There is a general dictum in Halacha that we review issues relevant to each chag prior to it. As Tu B’Shvat is colloquially referred to as chag hailanot – the holiday of the trees – a review of some kashrus issues relating to eating dried fruits is most apropos.
There is a common misconception that dried fruits are just that – dried fruits – with nothing added, nothing taken away and nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, this is not the case and most dried fruits require a good kosher certification. In other cases, the consumer must take special precautions. As with any food item – the kosher consumer must take responsibility to check before eating!
Many are not “just fruit”. Many dried fruits you see in the market are not just dried fruit. They are fried (most banana chips) or they have been infused with syrup containing sweeteners, colors and flavors. When this is done, the fruit is often cooked in the syrup and then further processed through high temperature driers. This is very common with tropical fruits such as mango and papaya. Companies do this because the quality of the fruit is not always even or because this is what the marketplace has come to expect – sweet, bright colored and plump. Some other commonly infused fruits are pineapple, cherries, cranberries and strawberries.
Many other additives are common. For example, apples are often treated with stearates – which are animal or vegetable in origin. Most commercial (especially non-organic) dried fruits have preservatives – most commonly sulfur compounds. While not generally a kashruth problem, many people are allergic to them. Chopped or sticky fruits are often rolled or dusted with various types of flour – including rice and oat. It is not uncommon for the company to use the same drying trays for the chopped and whole fruits and this raises significant Passover questions. This is especially common with dates and figs. Domestic (US) raisins are generally not a problem as the oils used to prevent them from drying out are from kosher sources. Imported raisins, however, may be problematic.
While some fruits are labeled – and actually are – sun dried without coatings or additives, many others are oven or tunnel dried. Obviously, a company has much more control of the process overall when machine drying – however, this can create kashrus concerns. As mentioned above, some products commonly use flours or starches to prevent sticking. Others use release agents or oils to ensure easy removal from drying belts or pans or to help with general handling of the product. In some cases, there may be other equipment concerns as well. For example, the drying equipment used for fruits is essentially the same as that used for other dried products – including meats and fish. Freeze drying facilities may be very problematic as they commonly handle many types of foods.
As with any agricultural product, dried fruits are subject to insect infestation concerns. The consumer should look carefully at the fruit for signs of damage, webbing, or other indicators of insect presence. Certain fruits – notably whole dried figs and dates – sometimes harbor insects in their cavities and it is advisable to split these open and scan for insects prior to eating.