The advent of new technologies in the food industry has brought about significant challenges for kashrus specialists. The changes have been many, but this article will concentrate on one of the most interesting and unique subjects: Flavors. Everyone is familiar with this word: a short trip to any supermarket aisle reveals the fact that artificial or natural flavors are found on almost all food labels.
WHAT ARE FLAVORS?
First of all, we have to understand how flavors work. A word which is often used instead of flavor is aroma. The sense of smell plays a very important part in the appreciation of flavors, in understanding the subtle difference between one flavor and the next, for example between strawberry and apple. The sense of taste is also involved: the taste buds on our tongues can detect the presence of half a dozen or so basic tastes, including sweet, sour, bitter, salty and astringent. Taste buds offer a limited means of detection, however, compared with the human olfactory system, which can perceive thousands of different chemical aromas. Indeed, "flavor" is primarily the smell of gases being released by the chemicals you've just put in your mouth. The aroma of a food can be responsible for as much as 90 percent of its taste.
The act of drinking, sucking, or chewing a substance releases its volatile gases. They flow out of the mouth and up the nostrils, or up the passageway in the back of the mouth, to a thin layer of nerve cells called the olfactory epithelium, located at the base of the nose, right between the eyes. The brain combines the complex smell signals from the olfactory epithelium with the simple taste signals from the tongue, assigns a flavor to what's in the mouth, and decides if it's something we want to eat.
Quite understandably, the flavor industry is highly secretive. Its leading companies will not divulge the precise formulas of flavor compounds or the identities of clients. This secrecy is deemed essential for protecting both the reputations of the customer’s exclusive brands, as well as the flavor manufacturer’s competitive advantage.
Complex aromas, such as those of coffee and roasted meat, are composed of volatile gases from nearly a thousand different chemicals. The smell of a strawberry arises from the interaction of about 350 chemicals that are present in minute amounts. The quality that people seek most of all in a food -- flavor -- is usually present in a quantity too infinitesimal to be measured in traditional culinary terms such as ounces or teaspoons. The chemical that provides the dominant flavor of bell pepper can be tasted in amounts as low as 0.02 parts per billion; one drop is sufficient to add flavor to five average-size swimming pools. Therefore, the absolute quantity of the flavor additive is very small, so that it usually comes next to last in a processed food's list of ingredients and often costs less than its packaging.
The human craving for flavor has been a largely unacknowledged and unexamined force in history. For millennia royal empires have been built, unexplored lands traversed, and great religions and philosophies forever changed by the spice trade. In 1492 Christopher Columbus set sail to find a direct source for the popular seasonings of the time. Today the influence of flavor in the world marketplace is no less decisive. The rise and fall of corporate empires -- of soft-drink companies, snack-food companies, and fast-food chains -- is often determined by how their products taste.
The flavor industry emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, as processed foods began to be manufactured on a large scale. Recognizing the need for flavor additives, early food processors turned to perfume companies that had long experience working with essential oils and volatile aromas. The great perfume houses of England, France, and the Netherlands produced many of the first flavor compounds. In the early part of the twentieth century Germany took the technological lead in flavor production, owing to its powerful chemical industry. Legend has it that a German scientist discovered methyl anthranilate, one of the first artificial flavors, by accident while mixing chemicals in his laboratory. Suddenly the lab was filled with the sweet smell of grapes. Methyl anthranilate later became the chief flavor component in grape Kool-Aid.
The formulas that flavor companies produce can typically range from a dozen or so to close to a hundred ingredients or more. For reasons of cost it is convenient to limit the number of ingredients, as the more flavor notes that are offered, the larger the investment in the flavor. However, the larger the repertoire of flavor notes, the higher the quality, and the closer the product will be to the genuine flavor from its original natural source. Still, due to our lack of knowledge of the complex interplay of the entire range of flavor chemicals involved in any given flavor it is not possible to exactly duplicate the original flavor of any given actual food. Despite the sophisticated analytical techniques that chemists have developed, although products like garlic flavor and cheese flavor may contain flavor elements that are reminiscent of garlic and cheese, they are still not quite the real thing.
FLAVOR AND KASHRUS
The word flavor itself gives us a clear idea of why these products are used: to give flavor, a distinctive taste to the final products. The implications are that flavors are so central in the final product development, as well as being so influential even in extremely low concentrations, that the halachic (Jewish religious legal) concept of "Nossen Taam" ("gives flavor"), and "Davar Ha'avid Lita'ama" ("item made to influence flavor") must be applied. Therefore, flavors are not "Botul Beshishim" ("nullified by being less than 1 part in 60").
We understand that the use of kosher flavors is one of the primary factors in determining whether the final consumer product is kosher or not kosher.
There are three primary areas for concern in the manufacture of kosher flavors:
There are currently more or less 4000 ingredients which are generally considered as safe for human consumption (GRAS – Generally Regarded As Safe). The thousands of flavor materials (both natural and artificial) which can be combined to create different combinations of flavors can be divided into three sub-categories:
- Inherently non-kosher;
- Inherently kosher;
- The kosher status is determined according to different variables.
