A biochemist takes a second look at “natural” foods
Consumer demand for all-natural foods began to skyrocket about [in the 1980’s]. The outcome today [in the 90’s] is very apparent: an increasing availability of natural foods in supermarkets and a proliferation of health foods stores.
In the mind of many kashrut-minded consumers, this move to natural foods is all to the good. They believe that wholesome equals natural, which must equal kosher, and thus should not require hashgachah. The consumer uses this reasoning in reverse—if a product has a kosher symbol, it is likely to be natural, so it can be bought with confidence (this perception is one of the many causes for the amazing expansion of the kosher market). In fact, both views suffer from serious misconceptions. Let us examine why.
The use of the word “natural” on a food item is very strictly regulated by the FDA. Natural ingredients carry a hefty financial premium, so there are strong incentives to cheat. In this case, however, replacing a “natural” ingredient with one derived from petrochemicals is good for kashrut. The term “natural” applies to foods comprised of only natural ingredients. In general, “natural” refers to ingredients extracted from animals, from plants, or from microbes; or to ingredients produced by animals, by plants, or by microbes: for example, chemicals produced by microbial fermentation. Natural ingredients may also be the product of chemical or biochemical reactions that use natural raw materials as active components.
Let us consider briefly several processes that the food industry uses to produce natural ingredients, and the kashrut problems that they present. I will then give examples of areas of food production where these ingredients may be found.
Natural ingredients may be produced by many different means. The most obvious sources are direct extractions from animals or plants. Castoreum and civet are well-known animal extracts. They are extracted from special organs of the beaver and of the civet cat. In spite of their rising price, those ingredients are still used in flavors, usually in coffee or brandy flavorings. Plant extracts may also present problems. Extraction is usually made with alcohol, and glycerin is sometimes added to the extract. Furthermore, the process may involve maceration (kovush) for more than 24 hours. This process is the halachic equivalent of cooking in utensils of unknown kashrut status. Some of the most widely-used natural chemicals in the food industry are derived from vegetable fats such as coconut and palm kernel. The nature of those fat derivatives does not present any problems; however, it is more than likely that in the absence of kosher supervision, production will have taken place on joint equipment with animal fats and transportation in non-kosher tankers.
There is a popular misconception that “natural” means unprocessed.
Another method of producing natural ingredients is by way of chemical reactions using natural raw materials. Food chemists demonstrate much ingenuity in duplicating the natural counterparts of heretofore petrochemically-derived ingredients. Examples of such natural raw materials include cheese, red blood cells, hydrolyzed gelatin, and meat. Many natural flavor chemicals are produced through a heat reaction between sugars and protein derivatives. This process often uses meat as a base. Even when the ingredients are kosher, that type of equipment is commonly used for processing non-kosher items.
In a natural food, colors also must be natural. The problem in substituting synthetic colors with natural ones is especially acute in the red colors. At this time, carmine and grape skin extract are often used for this purpose. Carmine is derived from the extract of ground up insects, and grape skin extract is extracted from skins left over after wine production.
Fusel oil is a natural by-product of alcohol distillation. Many natural chemicals can be derived from it. The kashrut problem lies in the origin of the fusel oil, which may be a wine by-product.
Most natural ingredients today are produced by way of biotechnology. This includes enzymes, cultures of microorganisms, tissue cultures, and genetic engineering—singly or in various combinations.
Enzymes are used either to break down natural raw materials into specific “natural” chemicals, or to synthesize new natural chemicals when provided with natural starting materials. The problem with enzymes is, in some cases, their animal origin. More frequently, enzymes are produced by microorganisms. The concern, then, is regarding the kashrut status of the many components of the nutritional broth used for the growth of the microorganism.
Microorganisms also produce a great variety of chemicals called fermentation chemicals. Many of today’s most commonly-used chemicals are produced this way. The kashrut concerns are the same as those presented by enzymes.
Finally, genetic engineering is another tool in the race to produce natural ingredients. In some cases, genetic engineering can work in favor of kashrut, as, for example, when the gene for producing animal rennet was transferred from calf DNA to microorganisms’ DNA. This enabled microorganisms to produce kosher rennet with most of the characteristics of calf rennet. In other cases, genetic engineering can produce new potential kashrut problems. For example, carotene is either manufactured through chemical synthesis or extraction from plants. Neither cases presents kashrut concerns. Recently, the gene for carotene synthesis was transferred to a bacterium. We now have carotene produced via fermentation, thereby presenting the same kashrut question as other fermentation products. This practice of taking the gene for a natural product and putting it in a micoorganism to produce it more cheaply, is being repeated with an increasing number of ingredients with well-established, innocuous kashrut status.
Animal fats are, of course, natural…
The kashrut problems posed by natural ingredients are a serious concern because those ingredients may be found in all areas of food production. The great majority are used as flavor chemicals. Flavors are included in practically all processed foods; even in bread (yeast flavor), cheese, or in wine (oak chips extract, to impart instant aging). Consequently, all-natural foods will require all-natural flavors, which in turn will require all-natural flavor chemicals. These chemicals may have synthetic sounding names such as 2,4 decadienal or phenylacetic acid. They may, however, have been produced from irremediably non-kosher natural raw materials.
Bakeries are discontinuing the addition of potassium bromate to their flour because of a possible cancer concern. Increasingly, this industry is making use of enzymes as baking aids. Benefits include improved dough handling, whiter flour, better crust, and longer freshness. Some of those enzymes may be animal-derived, but all of them require supervision. Likewise, preservatives also have to be natural. These include calcium and sodium propionates and erythorbates and all fermentation chemicals.
The dairy industry also uses several fermentation-derived or enzyme-derived chemicals to enhance the flavor of their products, including butter and cheese. Enzymes are added to some cheeses to speed up the aging process. Soft drinks and candies require a whole spectrum of colors. This is where carmine and grape skin extract come in, and where (from a kashrut point of view), artificial colors are preferable to natural ones. The vitamin fortification of all-natural foods may also be a concern because of fermentation or animal-derived vitamins.
Natural foods sold in health food stores also require scrutiny. There is a popular misconception that “natural” means unprocessed. From the examples above, this is obviously not so. Even innocuous-sounding products may present problems and should be under reliable and knowledgeable supervision. Herbal teas require supervision because of added flavors, and because gelatin is sometimes used as a carrier. Granulated teas require supervision because they may have been spray-dried on non-kosher equipment. All-natural, all herbal candies require supervision because of their release agents, which may be animal-derived. Any granular, powdered, or sticky product (such as some dried fruit) may be mixed with stearates as anticaking/free-flowing/antisticking agents. Stearates are often derived from animal fats, and, of course, animal fats are natural. Natural vitamins may be derived from non-kosher sources such as liver and fish oils. Even a mineral such as calcium carbonate can be sold as “natural” when it comes from oyster shells.
The word “natural” should be like a red flag…
We can conclude, then, that in no respect is “natural” to be confused either with unprocessed or with kosher. Quite to the contrary, the word “natural” should be like a red flag, alerting us to be especially careful in checking for reliable supervision.
Dr. Leff is a chemical consultant to the kashrut industry. Her article, “Biotechnology, the Modern Food Industry and Kashrus” appeared in the summer 1994 issue of Jewish Action.