What Could Be Wrong?

May 4, 2004

When I was a child, shopping for a kosher candy bar was a simple matter. In those days, a candy bar was only a nickel. We would carefully review the ingredients printed on the back label. If there was no gelatin in the candy, we wisely concluded that the product was unquestionably kosher. No matter that the ingredients listed polysorbates and sodium stearoyl lactylate; we had no idea what they were. They sounded too technical to be non-kosher. We simply believed, “What could be wrong with a candy bar?” Today, our innocence is gone. You can no longer purchase a candy bar for five cents, and most people know that you cannot judge a candy by its wrapper. Nonetheless, while kosher consumers today are generally more knowledgeable than years ago, many myths still prevail. “What could be wrong with…” remains a common refrain among kosher consumers.


Some people still believe you can tell if a product is kosher by reading the ingredient declaration on the label. Many will concede that you cannot eat a candy bar without supervision but they will rely on this method for foods that seem to be straightforward and uncomplicated. In truth, it is generally not possible to gather enough information from the label to judge the Kosher status of an item, for a variety of reasons.

First, the product may be made from kosher ingredients but processed on non-kosher equipment. For example, canned beans and canned chick peas may be cooked in kettles used for pork and beans, tuna fish may be processed in retorts used for canned shrimp, and tomato products (canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato puree, tomato juice and ketchup) may share common lines with tomato and meat or cheese sauces.

Second, the USDA does not require the listing of certain processing aids, such as pan liners and oils that serve as release agents. Though not technically classified as ingredients, these items could nonetheless render the product non-kosher.
Finally, many ingredients can be kosher or non-kosher depending on their source of supply, and there is not enough descriptive information on the label to make a clear analysis. Following is a partial list of some food ingredients which are red flags. If any are listed on a label, the product requires a reliable Hechsher. (I have chosen these items because they are very common, but this is by no means an exhaustive list of all problematic ingredients.)

Wine, Grape Juice, Alcohol and Vinegar: Wine and grape juice are only kosher when produced with full-time rabbinic supervision. Alcohol can be derived from grape juice and therefore requires supervision as well. Vinegar is manufactured from alcohol. Most people are aware that wine vinegar requires supervision, but do not realize that any form of vinegar may contain wine-derived alcohol.
Vegetable Oil: Lard and tallow, which are animal products, are obviously not kosher, but vegetable oil can be problematic as well. This is because many companies manufacture animal and vegetable oil on the same equipment. As a matter of course, companies do not clean the machinery between animal and vegetable oils, because these oils are compatible with each other. It is therefore possible for “pure vegetable oil” to contain a significant percentage of animal oil.
Emulsifiers, (sometimes referred to by other names, such as mono-and diglycerides and polysorbates), Stearates, Stabilizers, Dough Conditioners and Glycerine: These are all made from either animal or vegetable sources and may be either kosher or non-kosher.