Kashrus Goes Crunch

Published Fall 2013

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 remains 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 as the cut of a ripple chip differs from the cut of a waffle chip, so too the 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 labeling of “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 become exclusive and are kosher approved, 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 raking the chips with special 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 could 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 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 i.e., 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 maintain good kashrus supervision and have all spice blends kosher approved.

Just as 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. The chips and spices combine and cascade downward through a packing chute into the open jaws of an anxiously awaiting 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 340oF deep fryer bath of hot oil for two minutes. When these chips emerge, these freshly fried snacks enter the rolling tumblers. The salt, spice blends, or 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 cool 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 using kosher pareve ingredients would be produced on dairy or non-kosher equipment.

For years, kosher consumers have been indulging in those familiar potato chips in the red canister known as Pringles. Pringles now come in an assortment of flavors, as well. The canister’s color reflects the different flavors e.g., BBQ brownish gold, Sour Cream and Onion green, etc.; some are pareve and other’s dairy. What is not so evident is that the U.S. is not the only country that produces Pringles. Furthermore, it is not unusual to find imported Pringles that are not kosher certified being sold in a Dollar Store; the canister looks exactly like its kosher counterpart.

Pringles are, as one can clearly see, not manufactured in the same way as a conventional potato chip. Pringles are produced from dehydrated potato flakes that are reconstituted, fashioned into uniform shapes, and baked in molds to retain their shape. Similarly, baked potato chips which are sold in conventional bags are produced from processed potato flakes that are cut into unique shapes and are baked not fried. This raises a very important issue that has to be addressed with all processed dehydrated potatoes products, as well as the newer snack foods veggie chips and sticks that of Bishul Akum.

As we all know, potatoes are a vegetable fit for the king’s table, oleh al shulchan melachim, a fancy repast such as a wedding or a state dinner. This applies to grains and vegetables such as rice, potatoes and yams, as well as other food items such as meat or chicken that can’t be eaten raw and require cooking preparation before serving.1 In order to be in kosher compliance, an observant Jewish homemaker or mashgiach is required to perform an integral part of the cooking process, such as turning on the fire or actually putting the food in the oven to fulfill the requirements of bishul Yisroel.2 Otherwise, a rabbinic ordinance has been violated. If the product requiring bishul Yisroel would be cooked exclusively by the aino Yehudi, this 100% kosher chicken would be as non-kosher as chicken cooked in butter.

There are exceptional circumstances where a product that typically requires bishul Yisroel does not need to fulfill these specific criteria. In the event that the final product is not prestigious enough, and would not be served or eaten at an official state dinner, these types of foods would not be forbidden as a bishul akum product.3 Potato chips fulfill both of these criteria.

What about veggie chips and veggie sticks, as well as Pringles, whose base ingredient is potato flakes that are totally cooked, dehydrated, and reconstituted into these colorful crunchy snacks? If the potato was fully cooked without bishul Yisroel intervention and then dehydrated, can the bishul akum stigma be removed, avoided or neutralized? There are multiple factors that must be considered before convicting the allegedly guilty potato flake.

There are companies that cook the potatoes exclusively with steam. Ishun, steaming, is not subject to the laws of bishul akum.4  Indeed, some companies actually cook the potatoes in water and the issue of bishul akum has to be addressed. Typically, in factories where boilers generate steam for the cooking equipment, bishul Yisroel criteria are fulfilled with the mashgiach’s lighting of the boiler.5 While this method would satisfy the Ashkenazi criteria of bishul Yisroel, it would not fulfill the Sephardi criteria for bishul Yisroel.6 Other kashrus agencies feel that since the product has been dehydrated into an inedible state, and is then recooked into a product that is not oleh al shulchan melachim, the bishul Yisroel issue is moot.7 Furthermore, there are certifications that would require bishul Yisroel even though the end product is a nonprestigious snack food. Why? Since the essential potato product is a vegetable subject to the bishul Yisroel criteria, even potato chips rise to the bishul Yisroel occasion and the fires must be lit by the mashgiach. One would need to contact the certifying agency to see how or if the bishul akum issues have been addressed.

Another snack food item that merits halachic scrutiny is rice crisps, a cracker-type snack similar to its corn tortilla chip counterpart. The basic ingredient of a tortilla chip or a corn chip is milled corn flour; rice flour is the basic ingredient for rice crisps. The flour is mixed into dough, cut to shape, and deep fried. The frying gives the chip its body and crunch. Unlike rice flour, corn flour downgrades the brocha to Shehakol. In a rice crisp, since the main ingredient is rice flour, the brocha is Mezonos.8 Would the rice crisp require bishul Yisroel? Since it is fried in oil ‘tiggun’ (akin to cooking), and rice is oleh al shulchan melacham, is rice flour categorically considered rice, requiring bishul Yisroel, or is rice flour a downgrade? Moreover, if rice crisps are served along with dips at a wedding smorgasbord, is the rice crisp elevated from its snack food status? If the rice crisp is billed as a healthy snack alternative, which is the manufacturer’s intention, then bishul Yisroel does not apply. Furthermore, a smorgasbord at a chassuna does not qualify as oleh al shulchan melachim.9 However, the brocha remains Borei Minei Mezonos.

When is the brocha on onions Mezonos? Onion rings conjure up visions of a delectable vidalia onion deep fried in a thick batter. The brocha on these onion rings is Borei Pri Hoadama because the batter is tofel secondary to the primary ingredient, which is the onion ring.10 In the world of snack foods, the tables have been turned! The dehydrated onion ring is actually made from wheat and expands into a crispy ring when it is deep fried. It is then seasoned with onion flavored seasoning to create the onion ring onion taste. Since the main ingredient is wheat, the brocha is Borei Minei Mezonos.

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 would then be dairy as well.

Pretzel equipment can also present 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 of their pretzel products. 

The new explosion of pretzel production has given vent to new kosher twists in pretzel production, namely flavored and chocolate covered pretzels. Again, the dairy/pareve issues must be addressed before these products can be certified. Very often, outside companies do the specialty coatings. The pretzels may be 100% kosher while the coated products are not, or the pretzels are pareve while the chocolate covered specialty pretzel may be dairy. Moreover, enrobed pretzels are produced on common equipment that enrobes other products, such as non-kosher marshmallows.

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. It can truly be said that these snacks are hopping with the poppin’. Similar kashrus concerns of oils, flavorings, kosher and non-kosher cheeses, and common equipment apply to all these snack foods as well as to their potato chip and pretzel counterparts. It certainly can be concluded that no matter what the snack, the kosher consumer has to munch with care.

1. Yoreh Deah 113:1
2. Ibid 113:7
3. Ibid 113:2 Rema, Taz 3
4. Ibid 113:13
5. Ibid 113:7 Rema
6. Ibid 3:7 Mechaber
7. Ibid 113:12 Yad Efraim
8. Orach Chaim 208:9
9. Rav Heinemann shlita
10. O.C. 212:1 Mishnah Brura 5