Dried Fruit: Nature's Way of Wrinkling Gracefully
Rabbi Tzvi Rosen, Star-K Kashrus Administrator; Editor, Kashrus Kurrents
It has been called nature's candy. It's a sweet source of nutrition whose popularity is on the rise. Commensurate with its growing popularity is its demand. In today's global economy the dried fruit trade literally spans the entire globe. Apples from China, prunes from Bulgaria, figs from the Middle East, dates from Tunisia, or raisins from South America, and of course apples, peaches, plums, raisins, figs, and dates in the good old USA. Naturally, this growth presents a whole new set of challenges to kashrus agencies. How do you send a mashgiach to supervise date productions in Pakistan, raisin productions in Iran, or plum productions in Bulgaria?
Fruit is dried through a process known as dehydrating, which removes enough moisture from the fruit to retard the growth of bacteria and mold while retaining the great taste and nutrients of the fruit. The two most popular methods used to dehydrate fruit are sun drying and tunnel drying. The best, most cost effective and least problematic is to take advantage of the sun, the Ribbono Shel Olam's natural dehydrator.
Sun drying avoids many of the kashrus issues that are perhaps problematic in other methods, such as oven or tunnel dried fruits and vegetables. When a fruit is sun dried there are no kosher release agents or other processing aids to consider. However there is more to sun drying a fruit than just setting it out in the sun. Sun drying a fruit or vegetable properly requires great care and know-how. Every variety has its own protocol. Turkish apricots, for example, are dried where they are grown in the Malatya region of East Turkey. Farmers must exercise great care as the apricots dry. Sun burning, poor cutting, or mushy fruit ruins this cash crop. The fruit must be dried to a certain moisture level, gently sliced, and the pit removed. (Next time you eat an apricot look at the slit on the side.) The fruit is then dried further to 24% moisture level until it is ready to be collected and sent for further processing.
Sun drying appeals to the health-conscious consumer because few processing aids are used in the drying. However, sun dried fruit are not additive free. Pesticides are used to prevent infestation. In the case of light colored fruit such as apricots or golden raisins, sulfur dioxide is added to lighten the color. Some fruits use sodium metabisulfite as a preservative. An organic sun dried fruit, however, is truly additive free. It contains neither pesticide additives nor chemicals. A good example of an organic fruit is a natural apricot which is much darker in color and has a very different taste than its light colored, sulfured counterpart.
Another method of drying fruit is known as oven or tunnel drying. The benefit of this method is that the process includes a dehydrator that is climatically controlled and the fruit is not subject to the moods and pitfalls of Mother Nature. Nevertheless, the kosher consumer must be aware that inherent in tunnel dried fruit are more processing issues than in sun drying. It is not uncommon for oven dried fruit to use oils or release agents which require kosher certification. Tunnel dried raisins are dipped in hot water before drying. Dried cherries from Michigan, the cherry capital of the world, is an excellent example of tunnel dried fruit.
Most fruits, once dried, require no additional additives or sweeteners; others, however, do require the addition of processing aids or sweeteners. For example, some apricot companies flavor the wash water with fruit flavoring to give their apricots a unique taste. Potassium sorbate is added to prunes and sultana raisins. Pineapple, mango, and papaya from Thailand are sweetened with sugars and flavors. The kosher certified Thai dried fruit companies have kosher approval for year-round use.
At times, the dried fruit undergoes further processing known as glace, meaning that the dried fruit is cooked in sugar and honey glazed. Consumers might find glace orange peels from Italy on their supermarket shelves. Glace is a process whereby liquid sugar – glucose – is infused into the fruit to give it a bright sheen and longevity. Often, the fruits are colored to give a bright luster, hence the name glace. In one company, the red cherries were naturally colored with carmine, a lustrous natural red color derived from crushed coccineal beetles, which are not kosher. Obviously, synthetic colors do not present kashrus problems but carmine does.
Another method of shining fruit is to coat it directly with glucose. In one date company in Tunisia, the glucose was mixed with glycerine, a product that can be derived from an animal, vegetable or synthetic source, thereby requiring strict kosher certification. Today, some apricot producers in Turkey are flavoring whole apricot with apricot or peach flavorings that would require kosher certification.
Banana chips from the Philippines are another popular dried fruit. After drying, they are fried in vegetable oil and are flavored with flavorings. These products obviously require more rigorous supervision. It is interesting to note that in the Philippines only refined vegetable oil is used, minimizing the concerns about non-kosher oil. Nevertheless, kosher certified banana chip plants are monitored regularly.
When you hear the name Thompson, Currant, Sultana or Golden you think raisin. Raisins are probably the most globally marketed fruit on the market. They are not only grown in California but also Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Greece, Turkey and South Africa, as well. They often come into this country in boxes marked raisins. What is not apparent to the naked eye is that it is very common for raisin producers to coat the fruit with a minute amount of oil to keep the raisins from sticking. Some companies use vegetable oil such as soy or cottonseed; others may use specially formulated oils. Given the fear of foot and mouth disease there is a recent development to avoid using any food product or food ingredient that is derived from an animal source or that is genetically modified. Sometimes the manufacturer states that the oil is GMO free. This designation means that the vegetable seeds used to make the oil are free from any genetic modification. Typically, these oils, referred to as polishing oils, are kosher certified.
