What Is Kosher Food?

"Kosher" describes any food or beverage that Jewish dietary laws allow a person to eat. It's not 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.

Here's thousands of years of kosher culture, broken down into bite-size pieces.

Kosher 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 contains commandments, called mitzvahs, to follow. These are 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.

How Does It Work?

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 do not chew their cud. So pork is not kosher.

Jewish dietary law governs the method of slaughter and processing and the slaughterhouse equipment. Meat is not kosher if the animal has 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 that are used to produce it have to be kosher, too.

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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, such as a salmon, bass, or trout.
  • Sea creatures that don't have fins and scales aren't kosher, such as shellfish, crabs, shrimp, and lobster.
  • Relatively few cheeses are kosher. That's because they include an enzyme called rennet that comes from the stomachs of cows. Kosher cheese can't contain animal-based rennet.

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 those.

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.

How Can I Spot Kosher Food?

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 handled 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.

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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 Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on November 21, 2019

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?"

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."

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