Once in a very long while, a letter of the Sefer Torah is written larger than the rest. Two examples of this are the ד’ of שמע ישראל…אחד and the ר’ of לא תשתחוה לאל אחר. One interpretation is that the Torah is emphasizing that we must be especially careful when reading and pronouncing these words. The difference in spelling between אחד and אחר is only the ד’ and ר’, two very similar letters. Yet the difference in meaning between the two is significant.
In everyday language it is not uncommon to encounter similar sounding words used for very different items. Food ingredients are by no means impervious to this phenomenon, and there are many similar sounding ingredients that in fact have little in common. For the kosher professional, it is prudent to be familiar with the instances that have kosher implications.
The case of lactic acid and lactose is a classic, and well-known example. Lact- in Latin refers to milk, and indeed lactose is the sugar that naturally occurs in milk. (-ose at the end of a word indicates a sugar, such as sucrose, fructose, etc.) Commercial lactose is derived from milk, or whey, and is certainly milchig (although only mid’rabbanan). Lactic acid, on the other hand, is not dairy. Its name originates from the fact that in nature, lactic acid is produced by the bacteria in milk. These bacteria consume the milk sugar (lactose) and produce lactic acid. (This acid production is what makes ‘spoiled’ milk sour.) Commercially, however, it is produced via a more economical fermentation process. A culture of these bacteria is introduced to an inexpensive sugar, such as glucose, and they produce the lactic acid from this pareve medium. One could produce lactic acid from dairy feedstock, by feeding the bacteria lactose (see Rabbi Z. Blech’s article “New Wheys to Produce Lactic Acid”, Daf HaKashrus Vol. 2, pg. 3 – A-17), but in practice this is generally not done.
Once the issue of lactose and lactic acid has been sorted out, let us now examine compounds such as calcium lactate, often found in vitamin enrichments. Are they from lactic acid (pareve) or from lactose (dairy)? A useful rule to remember is that chemicals with the suffix –ate often are in the chemical category of ‘salts’ . Salts are generally formed by an acid-base reaction . We can therefore conclude that calcium lactate is formed from a calcium-containing base (such as calcium hydroxide or calcium carbonate) and lactic acid. Lactose, which is neither an acid nor a base, plays no role in the reaction, and calcium lactate is thus pareve.
Lactose is dairy, and lactic acid, while commercially available as pareve, at least can be found in dairy products (i.e., when milk sours). In contrast, lactones have absolutely nothing to do with milk. Lactone is the name of a general category of organic compounds that are often used as flavor chemicals. While some may have kosher concerns (fermentation products and fatty acid derivatives), they are all invariably non-dairy.
Valerian and valeric acid is a good example of Group 1/Group 3 similar sounding ingredients. Valerian is an essential oil extracted from the root of a botanical, and is a Group 1 item. On the other hand, valeric acid (in some of its forms) comes from fusel oil, a byproduct of ethanol fermentation. Since one of the fermentation feedstocks can be grape pulp, fusel oil and valeric acid are not Group 1’s.
Glycerol (glycerin), glycol, and glycine are three similar sounding names with three very different meanings. Glycerin (chemically known as glycerol or 1,2,3 propane triol) is, of course, a very kosher sensitive ingredient, as it can come from animal fat (see Rabbi Mordechai Kuber’s “Glycerine: It Could Be Treif!” in Daf HaKashrus 2:8, pg. 16 ). Glycol is a chemical term that refers to an organic compound that has a double alcohol (‘OH’) group. Many types of glycols are Group 1’s, but as this word refers to a broad chemical category, each specific example must be reviewed. Glycine is a sweet tasting amino acid that is produced from innocuous ingredients (formaldehyde, ammonia, and hydrogen cyanide) and is acceptable without supervision.
Inositol and inositate is another example. Inositol is a specialty sugar derived from molasses, and has few kosher concerns other than it can contain stearates as a flow agent. Inositates are fermentation products used in savory flavors and require proper supervision.
The need for precision is important even in non-chemical ingredients as well. For example, we recently discovered that the whey cream of a mozzarella-producing dairy was being accepted as kosher, based on a Letter of Certification that listed both whey and cream from that source as certified kosher. The assumption was made that if the cream is kosher and the whey is kosher, then the whey cream is also most likely kosher. The fallacy with this is that the whey cream comes from treif cook water. The treif cook water, before being disposed of, must have its cream removed, as the fat will foul the septic system. This treif cook water is blended into the whey cream. The other products are certified, as the company spent a great amount of resources to ensure that their mozzarella cook water is kept separate from their whey and fresh cream. Thus, this company’s whey is indeed acceptable, while its whey cream is not!
The list of examples can go on and on. The underlying theme is that detailed verification is crucial. Assumptions can be dangerous!