TORONTO — Barbi Lazarus looks for the kosher stamps on food not for religious reasons, but because she’s a vegan who shuns meat and milk.
“It does help,” says Lazarus. “There are kosher products that have been developed with that in mind.”
If Lazarus, 25, picks up a package that says “kosher pareve,” she can be sure there’s no hidden meat or dairy in it. And she doesn’t have to worry about unkosher animal gelatin. She still has to read labels. (Pareve includes eggs and fish, and fish gelatin may be substituted in kosher products such as marshmallows.) But the kosher stamp takes some of the guesswork out of shopping.
When she went vegan 11 years ago, Lazarus joined the growing ranks of consumers whose dietary interests intersect with those of kosher-observant Jews.
“Christians, Muslims, Jews and atheists alike are helping fuel the robust market for kosher foods,” according to a 2009 report by the research firm Mintel. It cited U.S. kosher food sales of $12.5 billion in 2008, a 64 per cent increase from five years earlier.
For consumers who intentionally purchased kosher foods, the top three reasons were quality (62 per cent), healthfulness (51 per cent) and food safety (34 per cent), Mintel found. Fourteen per cent adhered to Jewish dietary laws, while 10 per cent followed other similar religious dietary rules.
Menachem Lubinsky, meanwhile, says the average annual growth of the kosher market has been 15 per cent from 2000 to 2008, and 21 per cent of consumers now regularly or occasionally purchase kosher products because they are kosher (for instance, hot dogs).
Lubinsky is editor of Kosher Today and co-producer of the annual Kosherfest, the largest kosher food, beverage and spirits trade show in North America. According to his market report for 2009, consumers’ reasons for buying kosher include health and safety (55 per cent), vegetarianism (38 per cent), flavour (35 per cent), following an Islamic halal diet (16 per cent) and keeping kosher all the time (eight per cent).
The Mintel and Lubinsky reports are American, but the situation in this country is similar, says David Woolf, spokesman for the Kashruth Council of Canada (www.cor.ca).
“There are many avenues being covered by the kosher symbol,” Woolf says. “More and more non-Jews are looking at that symbol and saying this product represents food safety and food quality.”
The council is the largest kosher certification agency in Canada. More than 45,000 products carry its symbol: COR surrounded by a circle.
Rabbis oversee kosher certifications. Plants are supervised, ingredients reviewed, processing methods investigated. There are restrictions on what animals can be fed, and they are checked for disease before being ritually slaughtered.
Kosher food is perceived as being more wholesome, even pure, with better traceability.
“It’s considered approved by an authority higher than the government,” Norene Gilletz says, paraphrasing a popular old kosher ad slogan.
Gilletz is a leading author of kosher cookbooks in Canada.
Certifiers avoid extreme claims about kosher. A typical description comes from Rabbi Sholom Adler, Kashrus v administrator with COR: “It has more supervision.” And Woolf likens certification to “watching over the shoulder of government inspectors.”
The kosher market includes traditional products such as matzo, as well as mainstream items in a spectrum from condiments to pastries to prepared foods to paper towels. Top trends in new kosher items are prepared foods and “health-oriented products,” Woolf says.
Consumers span the spectrum, too. Shellfish are not kosher, so a kosher stamp is a signal for those with shellfish allergies.
For the lactose-intolerant, a product labelled pareve is sure to be dairy-free. People with celiac disease and gluten sensitivities stock up this time of year on “kosher for Passover” products. During Passover, wheat and other grains are restricted.
Cleanliness is an issue. For instance, the government is more tolerant of insect parts in food.
Gilletz is developing a line of kosher vegetarian prepared foods for Central-Epicure in Toronto. She can’t use broccoli tops because of potential infestation.
Insects are not kosher, so produce must be meticulously inspected, Gilletz notes. Magnifying glasses and even light tables may be used to peer at leafy greens. Kosher shoppers can buy triple-washed bagged lettuce.
Muslims, Hindus and Seventh-day Adventists with similar or overlapping dietary restrictions find some kosher foods suitable.
Amna Malik is Muslim and doesn’t eat standard cheese with forbidden rennet. She says Muslims could purchase halal cheese or kosher cheese.
“Kosher cheese is a great alternative, especially because Judaism has very similar restrictions to the diet as we do,” says Malik, a student at Ryerson University who runs healthy food demos for peers.
Still, a lot of consumers are oblivious to kosher products. Those in the know tend to be familiar with Jewish culture. Lazarus, for example, is Jewish but not observant.
She suspects many shoppers are unknowingly tossing kosher products in their carts. Others don’t know enough about kosher rules to realize they may fill particular dietary needs.
“There’s probably a lot of confusion,” Lazarus says.
Kosher does have its downsides.
Martha Stewart is not the only foodie who buys kosher chicken because it’s considered tastier. But the sodium is an issue. (Kosher meat is salted to draw out the blood.)
Kosher shoppers still have access to plenty of junky treats and sweets, like potato chips and soy “ice cream.”
“Kosher products are not necessarily healthy,” Lazarus says. “When I first went vegetarian and vegan, I went to that (Thornhill) Sobeys. I saw this huge freezer … I was just amazed at the fake ice creams.” She is referring to the Sobeys Kosher Market in the community just north of Toronto.
You know kosher is on a roll when a major chain dedicates a supermarket to it. The market has a kosher bakery (all pareve), kosher prepped foods (from sushi to vegetarian meals) and a deli with a gate separating the meat and dairy sections. There are many Israeli products, as well as local ones such as Toronto’s Chai Kosher Poultry.
“Kosher is a developing niche for many supermarkets, also for Costco and Wal-Mart,” Gilletz says.