Kashrus Goes Crunch

Everyone wants to emulate a winner. The world of food manufacturing and marketing is no exception. Whenever a new product reaches the marketplace, or a new business venture is successfully launched, rest assured that product or venture will be duplicated, cloned, or modified immediately. One only needs to travel north of Baltimore to Pennsylvania Dutch country to see this in reality. Southern Pennsylvania is home to tens of snack food manufacturers, and is aptly dubbed “the snack food capital of the United States.”

Snack foods have always been an integral part of the American diet and the American way of life. But snack food modifications do not stand still. As our eating habits, tastes, and health awareness change, so have snack food styles. As production streamlines and technology becomes more innovative, snack food companies continuously modernize to keep up with the times. Of course, one dimension of the snack food industry that always remain constant is Kashrus. No matter how new the technology, the product or taste sensation, once a snack food is certified Kosher, Kashrus standards can never be compromised.

What are the Kashrus concerns confronting a snack food facility? By traveling down the production line and seeing how the ordinary “spud” is magically transformed into a golden chip or how dough is twisted and knotted into a crisp pretzel, the Kashrus issues come into focus.

All potato chip processes are not created equal. True, every fresh potato undergoes the initial stages of washing, peeling, and slicing. But, just like a ripple chip cut differs from a waffle chip cut, so do seasoning blends, ingredient applications, and frying methods differ from potato chipper to potato chipper.

Next to the mighty potato, the most important ingredient in potato chip making is the frying oil. Most potato chip products are fried in pure vegetable oil, either cottonseed, peanut, or soybean. Today, most oil refineries carry reliable Kosher certification on their vegetable oils. However, the label, pure vegetable oil, is no assurance that the oil is Kosher. All vegetable oils require Kosher certification. Most potato chips are produced in high speed automated potato chips cookers that are used exclusively for vegetable oil frying. Once the suppliers are Kosher approved and are the exclusive suppliers, the Kosher concerns are minimized for this potato chip process.

Not all chips are fried in vegetable oil. Potato chips have a deep Pennsylvania Dutch tradition. Traditional Amish potato chip lovers have always enjoyed their potato chips fried in lard. They, also, enjoy a thicker potato chip cooked in a kettle cooker, complete with potato chip operators standing alongside these cookers raking the chips with special potato chip rakes to move the kettle chips along in a slower old style fashion. These potato chips are obviously not Kosher.

In order to appeal to a wider health conscious public, some kettle chips are also fried in pure vegetable oil to copy their lard kettle chip counterpart. It is conceivable that the same kettles can be used interchangeably. If the same kettle cookers are used, even though all the ingredients are 100% Kosher and so indicated on the ingredient panel, the 100% vegetable potato chip is considered non-Kosher. However, the company will correctly inform the consumer that the chip is fried in 100% Kosher oil. The consumer has no way of knowing whether the equipment was Kosherized between uses. There would be no way of knowing whether or not the potato chip is Kosher without reliable supervision on the plant processes and a reliable Kosher certification symbol on the package.

Every company has its unique blend of flavors and seasonings. A flavor blend is a carefully developed recipe of combined spices, herbs, seasonings, and other secret ingredients, creating unique potato chip flavorings. There can be numerous seasonings in a potato chip ingredient room, some Kosher approved and some not. Furthermore, certain seasonings, such as ranch seasonings, can be Kosher Dairy or be seasoned with non-Kosher cheese. Others, such as salt and vinegar seasoning, could be Kosher Pareve, Kosher Dairy, or non-Kosher. In fact, since snack food manufacturing is so diverse, snack food products will have individual seasoning blends. It is not uncommon to find potentially compatible Kosher approved and non-Kosher seasonings in a spice room inventory. Even though the different spice blends are applied to different products, Barbecue Potato Chips, Barbecue Corn Chips, and Barbecue Tortilla Chips will have their own set of barbecue flavors, nevertheless, cross seasoning possibilities always exist. A Mashgiach must be alert and aware of these possibilities. A prudent course of action is to have all spice blends Kosher approved and to maintain good Kashrus supervision.

Just like spice blends differ from company to company, spice applications vary from plant to plant. In many potato chip facilities the potato chips are first cooled while being conveyed to an overhead packing gallery. There, the chips and spices combine and cascade downward through a packing chute into the open jaws of an anxiously waiting empty bag below.

Other potato chip companies apply their spices through a metal tumbler, directly after the hot chips emerge from the fryer. Potato chips are fried in a 340o deep fryer bath of hot oil for two minutes. When these chips emerge, these freshly fried snacks enter the rolling tumblers. There, the salt, spice blends, or the cheese coatings enrobe the hot tumbling chips. The coated chips then spill out onto a rubberized belt that deposits the chips into small plastic troughs that cools the chips as they ride to the packaging area. This spice tumbling application is also used for specialty chips such as corn chips and tortilla chips.

From a Kashrus standpoint, this method of application is more problematic because of cross-seasoning dairy snacks (sour cream, nachos, and cheddar) as well as other non-Kosher cheese seasoning snacks. These hot dairy or cheese applications would render the tumbler and the belts dairy or non-Kosher, and would totally compromise the Kashrus status of the equipment, belts, and troughs. The subsequent “pareve” potato chip, corn chip, or tortilla chip product that would be using Kosher Pareve ingredients are now being produced on dairy or non-Kosher equipment. The new wave of health conscientiousness, has catapulted the potato chip’s snack food lowfat counterpart, the pretzel, into stardom. Today the pretzel has reached new heights of snack food respect, and pretzels have been taking the market by storm in a variety of shapes, sizes, and tastes: hard, soft, sourdough, thick, thin, lowfat or no fat, salt, low salt, no salt, and flavored.

Pretzels are not a simple yeast, flour, salt, and water product either. Pretzels require shortening and dough conditioners for their basic recipe. Moreover, even plain pretzel varieties now use flavor blends in their dough enhancers requiring strict Kosher certification. It has been found that it is possible to get a flavor with a Kosher certification, yet further research uncovers the fact that pretzel flavors can be dairy even though the flavor is used to flavor a regular pretzel and has no relationship to dairy flavoring. Not only would the pretzel be dairy, but the pretzel baking lines may now be dairy, too.

Pretzel equipment can also be presented with problems when new hollow pretzel varieties are stuffed with cheese or coated with cheese flavorings. These are relevant Kashrus concerns because pretzels are baked directly on belts that feed directly into large pretzel ovens. If a company produces cheese pretzels, the Kashrus of the production lines could be seriously jeopardized for all their pretzel products.

The new explosion of pretzel production has given vent to new Kosher twists in pretzel production, namely flavored pretzels. Again, the dairy/pareve issues must be addressed before these products are certified. Very often, outside companies do the specialty coatings, and the pretzels are 100% Kosher while the coated products are not. Modern techniques and varied snack food technology combine to create specialty snacks of all shapes and sizes. Corn flour dough is cut and shaped into chips, strips, and rounds, and extruded into spirals, exploded through a pressurized metal tube into cheese curls, or popped into popcorn. Dehydrated onion pellets are burst into onion rings. Similar Kashrus concerns of oils, flavorings, and common equipment apply to all these snack foods as to their potato chip and pretzel counterparts. It certainly can be concluded that no matter what the snack, the Kosher consumer has to crunch with care.

Kashrus Kurrents thanks Utz Quality Snack Co. for their help in preparation of this article.