Rabbi Tzvi Rosen, Star-K Kashrus Administrator; Editor, Kashrus Kurrents
Unquestionably, the one area of food ingredients that
attests to the global nature of the food industry is the spice trade. The Torah
is replete with reference to the spice traders who carried Yosef to Egypt to the ketores, that was fundamental to the avoda in
the Bais Hamikdash. The spice commerce
has thrived from the beginning of commercial trade. New World exploration forged forward fueled
with the hope of finding shorter spice routes to the Far East. Centuries earlier, Marco Polo witnessed
flourishing spice trade first hand, during his travels to the Orient. Spice empires thrived as the European powers
deepened their trade with the Far East. Today, spice trading continues to
prosper. Spices hail from Albania to
Zanzibar and arrive to these shores in many different forms as whole spices,
spice extracts, oleoresins and essential oils. What are the kashrus issues facing this fascinating
ancient/contemporary industry? Have
modern processing techniques simplified or complicated matters?
What are spices? Are spices and herbs synonymous?
The term spice is derived from the Latin "species aromatacea",
meaning fruits of the earth
and are defined as an "aromatic, pungent vegetable substance used to
flower food". Charlemagne defined
herbs as "a friend of physicians and the praise of cooks". Herbs are
defined as a "plant without woody tissue that withers and dies after
flowering". The FDA considers
spices and herbs as one and the same and categorically defines culinary spice
and herbs as an aromatic vegetable that gives flavor and seasoning to food
rather than nutritional value. Spice
sources include bark, bulbs, buds, flowers, fruit leaves, roots, seeds and
plant tops. Halacha categorically classifies herbs and
spices as products which are flavoring agents for food.
Below is a list of some popular spices obtained from different plant parts:
Capers, Capsicum (Cayenne - Red Pepper), Mace, Nutmeg, Paprika, Black Pepper,
Anise China Star, Caraway, Cardamom, Celery, Coriander, Cumin, Dill Seed/Dill
Weed, Fennel, Fenugreek, Mustard, Oregano, Poppy, Sesame
Bay, Chives, Marjoram, Oregano, Parsley, Sage, Tarragon, Thyme
Horseradish, Turmeric Whole Spices
much of the imported spices are shipped to spice facilities in the same fashion
that has been done from the beginning of the spice trade. Spices are picked by
hand, dehydrated, placed in burlap bags, and shipped to their destinations in
their whole natural dried state. Most
spice dehydration is done in the field, known in the spice trade as sun drying.
Other spices are air dried in hot air
drying tunnels. Drying reduces moisture content making it less costly to ship,
and reduces the likelihood of the development of mold.
Much of the rigorous processing of the modern day spice house centers around the cleaning and decontamination of any undesirable
adulterants. First and foremost spices have to be cleaned. The spices pass through metal detectors and de-stoners
to remove foreign material or debris. They
are then sifted through many sifting screens so that any small contaminants or
insects will be ferreted out. This
process is only the initial stage of present day spice house cleaning.
Spices often have to be micro biologically cleaned as well. To this end, one of three processes can be
employed. Whole seeds and berries are cleaned through steam distillation. Another treatment employs ethylene oxide gas. The third method is radiation. These processes generally rid the spices of
almost 100% of bacteria, yeast, molds, insects and other forms of living
matter. Due to these aggressive cleaning
processes, the problem of insect infestation in spices dehydrates is virtually
nonexistent. Any residual insect
fragments that were not removed by cleaning, screening and fumigation would be Batul. Since drying and cleaning equipment are used
exclusively for spice productions, cross usage of the equipment for other
products is not a concern.
Spices from Israel
imported from Eretz Yisroel
present different kashrus
concerns. Modern cultivation techniques
have given indigenous spices, spices
that have grown in its natural country of origin, competition from
countries that have similar climate which can produce the same spices as their
indigenous counterparts. This has given rise to spices and herbs growing in all
areas of the world.
Israel is a major supplier of onion, garlic and bay leaves. Two imports not linked to spices are tomatoes
and peppers, and these products require reliable kosher certification, ensuring
that terumos and maasros were separated. Kashrus
Agencies are aware that Israel is a major supplier of parsley and paprika.