A. INHERENTLY NON-KOSHER
There are ingredients which by definition are not kosher, because they are derived from non-kosher sources. The list is actually quite limited.
Civet: produced from secretions from the anal gland of the civet cat.
Castoreum: from exudation of castor sacs of beavers (can be used as food additive, labeled as "natural flavor", among other uses, as an ingredient in vanilla flavor.
Ambergris: produced in the digestive system of sperm whales and regurgitated and collected for fragrances, or even food use.
Carmine: bright red coloring (E120) extracted from the cochineal insect by boiling it in water, and frequently used in foods such as candy, juices, yogurt and ice cream.
Musk: originally from secretions from glands of the male musk deer, but can also be produced from glandular secretions of other animals
B. INHERENTLY KOSHER
There are ingredients, both of natural or synthetic origin, which are generally considered as always kosher for year round use, from any source, or in the jargon of the kashrus world: “Group 1” ingredients. (However, it must be pointed out that there is no universally approved list of Group 1 ingredients, obviously, as every kashrus agency brings their particular expertise, emphasis, and understanding of the origins and production processes of various ingredients).
In general, however, this category includes non-problematic natural ingredients which are pure, such as sugar, salt, coffee and cocoa powder, as well as a large number of aroma chemicals of petrochemical origin,
such as propylene glycol (a common diluent or carrier), butyl formate (with a fruity, plum like flavor), allyl sulfide and allyl mercaptan (both with a garlic-like odor), or trichloroethylene (a solvent sometimes used in oleoresin extractions).
In recent years, however, the general trend has been to search for natural substitutes for petrochemicals where possible. Although from a health point of view this trend is understandable, it obviously creates new and more complex kashrus issues.
C. VARIABLE KOSHER STATUS
In the majority of cases, identical ingredients may or may not be kosher, depending first on the source of their original raw material, and then upon the kosher status of the manufacturing equipment upon which they are processed. Even inherently kosher raw materials will lose their kosher status if manufactured or processed on equipment which is also used for non-kosher products.
Identical Ingredients, Different Sources:
This ingredient is manufactured by the oleo-chemical industry, starting with oil, by splitting glycerin from fatty acids, which together are the primary elements of triglycerides, or edible oils, or as a by-product of the soap industry. The glycerin is used as a diluent, emulsifier or carrier. The fatty acids can be flavor chemicals on their own, or can be further reacted with other chemicals to form other compounds. Glycerin and fatty acids can be produced from either vegetable oils or petroleum, both of which are inherently kosher, or from animal fats, which are not.
Ethanol (Alcohol, Ethyl Alcohol, Alcohol Absolute):
Ethyl alcohol is produced during the distillation of petroleum, in which case it is synthetic and kosher, or by a process of fermentation of carbohydrates. The source of carbohydrates can be grains such as wheat (kosher, but chametz), corn (kosher, but kitnios), or other kosher vegetable sources such as potatoes, beet and cane sugar, or beet and cane sugar molasses. However, it is also manufactured from lactose concentrated from whey from cheese production, becoming a question of dairy status, and chalav akum (non supervised milk) or gvinas akum (non-Jewish cheese), or from the distillation of wine, and not kosher. Another product of grape origin is the natural reddish-purple color anthocyanin
, which is often extracted from grape skins remaining after the wine-making process.
The alcohol can than be used directly in flavors as a diluent and carrier, or in chemical reactions with other chemicals to form additional flavor components (most of the numerous “ethyl” compounds – ethyl butyrate, ethyl propionate, ethyl formate, etc.), or as a solvent in extractions. Additionally, during the distillation of crude ethanol, numerous volatile chemicals are removed in order to purify the alcohol. Many of these function as aroma chemicals in their own right, and therefore must originate from kosher alcohol in order to be themselves kosher.
Natural Plant Extracts:
Most essential oils are produced by the steam distillation of the relevant plant material, which can be the leaves, flowers, fruit, bark, seeds or root of the plant. This is generally not a kashrus problem. However, other botanical extracts are often obtained through solvent extraction. In such cases, the kashrus status of the extract will be determined by whether or not the solvent is kosher.
Various fermented yeasts are used as flavor components in savory type flavors. In addition to the kosher status of the original source of the relevant yeast strain, the nutrient substrate upon which the yeast is grown is composed of the necessary vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and proteins. These can consist of either kosher or non-kosher ingredients, which once again will determine the kosher status of the final yeast extract. A similar process is used in the manufacture of food grade enzymes, many of which find their way, in one manner or another, into compound flavors or their components.
Fruit and Vegetable Juice Concentrates and Powders:
Generally, ingredients consisting of pure fruit and vegetable material should be inherently kosher. However, the modern fruit juice extraction process is frequently enhanced by using enzymes. Enzyme treatment of the crushed fruit pulp can reduce the viscosity of the juice and aid in the flow of the juice from the pulp, thereby increasing the yield. Are the enzymes kosher or not?
