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Ta'am Tov B'Tuv Ta'am:
A Flavorful Blend of Kashrus and Spices

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:

Plant Part:

Spices:

Fruit/Berry

Allspice, Capers, Capsicum (Cayenne - Red Pepper), Mace, Nutmeg, Paprika, Black Pepper, White Pepper

Bark/Stem

Cinnamon

Seed

Anise, Anise China Star, Caraway, Cardamom, Celery, Coriander, Cumin, Dill Seed/Dill Weed, Fennel, Fenugreek, Mustard, Oregano, Poppy, Sesame

Leaf

Chervil, Rosemary

Stem

Basil, Bay, Chives, Marjoram, Oregano, Parsley, Sage, Tarragon, Thyme

Bud/Bulb

Cloves, Garlic, Onion

Flower/Stamen

Saffron

Root/Rhizome

Ginger, Horseradish, Turmeric Whole Spices

 

Whole Spices
Today, 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
Spices 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.

Great care 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,[1] 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.




Additives
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 free flowing.

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.


Spice Blends
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.


Spice Extraction
Spice 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.

 

Custom Blending

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 blending equipment. 

 

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 blends. 

 

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 or inspected.

 

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 re-kosherization.


Pesach Spice Blends
Spice 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 Passover.

In an era where blending kashrus and technology has become commonplace, the spice and spirit of kosher seasoning blends right in.

[1] See Rabbi Stein’s article “Preparing for Shmitta”.



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