Furthermore, some Israeli companies play a significant role in the dehydration
of spices; hence, the country of origin becomes a major issue, and the
separation of terumos and maasros
in addition to other mitzvos hateluyos ba’aretz, such as shmitta, is of paramount concern. It is crucial that the country of origin be
determined when giving kosher certification to a spice company. When a consumer purchases a spice product and
the country of origin is not
stated, one can purchase spices without worry, based on the concepts of Safek Derabanan LeKula and
Holchin Achar Harov.
has to be taken regarding spices grown during the year of Shmitta. Produce grown during shmitta are
vested with Kedushas Shvi’is, the sanctity of the year of Sabbatical
rest. Produce grown during shmitta may sometimes be eaten but cannot be sold in
its typical commercial manner, nor can produce and spices vested with kedushas shvi’is be
exported. Some Israeli companies that
are certified during the non-shmitta years with reliable mehadrin
certification will drop the mehadrin hechsher during the year that shmitta
produce is grown and harvested and only certify the produce and spices with the
regular non-mehadrin certification. The company will also put a disclaimer on the
box stating that the company is kosher certified by a kosher hechsher that
relies on the heter mechira,
i.e. selling the land to an aino Yehudi during the shmitta
year, thereby divesting the land from its sanctified status.
STAR-K and major kashrus
organizations within the U.S. do not use products and ingredients that rely on
the heter mechira. Since packaging for shmitta
and non-shmitta year production appears the
same, with either the presence or absence of the mehadrin
hechsher, mashgichim must be very vigilant
with ingredient inventories, especially those of spice companies. A wise rule of thumb is to avoid these issues
and pre-plan with the companies by finding alternate suppliers; otherwise, pre-shmitta inventories must be built up.
Is it correct
to assume that all spices that are sold in the spice and seasoning section of
the supermarket are additive free?
The answer is not always. True, most
spices that state that they are 100% pure are indeed pure. However, even in
many pure spices, in order to reduce caking or moisture, spices' natural
nemesis, anti-caking additives are often added to help keep the spice dry and
Typically, a silica gel (sodium silicate), is added as
an anti-caking agent. Silica gel is a kosher anti-caking agent. Although it is not as common as it once was, calcium
stearate, magnesium stearate and/or potassium stearate have also been used as
effective anti-caking agents. Stearates
are typically derived from non-kosher fats. Stearic acid can also be derived
from vegetable sources. Therefore, even
pure spices require careful scrutiny. Typically,
pure spices list anti-caking agents in their ingredient declaration. However,
if a pure spice does not list anti-caking agents on the ingredient panel, one
can assume that it is not present.
Not all powders that
come in little bottles in the spice section are pure spices. For instance, curry powder does not come from
curry spice. Curry powder is a spice
blend. American curry powder is a blend of eight spices. In India, curry powder changes from province
to province. Curry powder can have
hundreds of variations. Similarly, chili
powder is a spice blend whose ingredient compositions change with the food
applications. Chili powder is not only
used in chili; it is used in sauces, frankfurters, meats and pickles. There are many tricks that a spice blender
uses; consequently, spice blends generate a plethora of kashrus
considerations and concerns.
There are no hard and fast rules to a spice blend. As with flavors, spice blending
is very much an art form. Liquid flavors such as red wine vinegar, sherry and
brandy can be added to the blend, and even liquid ingredients can retain their powdery
nature with the addition of bulking agents.
Furthermore, flavor dehydrates such as
dehydrated chicken, meat, and cheese powders can be added to the blend. These
added flavoring agents which are not kosher can be generically listed as
natural flavors. Each spice formulation
has to stand on its own merit, and each formula has to be submitted to the
certification agency for review and certification. Furthermore, spice blending equipment such as
ribbon blenders and screen filters have to be checked for their cleanliness to
make sure that no residual non-kosher spice blend remains are left behind. Sometimes, ribbon blenders have metal
detectors that are difficult to clean. Another
way to create a dry blend is to spray dry the formulation. If a contract spray dryer is used for other
products, the kosher status of the spice blend can be compromised.
Today, ribbon blenders have the capacity to
inject steam and actually cook spices in the blender. For example, a spice company actually steams
chili peppers in the blender. Chili
peppers are naturally sharp, a davar charif, and has the capacity to
“reawaken” taste in an aino ben yomo kli, a vessel that has been dormant
for over 24 hours. If the ribbon was
used for treif blending of products, such as rendered chicken fat, the
peppers could become treif and, in turn, affect all forthcoming blends
using seemingly worry-free hot chili peppers.
In a nutshell, spice blends require reliable kosher monitoring.
companies do not just use whole or ground spices. Spice extractions, such as essential oils and
oleoresins, are fundamental to this burgeoning industry.
The extraction of essential oils and oleoresins provides food technologists with
many advantages, as food manufacturers can select the specific flavor profiles
with much greater precision than if they were to simply use blends of whole
spices. In addition, hygienic concerns
as well as transportation costs are greatly reduced if the oils and oleoresins
are extracted close to the areas where the spices are grown.
Typically, oleoresins use an organic solvent
such as hexane to extract the resin from the spice. The solvent is then drawn off leaving the
spice oleoresin behind. In the event that
alcohol is used to extract the oleoresin, is the alcohol kosher and Kosher for
Passover, and are the oleoresins stabilized with any non-kosher ingredients?
