Kosher foods may be a staple of Jewish diets, but they are not the only ones who eat these foods. More than 12 million people in the United States choose kosher foods when they shop at the grocery store, according to the Orthodox Union, a kosher certification agency. It’s a huge industry—these products generate over $12 billion in annual sales.
These numbers are surprising when you consider that fewer than five million American adults identify as Jewish, according to a Brandeis University report (PDF). And even fewer are observant and keep a hive.
What gives? “Some consumers think the products are cleaner or healthier,” says Mindy Haar, PhD, RD, chair of interdisciplinary health sciences at the New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury, New York.
But are they? Here, explore what it means to keep kosher, how to determine which foods are kosher, and whether eating this way has health benefits.
What does it mean to be kosher?
Kosher foods are those that follow Jewish dietary laws, according to Texas A&M University. “The word kosher is Hebrew and literally means ‘fit or proper,'” says Dr. Haar. “Those who follow these laws believe that they were given by God in the Torah-Bible with details and clarifications added by rabbinic leaders in the first through fourth centuries.”
Keeping kosher is followed in Orthodox Judaism to be holy, but it is not essential for Reform Jews to keep kosher in their daily lives, according to Britannica.
The laws of kosher feeding are extensive, but most often boil down to the following:
- No mixing of meat and milk, meaning that dairy and meat cannot be consumed together. “One should wait a certain number of hours after eating meat before consuming dairy products,” says Haar. “Depending on the custom, it can take anywhere from three to six hours.” You may see the word “pareve” on some food items. This means that there are no poultry, meat or dairy derivatives in the food.
- No shellfish, as the fish must have fins and scales to qualify as kosher.
- No pork, as all mammals consumed must chew through the experience and have split legs.
- Beef and poultry are permitted if the animal has been properly slaughtered by a trained butcher and without blood.
- The meat must be salted to remove the blood.
- Wine may be consumed if it has been prepared under supervision and not touched by non-Jews. “Because of the sacramental importance, grape products must be observed from beginning to end,” Haar says, adding that this is usually only practiced by the ultra-Orthodox.
- The cheese must be certified kosher, as some cheeses may use rennet from non-kosher sources as a coagulant.
Kosher also refers to the way the food is prepared. “Kosher food preparation uses separate ovens, utensils, sinks and cutting boards,” says Haar.
How to identify kosher foods based on food labels
Not all kosher foods will be certified and labeled. For example, fruits and vegetables are kosher but do not need certification. But for packaged products, it is easy to spot kosher certification on the food label. You can find them in all kinds of foods—cereals, breads, sauces, spices, and baked goods are some examples, Haar says.
“There are two variables in determining whether a food is kosher or not: the source of the ingredients and the condition of the production equipment,” says Haar. “Kosher certification ensures that the food meets kosher requirements for both variables.”
There are many certifying companies, including OU Kosher, Star-K, and KOF-K. You may also see food with the K symbol, which means the manufacturer believes the food is kosher but hasn’t been officially inspected, Haar says.
The certification process requires third-party approval. “Kosher certification involves an inspector coming on regular, unannounced visits to verify that kosher ingredients and equipment are being used, that basic hygiene practices are followed, that there is no cross-contamination between meat and dairy products, and that all produce is washed and free of insects and worms,” says Haar.
Kosher healthy eating
People who eat this way are said to be following a kosher diet, but it is not a diet in the sense of losing weight. It’s actually hard to say whether keeping a hive will be a healthy choice for you. “Because it’s not a diet in the typical sense of the word, it’s not considered healthy or unhealthy,” says Trista Best, RD, MPH, an environmental health specialist and consultant with Balance One Supplements (a supplement company) in Dalton, Georgia. After all, the purpose of eating kosher food is to observe Jewish law, not necessarily to eat the healthiest and most nutritious food. However, many consumers seem to be confused about this, as a Mintel report notes that more than half of people who buy kosher do so because they believe it is healthier.
It’s true that eating a kosher diet eliminates some unhealthy foods, like a cheese-laden burrito or decadent lasagna. “Meat and dairy cannot be eaten together,” says Best. This could potentially reduce the amount of high-fat and high-cholesterol foods that are eaten, although they can still be eaten separately. There are also many kosher foods that are not healthy. Someone may eat a diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, while another may eat packaged foods that are certified kosher. Both diets may be kosher, but they are not nutritionally comparable.
Eating kosher foods can be beneficial for people with food sensitivities, such as those who are lactose intolerant, as they can look for the kosher symbol and the word “pareve” on the label to know that the product is dairy- and meat-free.
Kosher recipes you can make at home
Interested in trying some new kosher dishes? Here are some links to blogger recipes for some kosher holiday meals. Just be aware that these recipes may be more indulgent than what you normally eat as they are reserved for special occasions, so use portion control and indulge carefully.
Kugel with pineapple and raisins
The sweet egg noodle kugel is a staple of Jewish holidays. This one from Tori Avey stands out because it features pineapple and raisins in the base and includes a cinnamon sugar crust and cracker on top. All ingredients included are kosher, and until you serve with meat, the dish remains kosher.
Roast lamb with pomegranate and wine
To keep this roasted lamb dish from Jamie Geller kosher, make sure the lamb you buy is labeled kosher, meaning it’s properly slaughtered and properly salted. It’s topped with a pomegranate Syrah sauce to make it perfect for the winter holidays.
Black Lentils with Glazed Roasted Carrots
This recipe from May I Have That Recipe has a long list of ingredients, but trust us, the end result—a bed of lentils with spiced grated carrots and a delicious glaze—will be worth the effort.
Bonus: This recipe is also kosher and vegan.
Serve sweet kosher bread from What Jew Wanna Eat for the Jewish holidays—or just because. This recipe calls for more egg yolks than most, which takes the richness up a notch. Bread takes time; prepare to knead and let the dough ferment for a few hours before the dough is ready for braiding.
What’s a Jewish holiday without breasts? The family recipe by Rebecca Lowin calls for just four ingredients: brisket, beef broth, Lipton onion soup mix, and carrots. Choose a kosher breast and choose a first or second cut for extra tenderness.
The bottom line of kosher foods
Kosher foods aren’t necessarily healthier, but if you follow Jewish law or participate in Jewish holidays, it’s important to follow the rules.