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Reading the Ingredients

Why do I need to check for a reliable hechsher? Can't I just read the ingredients?

by Rabbi Dovid Bendory, 6 Kislev 5766 (6 December 2005)

One of the most common misconceptions regarding kashrut is that if the ingredients don't contain anything nonkosher then the product is kosher. Below are three examples that illustrate the kinds of mistakes this can lead to. (Note: these examples intentionally obscure information regarding the involved product. This is because companies divulge proprietary information to kosher certifying authorities in order to receive kosher certification. Such information is protected under non-disclosure agreements.)

Example #1: Unidentifiable Chemicals

Here are the ingredients from a common household cereal:

Whole Grain Wheat, Raisins, Wheat Bran, Cane Sugar, Corn Syrup, Salt, Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour. Vitamins and Minerals: Reduced Iron, Niacinamide, Zinc Oxide, Vitamin B6, Vitamin A Palmitate, Riboflavin, Thiamin Mononitrate, Folic Acid, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Magnesium Stearate.

Is it kosher? It is impossible to know. "Stearates" like Magnesium Stearate may come from animal products or from vegetable products. Go read your cereal boxes and baked goods that are fortified with vitamins and minerals and see how many of them contain some kind of stearate. How many other chemicals are there that could come from animal products?

Example #2: "100% Natural," "Organic," and "Vegan" do not mean "Kosher".

Is the following "100% Natural, Organic, Vegan Lemon Yogurt" kosher?

Ingredients: Organic Soy Milk, Live Yogurt Cultures, Pure Organic Cane Sugar, Natural Lemon Flavoring.

Well, once upon a time, that yogurt had a proper kosher certification. Then the product lost its certification. Why? What is the problem ingredient? It's the "Natural Lemon Flavoring." What is the source of the "natural lemon flavoring" for this "100% Natural, Organic, Vegan Lemon Yogurt"? It must be lemons, right? Wrong. Beaver musk glands. It turns out that beaver musk glands are so darn lemony that a teeny tiny drop will make an entire vat of yogurt naturally lemony. Believe it or not, the lemon flavor from beaver musk glands can be less expensive to use than lemon. And beavers, being free-ranging and organic, are indeed 100% natural, right? (By the way, the amount of beaver extract was small enough that the USDA still considered the product eligible for the "Vegan" label without qualification. But that doesn't make it kosher.)

Example #3: Just what are we eating?

L-cysteine is an ingredient in many soy foods and herbal supplements. It's a naturally occuring amino acid used as an additive to boost the protein content of various foods. You can find it in some grain products and in many meat substitutes made from soy and vegetable proteins. Where does L-cysteine come from? The most common source is human hair. But where does all the hair come from? The most common source of human hair for industrial and chemical use is from temples of idol worship in India, where it is common for women to offer their hair to the idols. Kosher? Sorry, I don't think so.

In short, the kosher certification process today is extremely complicated because modern food production is just that — production. Food is produced like any other industrial good in a factory. We have absolutely no idea what we are eating unless we check every ingredient, and this is exactly what the kosher certification process does.

That's why Torah Jews only rely on products with a reliable hechsher — no matter what the ingredients say.

Questions to ponder:

See also:

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