It’s time for a collective “oy.” Just as you were getting your head around Paleo, there’s a “new” ancient diet that’s trending. Kosher foods, defined by complex Old Testament laws, were the fastest growing ethnic cuisine in 2010, according to the market research firm Mintel. As of early 2014, there were 125,000 kosher products in U.S. supermarkets. Following are a few frequently asked questions when it comes to considering a kosher foods diet.
Can anyone be kosher?
Turns out, a growing number of supermarket shoppers are going kosher—and not just for religious reasons. The perception is that kosher foods are safer and better for health. According to another Mintel study, 62 percent of respondents stated they buy kosher for its food quality. The second most common reason to purchase kosher food was general healthfulness with 51 percent. The survey of 2,500 adults found only 14 percent of respondents indicating religious rules as the reason why they purchase kosher food.
This kosher idealism even got airplay in the latest season of Orange is the New Black, a prison-based comedy series produced by Netflix. Fans got to watch Cindy, a black prison inmate, find a resourceful solution to the declining quality of the prison food. She decides to convert to Judaism in order to qualify for the kosher meals, the best food option available. An example of the colorful dialogue that accompanies her quest for edible food: Cindy asks for a kosher meal and is accused of not being Jewish, she replies, “You think you know my life? Shabbat Shalom, #$%^&!”
Prison standards aside, does that mean it’s healthier, generally speaking, to choose kosher? It’s not a straightforward answer. The most important kosher law is that meat and dairy must remain separate, from production to consumption. Animals must be deemed “clean” animals (need to chew their cud and possess cloven hooves) and killed according to Jewish law — widely presumed to be a more humane form of butchering. But groups such as PETA have lately vociferously challenged the idea that kosher represents a more humane death.
There’s also no evidence to show that kosher food products are healthier or safer than those from traditional food companies, but the strict rules for producing and certifying kosher food products may result in closer scrutiny of food safety issues. Hot dogs are a great example — kosher hot dogs follow strict guidelines regarding the ingredients that are allowed to be included, which often results in a better quality product when compared to the unidentifiable hodgepodge that comprises most conventional hot dogs.
What determines whether a product is kosher or not?
One takeaway from the kosher trend is that any food product labeled kosher ensures an extra level of monitoring. Independent organizations such as the Orthodox Union are paid by food companies to send trained personnel to factories to ensure that all of the restrictions of kosher laws are met. In a decade where food recalls are rampant, it’s a nice bonus to know your food production may be more carefully watched.
The kosher symbol can also be particularly helpful for those with strict dietary requirements or allergies to a certain food. A vegetarian can buy a kosher product labeled “pareve” and be certain that it contains no surprising meat or dairy products. For example, some yogurts contain gelatin. And conventional cereal may have raisins that are coated with a non-kosher, animal-based glycerin, non-kosher flavors or animal shortening. Luckily, there are plenty of kosher-friendly cereals, including all-natural options like Familia Swiss whole-grain muesli, which is blended with fruit and nuts.
Although the actual health benefit is slight at best, kosher’s most important advantage may be its full disclosure of what is — and what isn’t — in your food.