Foods to Eat   > Kosher and Vegetarianism


"Ahimsa" by American Vegan Society -- Malaga, NJ -- (609) 694-2887


We are occasionally asked by concerned vegetarians or vegans, about the various Kosher symbols used on packages of food, and what value they might have as reliable guides to acceptability for vegie or vegan use.


For a study of the variety of Jewish teachings of kindness to animals over several thousands of years, see Judaism and Animal Rights (edited by Roberta Kalechowski), and Judaism and Vegetarianism (by Richard H. Schwartz), or contact your nearest Jewish Vegetarian Society.


In keeping with certain injunctions there arose a system designed partly to spare food-animals unnecessary suffering, partly for human health, and partly for ritual reasons. It may be regarded as a considerable advance, given the considerable advance, given the conditions of those times. But Judaism is a living, evolving religion, and most of our Jewish vegetarian and vegan friends seem to recognize that those early teachings were made as a compromise with human failings, and do point to vegetarian or even vegan practice as a great further improvement over what people were (in some instances) merely permitted or tolerated to do at that time de to the "hardness of their hearts" or other human frailties and short-comings.


In regard to the injunction against eating meat and dairy items together, Schwartz (ibid, p19) cites three identical references, forbidding boiling "a kid [young goat] in the milk of its mother." (Exodus 23:19, 34:26, Deuteronomy 14:21.)


Schwartz continues: "Commenting on Exodus 23:19, Rashi notes that the repetition of this prohibition in three different biblical passages implies a three-fold ban: milk and meat must not be eaten together; they must not be cooked together; and it is forbidden to benefit from food containing a mixture of milk and meat.


"Some Torah commentators saw the above law as a rejection of an ancient pagan practice. Ibn Ezra viewed boiling a kid in its mother's milk as an example of extreme barbarism. The Rashbam (1080-1174) considered the practice as denoting gross insensitivity and cruelty."


In their beautiful work of The Jewish Vegetarian Year Cookbook, Kalechowsky and Rasiel lament on "Modern Realities: Some Unpleasant Facts" about the complexities of modern shopping:


".... Today many of us feel that we need an advanced degree in chemistry to go shopping. Moreover, trust in the labels -- when you can decipher them -- has broken down because the rules change constantly as the processing systems change, and as food becomes more technologically engineered. Trust in the foods we eat has all but evaporated. We do not know what is `safe' and `not safe,' much less 'clean' and `not clean.' There are over a hundred different kosher labels listed by Kashrus Magazine (November, 1994). Rabbi Lipschutz' compilation and designation of food additives is forty pages long (Kashrut: a Comprehensive Background and Reference Guide to the Principles of Kashrut).


"For Jews, living in urban centers as most people in industrialized societies do, a label of `kosher' no longer simplifies, but adds to the complexity, for the label, particularly when it comes to meat, does not necessarily reflect any more health, safety or mercy than other labels. `Kosher' meat reflects a technical ritual determination of how the animal was killed and whether there we certain proscribed blemishes on its lungs. A `blemish' defined halachically, does not convey information about the hormones and pesticides that were fed to the animal, and whether or not the animal was irradiated or genetically altered. Kosher food animals, except for a few Jewish farming communities who raise their own animals, are raised the same way that all commercially raised food animals are." (pp 11,12)


In Defining Vegetarian, Vegan, Pareve, they note that "Vegan foods may often be the same as pareve foods, but not always. They may overlap, but they are not synonymous. It is possible for a processed vegan food which has no animal products in it to have been prepared in pots that contained animal products so that it is not pareve. On the other hand, some products could be pareve, but not acceptable to a vegan.


"For instance marshmallows made from gelatin produced from animal bones which may not have been ritually slaughtered, can be considered Pareve, because the bones have been so altered in the manufacturing process that the definition of kosher no longer applies to them." (ibid. p184)


We think it is pertinent to note in passing, that confusion among meanings is not confined to any single dietary system. The book above states that its recipes "all are vegan..." (p.16), but includes honey in some, a fairly common problem that ranks it among the many other "near-vegan" cookbooks.


It is clear that the various Kosher symbols have no specific relation to ethical vegetarianism or veganism, but are designed partly to certify that animals meet certain standards of slaughter, and largely for keeping the meat and dairy products in separate meals, not primarily from a desire to avoid them altogether.


