Glucosamine (glucose + amine) is a sweet-tasting amino sugar known to benefit those who suffer from osteoporosis, as it supports the structure and function of joints. It is commonly sold in tablet form, a ready-to-mix powder, or included in a nutritional bar. Since it is manufactured from the “soft” shells of shellfish such as lobsters and crabs, one would wonder how it could possibly be considered kosher.
The only sea creatures considered kosher are those that possess both fins and scales – such as tuna, salmon, herring, and mackerel. Since shellfish lack both fins and scales they are not kosher. In addition, if an animal is not kosher, no part of the animal may be eaten. Not only are the edible meats and fats non-kosher, but even the skins and bones, parts of the animal that we generally do not view as food, are considered non-kosher as well. This is because even skins and bones can be cooked and processed into edible ingredients such as collagen and gelatin. The same is true of shellfish. Even the shells of crabs and lobster, although we generally don’t think of them as food, are considered non-kosher; they too can be cooked to form soup stock, and in modern food engineering these shells can be further processed into nutritional ingredients. If these ingredients can be consumed, they are also considered non-kosher.
It would certainly seem that glucosamine is edible. If so, would it not follow that glucosamine made from the shells of lobsters and crabs be non-kosher? It depends.
The very hard shells of sea creatures such as oysters and clams, since they are in no way suitable for food use, are not viewed as non-kosher. In fact, there was a time when it was common to make small utensils such as spoons from oyster shells (mother of pearl). and even today caviar spoons are still made from oyster shells. Since these shells are completely inedible, they cannot be viewed as non-kosher.
If used in a medicine pill, since a pill itself is not edible, in this context we view the glucosamine as inedible, and it is permitted from any source. However, if the glucosamine is added to a food, or a flavored powder, it would be considered non-kosher. Moreover, factory equipment that processed this glucosamine, even if it was only an ingredient in the production, will need to undergo a kosherization before it can be returned to kosher service. This will usually include a thorough cleaning of the equipment, and after a dormant period of 24 hours, the equipment is filled or flushed with boiling water. The exact nature of the kosherization would depend on many factors and should be arranged in consultation with the rabbinic coordinator (RC) who handles the account or the rabbinic field representative (RFR) who visits the plant.
Nowadays, consumers can also buy vegetarian glucosamine. Glucosamine can also be synthesized from grains such as corn or wheat through a fermentation process, as well as from fungus. The fungus Aspergillus niger grows an outer shell similar to that of shellfish and is rich in chitin, which is converted into glucosamine. Since fungus by definition is kosher, this chitin shell can be harvested to produce a kosher vegetarian form of glucosamine.
For example, OU Kosher certifies the Regenasure brand of vegetarian glucosamine produced by Cargill Corporation. In addition to being kosher and pareve, Regenasure is certified OU Kosher for Passover as well. OU Kosher glucosamine is available in two forms, glucosamine sulfate and glucosamine hydrochloride (HCL). For consumers who wish to buy medicinal tablets free of any shellfish, OU Kosher also certifies Freeda Glucosamine™ and Maxi Health Veggie Glucosamine™ tablets.
RABBI ELI GERSTEN, OU RABBINIC COORDINATOR AND RECORDER OF OU POLICY, IS A REGULAR CONTRIBUTOR TO BTUS. HIS STORY BEHIND KOSHER SOAP APPEARED IN THE SPRING 2017 ISSUE