Nutrition Trends: Kosher in the Mainstream

The perception of higher quality is pushing kosher - a Hebrew word meaning 'fit' - well into the mainstream.

By Eric Schellhorn

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Thomas Morrell, a supermarket manager in Des Moines, Iowa, is a devout Christian, yet when he buys groceries for his family, he often seeks out foods that have kosher certification. “The kosher food I buy, I buy because it has a higher quality to it,” he says. “Taste, freshness and the safety aspect are also a part. I know what a lot of the procedures are, for instance, having a rabbi there for extra inspections. And there’s the cleaner conditions in processing — that’s the big one for me.”

Down the road from Morrell, a large percentage of the customers at Maccabee’s delicatessen and grocery are not Jewish. “Kosher means quality, but also many of our non-Jewish customers say eating kosher makes them feel spiritual; it’s food of faith,“ says Yossi Jacobson, Iowa’s senior rabbi and the head of Chabad Lubavitch of Iowa.

SEAL OF APPROVAL

There are hundreds of different “hechshers,” that is, kosher seals in use all over the world. Many states, and even larger cities, have their own “va’ad,” or kosher oversight group. Different organizations apply different levels of strictness in their adherence to kosher laws, so research is in order to find the kosher organization that best fits your needs.

Kashrut Certification

The task of keeping kosher is greatly simplified by widespread kashrut certification. Products that have been certified as kosher are labeled with a mark called a hekhsher (from the same Hebrew root as the word "kosher") that ordinarily identifies the rabbi or organization that certified the product. Approximately three-quarters of all prepackaged foods have some kind of kosher certification, and most major brands have reliable Orthodox certification.
It’s apparent kosher isn’t “just a Jewish thing.” If that were the case, the market for such products would be, at best, a niche play. According to recent figures, of the 5.2 million Jews in the U.S. only about 20 percent keep kosher.

Menachem Lubinsky, president and CEO of Lubicom, a Brooklyn, N.Y., marketing consulting firm, understands. “People believe kosher is better — it’s like a ‘Good Housekeeping’ seal of approval,” he notes. “Consumers today feel they’re largely on their own. The USDA can’t police everything, and there are 15,000 new food products released every year. There’s reassurance associated with the fact that there is another set of eyes on kosher products.”

According to Lubicom, orthodox Jews represent a small segment of the overall kosher-buying population, which, by the firm’s reckoning, now comprises at least 10.5 million consumers. Many kosher foods also meet the religious dictates of Seventh-Day Adventists, as well as Muslims who observe the tenets of Halal, the Islamic dietary laws. And the fact that meat and dairy products are never mixed, necessitating clear labeling as well as innovative nondairy recipe creation, makes kosher products attractive to lacto-vegetarians and the nation’s 50 million lactose-intolerant consumers.

But even patronage by those groups doesn’t fully account for the category’s 15-percent annual growth rate and $175 million in 2003 U.S. sales. That year, a survey by Mintel Consumer Intelligence revealed 28 percent of U.S consumers had purchased kosher products. Of that group, 35 percent indicated they did so for “taste” or “flavor,” while only 8 percent reported they kept kosher all year long.

In other words, kosher’s appeal extends far beyond a small subset of U.S. consumers. “That,” says Lubicom’s Lubinsky, “has everything to do with the perception of quality.”

Christophe Hervieu, director of marketing for Osem USA, an Israeli kosher foods manufacturer owned by Nestlé, echoes the assessment: “Kosher products are looked at by non-Jewish people as being of a higher quality because there is a rabbi’s supervision,” he says. “If a product has kosher certification, they see there’s been extra effort at the quality-control level.”

Yaakov Luban, executive rabbinic coordinator at the Orthodox Union (OU) (the largest of several hundred kosher-certification agencies) is quick to caution the “kosher-is-better” mindset invites some misconceptions. He stresses that the OU does not promote the idea something kosher is always better or the quality of kosher ingredients is always superior.

Abeles & Heymann Gourmet Kosher Provisions is riding the wave of consumer confidence in kosher products. The firm recently rolled out a line of bison items to complement its beef-based processed meats line.
Defining Characteristics

So what exactly does kosher mean? And how do kosher products differ from non-kosher ones?

The short answer is, kosher is the original “you are what you eat” model. The meaning of "kosher," which is also a homonym for the Hebrew word  for "connection" comes from the biblical implication that the foods we eat, by being "fit," can enhance or detract from our connection to a higher power. Food that is kosher — “fit,” or “proper” — is sourced, prepared and served in compliance with laws derived primarily from the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) and the Talmud (the rabbinical interpretations and clarifications of the laws of Torah begun over 2,000 years ago), as well as the works of successive centuries of Jewish scholarship.

Pork is forbidden, as is meat from carnivorous animals and scavengers as well as water-dwelling creatures without fins and scales. Kashrut also requires complete separation of meat and dairy products, right down to the utensils, equipment, containers and surfaces used in preparation and packaging. Items that have come into contact with non-kosher food may not be used with kosher food. Wine and grape juice made by non-Jews may not be consumed.

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