Moreover, the degree of strictness certified by the symbols is far too lax to be dependable for vegetarian or vegan purposes. For example, in the Kosher system, fish and fish products are not considered "animal" and thus can be included where you might not expect animal products. (This may or may not also be true of egg derivatives, perhaps even chicken if birds were seen as on a par with fish; not sure about this. It would surely be as reasonable to consider the proverbial chicken soup as "meatless" -- if not exactly a pharmaceutical product -- as is the belief of perhaps 90% of Americans who "consider themselves vegetarian" including that legendary dietary ingredient "justalittlechickenandfish.")


Just as bad (as Kalechowski and Rasiel do state), when an ingredient or product that is clearly of animal origin has passed through some degree of processing, it may be considered acceptable. Thus, JELL-O brand of animal gelatin is passed as "Kosher-Pareve" because it isn't quite "meat" as such, and therefore can be eaten with meat or dairy dishes.


The manufacturer is happy to enlighten us on the reasoning:


"Source and Processing of Gelatin: Popular JELL-O Brand Gelatin is a fruit flavor gelatin product, manufactured to strict specifications in General Foods plants.


"The production of the gelatin starts with the refinement of collagen-bearing tissues of any animal that was raised and slaughtered for food purposes. The principal collagen-bearing tissue used is hide trimmings. Theses materials are carefully soaked in alkalies and/or acids and washed in clean water to remove almost all non-collagen constituents, including meat. During this soaking period the collagen is converted to gelatin. The treated materials are than cooked gently in pure water to extract the gelatin, which is further refined by filtration. The gelatin extract is then evaporated and dried to produce gelatin of the highest grade. (Contrary to common belief, gelatin is not manufactured from horns or hooves or meat of animals, for these do not contain the necessary collagen).


"It is interesting to note that during the manufacture of gelatin, chemical changes take place so that, in the final gelatin product, the composition and identity of the original material is completely eliminated. Because of this, gelatin is not considered a meat food product by the United States government. The plant is under supervision of the Federal Food and Drug Administration. If the government considered gelatin a meat food product, the plant would operate under the Meat Inspection Branch of the Department of Agriculture.


"JELL-O Brand Gelatin is certified as Kosher by a recognized orthodox Rabbi as per enclosed RESPONSUM. In addition to being kosher, JELL-O is also Pareve, and can be eaten with either a meat meal or a dairy meal.


"NOTE: The most important use of plain gelatin in the food industry is in the manufacture of gelatin desserts. It is also used by bakers in cake icings, in the manufacture of chiffon-type pies, for candies, marshmallows, and ice cream. Substantial quantities of gelatin are also used in the manufacture of medicines, for coating pills, making capsules and other preparations."


Parenthetically, we realize that the U.S. Government is kindly disposed toward agribiz interests, though their supervision and inspections leave much to be desired; and they inspire little confidence when it comes to keeping the consumer's best interests at heart. Regulations on labeling seem designed to permit all sorts of swill to slip in under such euphemisms as "natural flavorings," "certified colors," etc.


(On the other hand, the Emes Co. uses neither animal-gelatin nor bone-refined sugar in their marshmallows etc. but labels its agar-gel as simply "Kosher Gelatin" to reach a wider market. Their phone is 630-627-6204.)


When we investigated beef-bone char used to filter most refined cane sugar, a sugar-firm executive was very understanding about our concerns. Jewish himself, he assured us that bone char is accepted in the Kosher system as "non-animal" because it is sufficiently processed-animal, although he agreed it wouldn't meet ingredient standards of strictness largely sought and practiced by vegetarians and vegans.


It is rather like the advocates of organic bone-meal tablets who, some years ago, advised with a straight face that "vegetarians can rest assured that all the meat has been removed before the bones are ground up"!


Presumably much of the arsenal of ingredients that may be processed from meat or milk (or egg) derivatives (such as the mono and diglycerides, lactates, stearates, lecithin, etc.) might slip into the "neither meat nor milk" category, and be Kosher certified as acceptable for use with meat or dairy.


Clearly, for vegie/vegan purposes, a Kosher symbol of any type, is at best a vague signpost for you that a prepared food might be non-animal, and may bear further examination. It still requires a very close reading of the ingredients, exactly what we recommend doing as a start in each instance anyway; and even this might not reveal the ultimate origin of some of the esoteric but widely-used stuff.


In that case you can simply leave it alone, or contact the individual manufacturer with your inquiry about a specific ingredient -- and make sure that they understand that animal-once-removed is not the same as non-animal, for your purposes.


Is it possible to do good and do well at the same time?