Anyone who follows a kosher diet in the US has undoubtedly noticed that the variety of foods they can eat has expanded greatly over the past couple of decades.
There was a time when only a small segment of shelf space at a specialty food store might have carried kosher- certified matzo, gefilte fish and other traditional “Jewish foods.” Today, however, at most grocery stores, including chains such as Whole Foods, it’s not uncommon to find sections of kosher-certified products, ranging from snacks and soft drinks to organic and specialty foods.
“Thirty years ago something happened: The kosher consumer woke up and wanted to eat what everybody else eats,” says Harold Weiss, executive vice president of Kayco, one of the largest producers and importers of kosher food. “If you look back 30 years or more, the kosher set would have been very traditional and limited, but now there’s a lot of variety. Some of our greatest successes are chestnuts, beets and products that are imported from Italy.”Today there are well over 250,000 kosher-certified items, says industry expert Menachem Lubinsky. Click To Tweet
He started Kosherfest, the first kosher food trade show, and serves as the editor-in-chief on the industry newsletter KosherToday.
Similar in guidelines, yet different in beliefs, those in the US who follow the Islam-based halal dietary restrictions do not yet have the same variety.
“If you are strictly following it, it’s next to impossible to have a halal-certified diet. It’s 70 to 80 years behind the kosher industry,” says Mansoor Rafiq Umar, vice president of the halal certification auditing company Halal Watch World. “Today, there are many more products, but not to the level that kosher products are available.”
What’s permissible for those following either the kosher or halal lifestyle depends on the interpretations of the Jewish and Muslim dietary laws that are laid out in the Torah and the Quran, respectively. Although the guidelines differ from each other, a common thread lies in the regulatory processes. “This really was the first form of food regulation in history,” Umar says.
A common misconception is that kosher foods are blessed by a rabbi. In fact, they are not blessed but supervised during the production, processing, slaughter and other preparation steps before heading to market.
“In terms of the kosher system in the US, we send inspectors to plants manufacturing kosher food,” explains Rabbi Menachem Genack, chief executive of OU Kosher, the world’s largest kosher certification agency. “People feel that the extra set of eyes, besides the FDA, gives them more of a sense of compliance.” The certifiers are there to watch over the specific laws as they pertain to the kosher diet, which restricts some ingredients among other concerns.
Halal is similar when it comes to the watchdog aspects.
“What it means to be certified halal is for a company to have an accredited third-party organization giving credibility to their product and to ensure it’s devoid of anything that’s forbidden to consume from a Muslim and Islamic perspective,” Umar says. In both cases, this involves looking into each and every ingredient and also the companies that produce each ingredient.
Are these certified foods healthier? The short answer is no.
As Weiss explained, the list of kosher-certified foods has expanded greatly, and although that has included branching out into the organic and natural food market—his company supplies Whole Foods and has a “Kosher Natural” line of products—it also includes a slew of highly processed, unhealthy kosher-certified products, such as soda, chips and other junk food.
That said, some aspects of kosher and halal practice and lifestyle could fall under healthy guidelines for a general diet.
A Message of Overall Health
“One of the terms of Jewish religious law is to try to stay healthy and be careful of what you eat,” Rabbi Genack says. “It says that you should be very careful to protect your life.” But he also explains that it’s up to the individual to choose a healthy diet. And that choice is becoming more prevalent in the kosher world.
“Modern trends are moving more toward healthier products that are sugar-free, gluten-free or organic,” Lubinsky says. “A verse says, ‘You shall protect your body,’ and the kosher trend follows the national trend. Walk into a Whole Foods, and you’ll see loads of kosher products.”
The halal lifestyle follows a similar belief that revolves around overall health.
“It’s about being careful and paying attention to what goes into our bodies,” Umar says. “Anything we eat affects our spirit, and when our spirit is affected, it affects our minds and ability to reason. The spirit is filtered through the mind. We believe that those things that go into the body have an effect on the soul.”The halal lifestyle prohibits intoxicants of any kind, including drugs and alcohol. Click To Tweet
Even body products that contain alcohol, such as mouthwash and creams, are prohibited.
Along with those restrictions, the Quran promotes moderation. “There is a rule of excess,” Umar says, explaining that the general rule for food consumption in the halal lifestyle is to fill one-third of the stomach with food, one-third with water and one-third with air. “‘It says to eat enough to make your back straight, until you’re energized,” Umar says. “If you must eat more, then it would be going into excess.”
That emphasis on moderation tends to reduce the sort of mindless eating that is common in modern life; Umar explains that following halal guidelines makes people “more aware consumers.”
Animal slaughter follows strict guidelines in both kosher and halal certification practices, which in turn can help control diseases related to contamination and cross-contamination.
When processing meat, halal standards require that machinery is completely cleansed, which is checked with swab testing. “If the test fails, they wash it again,” Umar says. Rabbi Genack adds that during mad cow disease outbreaks in the US, kosher-slaughtered animals were less susceptible due to the way the blood is drained from the animal.
And although it’s not necessarily health related, the more humane treatment of animals is a factor in some people’s choice of food.
“Jewish law is very strict about how the animals have to be treated,” Lubinsky says. “It says to feed the animal before you feed yourself. The belief is that this is the most humane way to kill an animal,” which, he explains, has to do with the sharpness of the knife and where the cut is made, among other factors.
“A veterinarian did a big study and found that the animal feels no pain,” Rabbi Genack adds. “If kosher slaughter is done properly, the animal is unconscious in seconds.”
According to Islamic law, the blade also needs to be sharpened correctly, the animals are not to look at other animals that are slaughtered, and one or two quick swipes of the blade should lead to a fast death.
According to the Quran, “there is merit or a reward for kindness to all living creatures,” Umar says. “It’s the cycle or circle of life. It should be done in a way that’s in accordance to Islamic ritual rights in order to be consumed.”
Meat Consumption & Restrictions
Both kosher and halal standards regulate what types of animals can and cannot be consumed, as long as they are slaughtered properly.
Among a number of guidelines, both prohibit pork and certain types of birds; kosher limits fish to only those with fins and tails; and halal prohibits the consumption of any carnivorous animals, as they may eat other animals that are deemed unclean.
“And anything processed, produced, manufactured or stored within anything in contact with those things previously mentioned would be cross-contamination,” Umar says.
Jewish dietary laws prohibit a person from consuming meat and dairy together. In terms of health, this means that many kosher products—Rabbi Genack points to the Oreo cookie as an example—have had to switch from a lard-based to a plant-based fat, making it more healthful. “You now see that with more kosher baked goods in America—less animal fat,” he says.
In some cases, such as with a cheeseburger, adds Lubinsky, you’re excluding extra fat and calories.
In the end, religious food restrictions such as kosher and halal don’t necessarily mean that those following the diet of that culture are eating healthier. As Rabbi Genack says, “In terms of a salami sandwich, it has the same fat content, and no advantage in that respect.”
But the restrictions do offer an overall standard—a thoughtful way of eating, if you will—that’s tied to deep-rooted and historic belief systems, both of which advocate taking good care of the body.