Kosher Food

What Is Kosher Food?

Kosher food is any food or beverage that Jewish dietary laws allow a person to eat. It isn’t a style of cooking. Keeping kosher is much more complex than that. Rules are the foundation of kosher food.

Rooted in history and religion, each law is specific about what types of food you can and can't eat. The laws are also strict about the way you prepare, process, and inspect food if you're going to call it kosher.

Keeping kosher is a commitment. It governs what you eat and the way you prepare your meals and use your kitchen and dishes every day. But anyone can eat kosher food. You probably have kosher items in your pantry right now.

Are kosher foods only for Jewish people?

Not all Jewish people keep kosher, and kosher foods aren't just for Jewish people. For example, some soft drinks are kosher, and people of all backgrounds and religions drink them.

Is kosher food easy to find?

There's a kosher version of almost every food and drink in the world. Almost half of all foods you find in a package are kosher. Many supermarkets have kosher food sections.

Kosher Food History

Scholars believe that Jewish dietary laws may be the first food laws on record. The general principles of keeping kosher are in the Torah, part of the Jewish bible. It has commandments -- called mitzvahs -- to follow as ways to obey God. Keeping kosher is one of them.

The dietary laws haven't changed from what the Torah commanded, but they've grown over the years to keep up with technology.

Kosher Food Categories

It starts out simple. Kosher foods fall into three categories: meat, dairy, and "pareve," sometimes spelled "parve."

Meat. Kosher meat comes from animals that have split hooves -- like cows, sheep, and goats -- and chew their cud. When these types of animals eat, partially digested food (cud) returns from the stomach for them to chew again. Pigs, for example, have split hooves, but they don’t chew their cud. So pork isn’t kosher.

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Jewish dietary law governs the method of slaughter and processing and the slaughterhouse equipment. Meat isn’t kosher if the animal died naturally. Certain parts of an animal, including types of fat, nerves, and all of the blood, are never kosher.

Dairy. All dairy products, like milk, butter, yogurt, and cheese, must come from a kosher animal. All ingredients and equipment used to produce it have to be kosher, too.

Pareve. This is the category for kosher foods that aren't meat or dairy. It covers everything from eggs and fish to fruits, vegetables, pasta, coffee, and packaged foods.

There are multiple layers of laws beneath these three. Here are just a few:

  • You can't eat milk and meat products at the same time, put them on the same dishes, or prepare or eat them with the same utensils. You also have to wait a certain amount of time to eat milk after meat and vice versa.
  • Fish is kosher if it has both fins and scales, like salmon, bass, or trout.
  • Sea creatures that don't have fins and scales aren't kosher. This includes shellfish, crabs, shrimp, and lobster.
  • Only a few cheeses are kosher. That's because they include an enzyme called rennet that comes from the stomachs of cows. Kosher cheese can't have animal-based rennet.

Plant-based foods

Plant-based foods are pareve, but they have their own set of kosher guidelines:

Bread and grains. Grains used to bake bread are kosher, but bread is only kosher if it’s certified kosher. This is to make sure the baking process didn’t add non-kosher ingredients and the equipment used for baking wasn’t greased with fats or oils from animals. 

Fruits and vegetables. Fresh produce is pareve, but you have to check it for insects before eating because they aren’t kosher. If you find any, you can wash them off. Canned or frozen produce isn’t kosher if it was processed using non-kosher equipment or ingredients. 

Nuts seeds, and oils. Nuts and seeds are kosher in their natural form. But if they’ve been processed, they have to be certified kosher. Oils have to come from ingredients that were kosher in the first place, then be certified kosher to ensure they didn’t come in contact with non-kosher ingredients when they were processed.

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Wine. In order to be kosher, wine must be prepared under strict rules and certified by an Orthodox rabbi.

Kosher food restrictions

Extra restrictions apply during the Jewish holiday of Passover. In addition to all the other kosher guidelines, Jewish people don’t eat anything with grain that has risen or fermented. These forbidden foods are called “chametz.”

  • Foods that aren’t kosher for Passover include breads, pastas, beers, liquors, and more.
  • The only grain product that may be kosher for Passover is matzah, and it must be certified.
  • Processed foods, including matzah, must have a label saying they are kosher for Passover. Look for a “P” next to the seal that certifies it’s kosher.
  • Kosher meat, fish, and chicken and fresh produce are kosher for Passover as long as they didn’t come into contact with chametz.
  • Observant Jewish people scour their kitchens, dishes, pots, pans, and utensils to make sure they have no trace of chametz. 

Kosher Food Certification

Kosher certifications are on the packaging of any product considered kosher:

  • A "K" means kosher certified. If the "K" is in a circle, it means the company OK Kosher Certification approved the product as kosher.
  • When there's a "D" after the "K," it means the product has dairy or that processing equipment that handles this food also handles dairy. The rules for dairy products apply when you eat that item. For example, you can't eat it with meat.
  • The word "pareve" or "parve" after the kosher symbol means it's neutral -- not dairy or meat, but still kosher. A "U" in a circle means the same thing.
  • A "P" means the product is kosher for the Jewish holiday Passover, which has its own dietary laws.

Are There Any Health Benefits to Keeping Kosher?

Most Jewish people who keep kosher do so because the Torah says to, not for health reasons. But kosher symbols on products mean that each ingredient, even food additives, meets strict regulations. It's especially helpful if you have allergies to certain foods like dairy products.

You might also appreciate kosher food labels if you are vegetarian or vegan. Kosher food packaging must note when the food shared equipment with meat or dairy.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on July 27, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

Kashrut Division of the London Beth Din: "Health Benefits of a Kosher Diet."

Institute of Food Technologists: "Kosher Food Q&A."

OU Kosher: "Kosher Food: The Kosher Primer."

OK Kosher Certification: "Frequently Asked Questions," "Calling It Kosher: How to and Why." 

Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard: "The Jewish Dietary Laws and Their Foundation."

Chabad.org: "What Is Torah? A Comprehensive Overview," "Why Do We Keep Kosher?"  ”Are Nuts Kosher for Passover?” “What is Kosher for Passover?” “Kosher Fruits and Vegetables.”

Indiana Historical Society: "Lesson Plans: Keeping Kosher." 

NSW Board of Jewish Education: "Keeping Kosher Explained for Kids."

Kids with Food Allergies, A Division of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: "Kosher Labeling and Milk or Dairy Allergy."

Food Allergy Research & Education: "Kosher Labeling and Food Allergies."

ScienceDirect: Food Science: “Religious Food Regulations – Kosher Labeling.”

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