What Is Kosher?

Last Update: May 14, 2024

Turns out everything really is kosher. What started centuries ago as a religious tradition that dictates dietary and food processing rules in adherence with Jewish law has now become one of the latest growing food trends.

“More people are choosing kosher” for health, read a headline in the New York Times back in 2010. And, several years later, even Forbes is asking if kosher is “the next big thing,” comparing it to the gluten-free phenomenon.

“Only 15 percent of those who purchase kosher products do so for religious reasons,” states the article, citing data from global market research firm Mintel. “Of the 11.2 million Americans who do purchase kosher items, most [do so] for food quality (62 percent), general healthfulness (51 percent), and food safety (34 percent).”

With strict guidelines on cleanliness and preparation, many today glean to the kosher certification with the belief that it provides a safer and healthier food supply. But, is it true?

What does kosher mean?

The practice of eating kosher dates back thousands of years and originated as a dietary system followed by the Jewish community that was not only symbolic of religious teachings, but also helped followers become more conscious of the food they were consuming. It was derived from a set of biblical laws known as kashrut that dictated what types of foods could be eaten (for example, no pork) and how the foods are prepared (i.e. milk and dairy must be done so in separate areas).

Though these stringent regulations have long been followed out of religious observation, there’s also evidence that keeping kosher is inherently healthy. Checking boxes of grains and produce for traces of insects is just a good idea. And not eating meat and dairy together often leads to better digestion. As such, kosher foods have found resurgence in a modern-day movement of clean eating and are becoming more and more secular as part of a healthy lifestyle for individuals of all backgrounds.

The basics of kosher foods

Today, kosher eating has grown out of the kitchen and into more markets and restaurants. Most grocery stores have a section dedicated specifically to certified products, and restaurants have updated menus with kosher items as they have done before with gluten-free dishes.

To be considered kosher, all commercial food products and recipes have to follow the same set of official guidelines, that break down into three main categories:

  • Meat
  • Dairy
  • Pareve (foods other than meat and dairy)

Kosher meats and animal byproducts

When it comes to meat, only certain animals are considered acceptable for kosher preparation. That includes livestock that has split hooves and practices chewing their cud, such as cows, sheep, and buffalo—and thus excludes pigs and rabbits. Fowl such as turkey and chickens are also a kosher option, though birds of prey and those that scavenge for food are not acceptable. Shellfish is also banned.

Animals must have been raised without the aid of hormones or steroids, and cannot have endured broken bones or other types of damage to their internal organs. All must be slaughtered in a specific way called “shechita” whereby a trained professional (called a “shochet”) kills the animal quickly and without warning. This is thought to further reduce the amount of hormones the animal releases during the process, which could otherwise end up in the meat. Animals must be cleaned and all blood must be completely drained before cooking as well.

Kosher dairy

Another strict rule of kosher preparation is that meat and dairy cannot be mixed. They must be cooked in separate kitchens and using separate utensils. Keeping kosher also means abstaining from eating milk and dairy together at any meal. Certified dairy includes any milk that has come from a kosher animal and is free of any meat derivative.

Kosher pareve

Pareve is the third kosher category and simply refers to products that do not involve any meat or dairy. Guidelines are somewhat more lenient in this category of foods and beverages, which includes fruits and vegetables, soft drinks, coffee, tea, and natural juices. Kosher produce is checked to ensure that it is free of smaller insects and their larvae. Like dairy products, pareve foods and snacks have to be processed using separate equipment that has not been cross-contaminated.

The health benefits of kosher foods

The strict rules for producing and certifying kosher food products may result in closer scrutiny of food safety issues … and the extra monitoring typically means that kosher products are produced more slowly than other foods.—New York Times

With such a selective process for determining which type of animals are chosen for meat sources, kosher guidelines actually provide a number of safeguards for consumers. The biggest of which is ensuring chemical-free products, which have been the source of much research that shows the effect that altered foods can have on the individuals that are eating them.

Animals used for kosher meats must have been raised in a suitable manner that maintained proper cleanliness throughout the duration of their lives. This prevents the animal from releasing certain hormones under duress that can taint the meat. The practice of shechita also ensures that further hormones aren’t released during slaughter.

Contamination is another worrisome subject when it comes to food, and for good cause. In 2015, foodborne illnesses from salmonella alone made hundreds of people sick as a result of contaminated products that were sold. Kosher foods must be prepared and processed on separate equipment, a rule that goes beyond even local and federal food laws. This means the equipment is clean and free of other residual particles that could otherwise penetrate other food sources.

Due to the rigorous measures and labeling required to certify a kosher product, this can also become an advantage for people that suffer from food allergies. Instead of wondering about hidden ingredients that may trigger a reaction, consumers can easily read what is used in a kosher product and enjoy it safely. It’s yet one more practical, modern-day benefit of a tradition that started long ago.

Kosher alternatives to popular foods

While the concept of a kosher diet sounds great, you may be wondering how to start. Here are a few easy-to-follow tips:

Start with snacks. This is one of the easiest kosher food swaps because there are plenty of packaged substitutes available on the today (including at Thrive Market). Even potato chips can be certified kosher. Pizza is also easy to keep kosher when you combine this classic New York–style sauce with a kosher pizza crust mix that’s also gluten-free. The mix can be used to make homemade sandwich bread and crackers as well.

Indulge in desserts. Since every meal of the day can be enhanced with kosher alternatives, it’s only fitting to give your dessert a clean makeover, too. Chocolate is a popular item, or pair certified ice cream with crunchy and organic sugar cones.

Find other products with the kosher seal. It’s not just food that is kosher. Other products like multivitamin supplements can bear the certification and give an added boost of nutrients every time you take them. As well, you can make your next pre- or post-workout shake with kosher protein powder.

How to become a kosher-savvy shopper

Finding kosher foods is easy following these three steps:

Become educated in all things kosher. There are many different online resources that can explain in great detail exactly what is permissible and what is forbidden when it comes to kosher foods. Some of our favorite, easy-to-absorb portals include OK Kosher Certification and even regional sites like Oregon Kosher. There are also plenty of books (and cookbooks) on the subject of kosher eating, which provide an invaluable resource in finding simple ingredients to cook with in addition to the more well-known allowable foods.

Speak with a shochet. Many Jewish markets and butcher shops will have a trained shochet on-site, and their skill and knowledge in the process of handling meat and other foods is beyond that of many scholars and experts. Not only can you obtain first-hand information on how to spot kosher foods from these professionals, but you will also gain insight into the culture and history that surrounds kosher preparation. The perspective might even increase your appreciation for kosher foods and give you another reason to stick with this time-honored tradition long-term.

Look for the labeling. Because kosher food is subject to such strict rules and regulations that goes way beyond expectations for most products, they will be labeled accordingly. Check the packaging of foods that you are interested in buying for the certified seal or shop online using a search filter that will provide a curated shortcut to all the products you are looking for.

The future of kosher

When even the Atlantic places kosher and hipster in the same sentence, there is cause to believe this age-old practice will continue to find more modern mass appeal, especially with the growing consciousness of eco sustainability and knowing where food comes from in light of the GMO kerfluffle.

Unlike other diets that feel like they require a complete overhaul of your life, kosher eating works well for those who are trying to adapt to a healthy lifestyle without a ton of sacrifice. One of the best parts of going kosher is that generally you can hang on to your favorite foods, and the endless varieties of substitutes more than makes up for taking the time to examine and pick out the proper products. And though your own personal kosher diet may have been thousands of years in the making, its benefits will reward you right away.

Illustration by Karley Koenig

This article is related to:

Educational, Food, Health, Living

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