Certification of dried fruits imported from countries with widespread political unrest such as Pakistan and Iran, presents great challenges to companies seeking kosher certification. In the past, when "calm" prevailed, in order to guarantee the safety of a mashgiach it had been necessary for a bodyguard to accompany him during the inspection. Today it has become increasingly difficult for importers to convince kosher certifying agencies to allow any of their mashgichim to risk their lives by visiting these unstable areas!
One of the most important areas of the dried fruit market is kosher for Passover fruits and fruit gift packs. Kosher for Passover certification is unquestionably the most critical issue in dried fruit certification. Assuring that dried fruit is kosher for Passover has become a major challenge. Firstly, it is common practice for dried fruit producers to roll fruit pieces in flour to prevent them from sticking together. Rice flour is commonly used for apricots, oat flour for dates, and soy oil is typically used for raisins. These products obviously cannot be certified for Passover use. However, the question remains whether the non-floured dried fruit qualifies for kosher for Passover certification. Before certifying any fruit for Passover use great care must be taken to ensure that the non-floured whole dried fruit is adequately segregated from the floured pieces. Companies whose production equipment is less automated than their more modern counterparts pose fewer concerns. Many companies flour fruit pieces in a separate room or separate area in the plant. However, this does not always guarantee segregation. In one instance it was revealed that the flour shaker used to coat the date pieces created an oat powder cloud which spread and covered the packaging belts in an adjoining room. For year-round kosher certification this would not have presented a problem. However, for Passover certification the situation was disastrous. The solution was to package the kosher for Passover dates in a different packaging area of the plant.
In the past, we have had requests for kosher for Passover sugar sweetened pineapple from the Philippines. When we researched the project, we discovered that corn syrup was commonly substituted for liquid sucrose. The Rabbi told us that it would be very difficult to segregate sugar lines "...even if the mashgiach would live in the factory." Needless to say, we did not do a kosher for Pesach production.
In Argentina we faced a different kosher for Passover issue. A manufacturer wanted to import prunes that were specially produced for Passover use. In his facility only prunes were processed in drying ovens. The company took great pains to clean the ovens for this production and everything appeared to be in order...except for one point. Potassium sorbate was sometimes added to the prunes to regulate their moisture level. It is usually not difficult to purchase synthetic kosher for Passover potassium sorbate in the US. However the particular potassium sorbate this company used had been produced in China, which today has become a major player in the manufacture of chemical food ingredients. Typically, Chinese potassium sorbate is a derivative of corn or rice, which is a kitniyos, legumes, source. Consequently, this manufacturer's product was disqualified for Pesach use.
Packaging equipment used for both kosher for Passover and non kosher for Passover productions usually present problems for companies that want to make special kosher for Passover productions. It is there that the mashgiach has to contend with the various fruit and nut assortments, even those not intended for kosher for Passover certification. Some mixes blend snack crackers, candies and an array of salted, roasted, and fried items, that would require careful cleaning and supervision before certifying a kosher for Pesach fruit production.
As is the case with any fruit or vegetable found in nature's bounty, dried fruits are subject to the halachic pitfalls of insect infestation, toloyim. The need to control infestation and disease is a paramount concern for any fruit producer, dried fruit not withstanding. If an infested container was used for a shipment, that container would be rejected and the manufacturer would suffer a great loss. All dried fruit is subject to some insect control. Often when dried fruits come into the production facility, they are placed in a special chamber and are treated with methyl bromide, a gas used to kill any unwelcome insects. These insects are then separated from the fruit through processing. Furthermore, as an added precaution, if the fruit remains in the factory for 90 days, this treatment is repeated. Even if the storage period is less than 90 days the shipment is fumigated again before being sent overseas.
Organic dried fruit production which does not permit the use of chemical treatments and pesticides involves freezing the fruits rather than gassing them. Following the gas treatments, the fruits are ready for processing. Dried fruits, such as apricots, are washed, sized, and visually inspected for damages. They are also put under ultra violet lights to check for disease. During visual inspection, a light colored fruit has an advantage over a dark colored fruit. The color contrast between a healthy fruit and a damaged or infested area of the fruit is more obvious than the dark colored skin of a fig. They are inspected a second time on the manipulation tables before they are readied for packaging. Fruits that are totally damaged, discolored, or have signs of being infested, are rejected. The damaged parts of slightly damaged fruits are cut off. The remaining fruit is then used for fruit pieces in bakeries and for jam production.
Undoubtedly, with our greater understanding, we will certainly appreciate the efforts of all the hardworking men and women throughout the world who bring us these popular treats and allow us to truly appreciate the fruits of their labor.