Ingredient statements on product labels list all components from largest to smallest. Spices and flavors are normally listed toward the end and are relatively nondescript. While they are smallest in volume, spices and flavors are often the most crucial components, providing the distinct flavor profile of the products that we recognize and enjoy.
Spices and flavors account for less than 2% of annual food sales, but because of their key contributions to product flavors and fragrances, those sales are among the most essential components of prepared foods. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “Never has so much been owed by so many to so few.” Without these critical ingredients, many foods would be bland and unappealing.
All food preparers—from the housewife cooking traditional fare to the modern chef turning out culinary masterpieces—use spices and flavors when seeking to create a unique sensory experience. However, and precisely because of the unspecified nature of the listing, without reliable kosher supervision, it is impossible for a kosher consumer to accurately evaluate the kosher status of the flavor and spice additions.
Spices are a raw and minimally processed vegetable ingredient, while modern flavors are a highly complex and processed product (some containing thousands of components). Each has its own unique kashrut concerns. These issues are manifest both in the sourcing of raw materials as well as in the manufacturing processes.
For example, care must be taken that spices from Israel, such as dill, paprika, and parsley, have had the requisite terumot and ma’asrot separated. Absent that, the produce is considered tevel and is forbidden to be consumed. Furthermore, products from the shemittah year carry special restrictions. Unlike fresh produce with a limited shelf life, where the shemittah concern is limited to the year in which they were grown, spices present a unique challenge. Spices from a shemittah year can linger for quite some time, since dried spices can be stored and sold years after they are harvested. See our article on Shemittah here.
On Pesach specifically, certain spices like coriander, anise and cumin pose a chametz concern. Because of crop rotation techniques these plants are sometimes planted in fields where chametz grains grow. Oats, for example, (one of the five chametz grains), naturally grow near coriander plants. Because of the prevalence of chametzgrains mixed with these spices, the custom has evolved to refrain from eating them on Pesach.
So how is it that these aforementioned spices: cumin, anise, and coriander, can be found on local grocers’ shelves bearing the OU-P symbol?
Modern advances in spice-cleaning tools have made it possible for us to enjoy Passover-certified spices that previously were suspect enough to be avoided on Pesach. These tools include the triple spiral cleaner for cleaning round spices such as coriander; and the optical sorting machine, which can recognize an object’s color, size, shape, structural properties and chemical composition, and is the cleaning method of choice for cumin and anise. As long as these spices were properly cleaned—with samples checked by a mashgiach—they are accepted by the OU for Pesach.
Flavoring ingredients derived from animals, dairy, and wine pose rather obvious kashrut concerns all year round, but Pesach adds another layer of complexity to the mix. Because alcohols are ubiquitous in flavors— they are commonly used as carriers—it can be challenging to certify flavors as kosher for Passover. Even though grain-based alcohol does not typically present year-round kashrut concerns, it poses the greatest impediment toward Pesach certification: with very few exceptions, grains are either chametz or kitniyot.
In addition to ingredient issues, the process of manufacturing flavors and spices requires tight supervision on the part of the mashgiach. Equipment that was previously used in the manufacture of non-kosher blends, must be properly cleaned—and in some cases koshered as well—prior to their use in the production of kosher blends.
This may seem a bit extreme to the average kosher consumer or cook. As we mentioned above, spices and flavorings are present in foods in small amounts; some might assume that any lingering non-kosher ingredient or even chametz would become batel (nullified) in the larger quantities (percentages) of these foods.
Surprisingly, they do not. That is because of the aromatic and fragrant nature of spices and flavors. A non-kosher ingredient—even if present at minute quantities—would not be batel in a mixture, because it is avida l’taama (a flavor enhancer) and anything which is added to a mixture for taste does not become batel.
Generally, admixtures of forbidden substances become nullified at a ratio of less than 1:60 (batel b’shishim). This is because it can be assumed that such a tiny component will not add flavor to the product into which it is mixed and is of no consequence. This is not the case, however, for flavor extracts and spices whose taste can be detected at even lower ratios than 1:60.
As with all OU-P products, spices and flavors produced for Pesach follow tight hashgacha temidit (constant supervision) protocols. This ensures that both the ingredients that are used, and the equipment in which they are produced, meet the highest standards of Pesach kashrut.
The Spice Is Right
Very few foods have played as an impactful role in the history of mankind as have spices. The spice trade, and the effort to set up a reliable “spice route” between Europe and the Far East, were the impetus for expeditions across oceans, the colonization of distant lands, the building of world empires, and the fighting of numerous wars.
Spices such as cinnamon, cassia, cardamom, cloves, pepper, saffron and turmeric have been used to enhance the flavor, aroma, and even the color of food for centuries. There are references to spice in global historical literature as a primary ingredient in both food and medicine.
Tanach is replete with references to spices: spice merchants carried Joseph to Egypt, a special blend of spices (ketoret) was brought in the Temple; and the gift presented by the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon included many spices.
The compound flavor industry is a relatively late addition to the world of cuisine. It was born with the introduction of mass-processed foods and the promise of a consistent and complex flavor profile built of proprietary flavoring structures. The industry has grown from rather humble origins in the mid-nineteenth century, when processed foods first came to prominence, into a $1.5 billion industry that churns out 10,000 new flavors a year.
Both the spice and flavor industries are essential for one reason: for products to meet with any commercial success, the foods must be consistent and pleasing to the palate.