Additionally, with the growing globalization of modern food industry in general, and the flavor industry in particular, in flavor houses in any part of the world you can frequently find juice concentrates and powders manufactured from fruits and vegetables originating in Israel. The necessity of complying with the particular Biblical laws regarding agricultural produce grown in the Land of Israel - trumos and maasros (tithes), shmita (Sabbatical year) and orlah (fruit of the first 3 years of growth) has significant kashrut implications which prevents unrestricted use of these otherwise seemingly innocuous ingredients.
The ingredient evaluation stage of the production of kosher flavors is critical.
The kashrus agency must have the necessary expertise to correctly assess the nature of each ingredient on the flavor formula list which it receives from the manufacturer, and even to be able to provide acceptable alternatives for ingredients which do not meet the agency’s kosher standards.
Incidentally, one flavor ingredient issue not so frequently discussed is the difficulty in determining the actual original source of any given flavor chemical. As mentioned earlier, the major international flavor houses maintain an extremely wide range of varied flavor materials, numbering in the thousands. Although the flavor companies not only blend final flavors, but usually also possess industrial chemical production facilities to manufacture some of the flavor chemicals which they use, no one company can manufacture all of the thousands of ingredients which it uses.
Therefore the flavor houses also buy and sell between themselves, as well as buying from specialized chemical manufacturers. Furthermore, they frequently repack and resell numerous chemicals on their own label which they have purchased from others. These resold chemicals often appear on the kosher certificate of the flavor house or of the specialized chemical manufacturer, who in these cases, is functioning only as a trader.
As a result, the final flavor manufacturer’s kosher certifying agency may be approving ingredients for use which would not be approved if the agency was aware of the actual source from which these ingredients originated.
Virtually none of the flavor manufacturers produce only kosher flavors. Kosher flavoring ingredients are frequently more expensive and less available then their non-kosher counterparts. This makes it significantly more cost effective for the manufacturer to also maintain a stock of non-kosher ingredients for the production of flavors for customers not requesting kosher certified flavors. In addition to the necessity of distinguishing between kosher and non-kosher ingredients to control their use, the implications for the kosher status of the manufacturing equipment are clear.
The ideal solution would be to have completely separate dedicated kosher production lines for the manufacture of kosher flavors and flavor chemicals. However, due to the cost of today’s complex, sophisticated manufacturing processes and systems, generally running into the millions of dollars, this is not a realistic option.
Therefore, it is necessary for the kashrus agency to coordinate with the manufacturer the steps to be taken in order to kosher the company’s standard production lines. This requires an in-depth examination of all relevant equipment, as well as detailed understanding of the processes themselves.
Equipment requiring koshering would include, for example, all sections used with heat, such as reactor vessels, spray-drying towers, pasteurizers, and other heat exchangers. Additionally, storage tanks where liquid ingredients have been stored for more than 24 hours also require koshering, as do vessels containing production processes ongoing for 24 hours or more, even if the process is cold.
In every area of kosher food manufacturing, the kosher certifying agency must make a determination of how intensive the rabbinical supervision of the relevant industrial plant must be. Are occasional visits sufficient, or is it necessary to have a continuous presence on site?
On the one hand, the sophisticated, computerized control system of the major flavor houses presents the possibility of complete traceability of all ingredients used, as well as the ability to record in detail all of the specific instances of use of each and every piece of equipment at the plant.
However, because of the high level of complexity in the flavor manufacturing process, many feel that there is a need for constant supervision on site at the flavor manufacturer, particularly at the time of kosher production.
Following are several relevant issues:
1. Ingredient reception:
In spite of computerized ingredient traceability data, the mashgiach (rabbinical supervisor) is a specialist in identifying all the necessary labeling, rabbinical symbols, etc., thus avoiding accidental reception of wrong materials.
Still, the manufacturer’s own requirement for traceability of ingredients has resulted in very detailed computerization of ingredient source data. This can also be leveraged to assist in the kosher accountability of ingredients.
It is nearly impossible to distinguish between the kosher and the non-kosher once the ingredient has been introduced into the plant, so one solution is the actual physical separation of the kosher approved ingredients from the non-kosher analogues in dedicated sections of the storage areas.
2. Control of ingredient usage:
Since most companies have both kosher and non-kosher ingredients, the mashgiach has to make sure that only the approved ingredients go into the kosher flavor which is being manufactured. This can be done either by verifying computer controlled ingredient dosing systems, or actually physically supervising and approving the manual dosing of approved ingredients at the time and location of the blending.
3. Control of final product packaging and labeling:
Supervised final products are often signed by the mashgiach to confirm use of kosher ingredients in kosher production vessels. Even when kosher symbols are applied mechanically and automatically, the mashgiach will be able to audit this to avoid mistaken labeling.
The subject of the manufacture of kosher approved flavor compounds is perhaps the most complex area of kosher supervision and certification. We have only briefly touched on several related issues, and we hope that this will be of some benefit to the readers.