Essential spice oils are usually cold pressed or extracted with steam generally
without the use of any solvent. Cold
pressing or steam distillation does not present kashrus concerns, and
essential oils are readily found with reliable kosher certification for
Passover and year-round use.
As new avenues for industrial spice applications arise, new techniques for more
effective, uniform spice extracts have arisen. Spices, oleoresins and essential
oils are now shipped in dispersions of oil or other liquids. Furthermore, dispersions can be standardized
with other ingredients such as mono and diglycerides or polysorbates, all
requiring reliable kosher certification. Another technique for easier spice application
is to make a liquid emulsion of spices, essential oils and a starch and spray
dry the essential oil to a powder. In
this case, the spray drying process has to be reviewed to make sure that non-kosher products are not being spray dried on a common spray drier, but only on a
spray-drier dedicated to kosher spices.
Today, where creative spice blending is so
far reaching, spice companies go far beyond the conventional mix of onion
powder, garlic powder, and paprika. It
is not uncommon for a spice company to have long complicated formulae going far
beyond plain spices. Dairy blends
typically include dairy powders, such as whey, butter oils, casein, and
non-kosher cheese powders. Seafood
seasonings can be seafood powders such as oyster or squid, and can be blended on
the same equipment as the pareve barbecue seasonings for potato
chips. Because it is assumed that spice
blending is achieved without the use of heat, it is commonly believed that the
only issue involved is the cleanliness of the ribbon blender screens and
However, this is not always the case. Some spice companies stick to their market
niche, while other custom blenders try to do it all and be all things to all
customers. Some companies blend in
sequence light spice blends to dark spice blends, non-allergen to allergen blends;
dairy blends containing whey or milk powder are blended after pareve
Generally, after an allergen blend, the
machines are carefully cleaned so that they can be considered
allergen-free. However, there are custom
spice blenders that will do “just in time” custom spice blending and will fit
in business to suit their customers’ time constraints. It is conceivable that equipment is not
thoroughly cleaned between these productions, which could cause a major
meat/dairy/kosher/non-kosher issue with the equipment if not properly monitored
In fact, in a company where proper kosher segregation
was not implemented, the same vessels used to liquify solid rendered chicken
fat are used to liquefy solidified oleoresins.
Because oleoresins are unquestionably sharp (davar charif), even
though the vessels were not used for 24 hours, the absorbed ta’am
(taste) within the walls of the vessels were reawakened and the ‘Rube Goldberg’
domino effect began. The oleoresins were
treif, and all subsequent formulations containing the oleoresin in any
proportion was also treif. To
resolve such a disaster, the entire spice company would have to undergo massive
Pesach Spice Blends
seasoning blend formulations use flavor enhancers and other flavor ingredients
such as MSG which has many applications, sodium erythorbate (used in deli
meats), dextrose, maltodextrin and hydrolyzed vegetable proteins. Many of these flavorings and ingredients are
corn or soy based. The halachic issue governing these ingredients is
whether these products can be used in Kosher for Pesach spice blend
formulations. Some ingredients are
clearly kitniyos, legumes, forbidden by Ashkenazim on Passover. Other processed ingredients are derived from kitniyos
based products that go through a multi- stage conversion process until the
final product is achieved. This category of kitniyos-based products has
been termed Kitniyos Shenishtanu. There are divergent opinions amongst Poskim
regarding Kitniyos Shenishtanu. Some
Poskim say these processes have altered the kitniyos,
the legume, and may be used on Passover. Other Poskim
remain firm and maintain that these products retain their kitniyos
status in spite of the conversions. STAR-K policy is not to use Kitniyos Shenishtanu.
Additionally, the Mishna B'rura 453:13 mentions that one should preferably
refrain from using anise and kimmel on Passover since they grow in close
proximity to wheat fields and it is difficult to be sure that no grains of
wheat are mixed in with these spices.
Since we are not sure what "kimmel" is, the
custom is to refrain from using caraway, cumin, fennel, or nigella seeds (black
caraway seeds), all seeds which resemble one another, and each of these could
conceivably be the kimmel referred to above. Cumin also falls into this category. In addition, both fenugreek and coriander may
be grown near wheat fields and should be avoided unless they have been
carefully checked for extraneous grains. Some of the larger spice companies own
their own plantations, thereby controlling the crops. Under these controlled circumstances, wheat
and barley contamination would not be a concern.
Another spice which is considered kitniyos is mustard. Thus, all forms
of mustard – including mustard essential oils and oleoresins – are not used on
In an era where blending kashrus and technology has become commonplace,
the spice and spirit of kosher seasoning blends right in.
 See Rabbi
Stein’s article “Preparing for Shmitta”.