Kashrus in Good Taste: Kosher Certifying the Flavor Industry

You may not realize it, but flavor ingredients are found in some shape or form in practically every aisle of your favorite supermarket. The ketchup in Aisle 1 uses a Tomato Flavor to enhance its taste; the cake mixes in Aisle 5 use Artificial Vanilla Flavor to give it taste; for that matter Vanilla Flavor is even added to the pack of cigarettes that are purchased at the check-out counter. Indeed, products from soup to soap use an array of flavors and fragrances to enhance their products.

It is fascinating to discover that there are thousands of unlikely sources where flavors or flavor enhancers can be found. Autolyzed yeast is converted from the beer dregs at a brewery and is used as cheese flavor for snackfoods. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) is obtained from grains such as wheat, corn or cottonseed and is an excellent poultry meat or soup enhancer.

From a kashrus perspective it is frustrating to discover that the labels of these products give no clue as to the complex assortment of natural and artificial flavor chemicals used in the product. By law, the consumer item need only state “Natural Flavors and/or Artificial Flavors”. What is actually used in these “flavors” remains hidden from the eyes of the consumer. In fact, the manufacturer who purchases these flavors from a flavor company is almost always unaware of all of the ingredients used in the flavor composition. It goes without saying that the purchaser has no idea how the flavors are blended, extracted, or dried.

To the innocent eye of the consumer, natural or artificial flavors do not appear very threatening or problematic. To the flavor house whose company is governed by their unique formulations, the revelation of any information can be extremely threatening. Protective or not, the flavor company will reveal their proprietory formulations to the kashrus agency who will carefully review each formula to ensure that all raw ingredients and processes are kosher. How would a kashrus agency go about breaking down a consumer item into its basic flavor components? Let’s take the seemingly simple Red Smiley Pop of the Smiley Candy Co. Besides sweeteners and colors the ingredient declaration states that the lollypop contains Natural and Artificial Flavors. To the inquiring mind of the Kashrus agency, there are many ways flavor a lollypop. That delicious cherry taste could come from a cherry concentrate, or possibly a cherry extract. The possibility also exists that there is no cherry derivative at all. The cherry flavoring is created by using benzaldehyde, a synthetic chemical. Without flavor review, there is no way of knowing what is contained in the natural and artificial flavor declaration. Of course other kashrus concerns such as the remaining ingredients and processes have to be reviewed before the product is deemed kosher.

What does the Kashrus Administrator find as he reviews the possibly dozens of components found in Natural and Artificial Flavor formulations? Flavor components can be broken down into three major categories. From a Kashrus point of view the “best” category includes those natural or artificial ingredients that are always kosher. Included in this group are natural ingredients such as pure coffee and pure cocoa powder. Also included in this category are many chemicals such as propylene glycol or Furaneol (R) – which provides a strawberry taste, and are almost always manufactured from petroleum based chemicals. Many flavor ingredients can be manufactured from both natural and synthetic sources. For example, benzaldehyde, one of the most commonly used flavor chemicals, and used in our Red Smiley Lollypop, may be derived synthetically or naturally from almonds, cassia oil or the seed of a peach pit. Methyl cinnamate is derived from petroleum or from oil of narcissus (a flower).

The “worst” category contains those flavor ingredients that are always non-kosher. Examples include castoreum from beavers and civet from the cat family. These cannot be made kosher.

The “middle category” are those components that may or may not be kosher. The two main concerns in this category are source and process. There are many examples of such potentially problematic ingredients. Some of the more popular commonly known examples of products are grape juice, cheese powder, or gelatin.

Within this category there are products that can be produced from natural sources or can be derived through various synthetic processes. Alcohol can be manufactured naturally from grain or wine, or synthetically from petroleum. Alcohol is then used in a myriad of extracts, alcohol solutions that contain flavoring ingredients obtained from spices, beans, or plants. Because of the concern regarding the derivation of alcohol from wine, all alcohol based extracts require kosher certification.

Another group of ingredients that fall into this “middle category” are glycerine, oleic and stearic acid. These ingredients can be derived synthetically, from vegetables, or from beef tallow. Again, these ingredients have multiple applications. Glycerine is sweet, viscous, and syrupy and provides the taste, body, and texture to the flavor compound. Oleic and stearic acids, when reacted with alcohol, produce a wide array of tastes. Obviously these products are essential ingredients to the flavor industry and definitely require a hashgacha.

Another area of flavor concern is whether or not the flavor contains any dairy source material such as propionic acid which may be derived from dairy derivatives or wood pulp. This commonly used flavor chemical is slightly pungent and develops a “fruity odor” when reacted with alcohol. Because of the possible dairy source, it is vital for a kashrus agency to confirm the pareve/dairy status of the ingredient when it is used in a flavor.

What is also fascinating about flavor chemicals is their strength. Some chemicals can be added at less than one part per million and still play a very major role in the flavor of the product. For example, butyric acid, which can be manufactured synthetically and is pareve or from butter and is milchig, is a common component of flavors used in cookies. One teaspoon is added to 2600 gallons of cookie flavor to further enhance the taste of the cookie! Without it, the cookie will probably not taste as good. Chazal call such a powerful flavor component “davar ha’avid lita’ama”. Chazal recognized the strength of such ingredients. If a regular non-kosher ingredient is inadvertently mixed with kosher ingredients, it is “batel bishishim”. This means as long as the ratio of kosher to non-kosher is at least 60:1, the product is kosher. Not so by flavor chemicals which are “avidi lita’ama”, as sometimes even a million to one is not enough to neutralize the taste of the flavor chemical. So, civet (from the cat family) or oleic acid (from beef tallow) may not be batel, even though there is only a minute amount in the formula.

In the world of determining the kashrus of natural and artificial flavors, the “how” is of equal concern to the kashrus administrator as the “what”. The “how” is the means employed by the flavor house to create the flavors in question. Some flavors are cold blended while other flavors are manufactured hot. Some flavors are very sharp and would impart flavor into equipment even through cold blending. What else is being made in the kettles; are the kettles kashered between batches; does the flavor require full-time hashgacha?

Then there are those flavors which are produced in a chamber tunnel or funnel of differing sizes called a spray dryer. Spray driers, used extensively throughout the flavor industry, range in size from four feet to four stories tall and have the capacity to convert large amounts of liquid into powdered flavor through high blasts of heat. Spray drying brings with it many kashrus concerns. How do you kasher a spray dryer? How does a kashrus agency control contract spray drying where the certified company spray dries in a non-kosher facility? Obviously, this process and this difficulty compels the kashrus agency to research, adequately monitor and supervise the production of flavors.

Furthermore, flavors used in a domestic product may truly be a “kibutz galios ma’arba kanfos ha’aretz”, culled from the four corners of the world and indeed come under the Hashgacha of many international reliable kashrus agencies. Essential oils may come from the Mideast, glycerine from the Far East, and oleoresins from India. Fatty acids may come from Europe and essences from the jungles of Africa. In addition, citrus derived chemicals may come from South America, and a final flavor component may come from Australia. All of these ingredients, are then mixed domestically and receive a “Made in the USA” label on the finished flavor.

With such complexity, it is obvious that any product that contains flavors should only be eaten if it has a reliable hechsher.

With regular reviews and inspections of the creative flavor manufacturers and a close working relationship between certifying agencies, the consumer is assured that the certified flavors are indeed 100% kosher.