks are very simple in their basic ingredients, the process of making and flavoring them is more complicated. Because the OU works with such a wide variety of snack companies, we are very familiar with the industry and the issues. As such, we are able to work with our clients in responsive and cooperative ways to ensure the best possible service for both our clients and the kosher consuming public.

Rabbi Aharon J. Brun-Kestler has over 18 years of experience working in all aspects of kosher supervision, from field inspections to directing the Vaad of Greater Seattle. The majority of his career has been with the Orthodox Union in New York where he has assisted many companies through the certification process. Today, Rabbi Brun-Kestler manages nearly 200 OU client portfolios in a broad range of industries. Rabbi Brun-Kestler has his rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Yisroel Belsky and holds an MA in English Literature from Northeastern University.