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Kosher In The Lab // A Food Scientist Reveals the Secrets of the Food on your Plate

By Riva Pomerantz

Copyright ©2018 Ami Magazine. All Rights Reserved - Reprinted with permission of Ami Magazine.

That yogurt you just finished, those slices of bread you sent off with your kids for lunch, and the chocolate bar you’re hoarding for a late afternoon pick-me-up, all have something fascinating in common: they’ve all been created with the help of countless food scientists. When we think about how our food is created, farmers milking the cows comes to mind; we conjure up images of the machine operators, or the bakers expertly shaping golden challos. But behind every item you’ll find on store shelves is a less-visible team of food scientists whose job is to make sure that the food we eat—from apples to chicken nuggets—is safe, delicious, and stays fresh until its expiration date.

Arlene Mathes-Scharf originally became a food scientist because she was curious about kashrus. “At the time, when I was looking into graduate school, there was really very little that was kosher certified. In those days, we read the labels to know if we could eat something. I thought, why not go into food science and find out what’s behind these ingredients so I could understand more about kashrus!” It’s little wonder, then, that with her curiosity for kashrus she became the creator and CEO of kashrut.com, the longest-running consumer website that focuses on kashrus information and alerts, with over 6,000 kosher alerts posted to-date.

It’s food scientists who take homemade recipes and re-create them as something that can be manufactured in a plant and sold on store shelves. Arlene delineates the pitfalls that food scientists need to navigate, opening my eyes to a world I had never before pondered.

“Imagine the brownies that you make at home. In a couple of days sitting out on your counter, they’re stale. At the end of the week, they’re moldy. If you want to make brownies that aren’t rancid by the time they hit the stores, they need to be made completely differently. They’re going to need an anti-staling agent, an anti-mold agent, a preservative; every ingredient on a food label serves a different purpose to make that product better for the consumer,” she explains. “Sometimes you have a company that doesn’t understand the importance of having food scientists involved in the creation of their product, and it can be disastrous.”

She cites a recent case-in-point. The aptly-named Deathwish Coffee was found to be contaminated with botulism because the company did not fully understand the way the anaerobic bacteria clostridium botulinum functions, so they failed to take measures to protect their coffee from poisonous spores. “Although, if they hadn’t named their coffee ‘Deathwish’ it probably wouldn’t have made it to the news,” she concedes. Still, the importance of working with food scientists cannot be underestimated, especially for home businesses that want to expand to sell commercially. “Food scientists know how spray-drying a food is supposed to feel in the consumer’s mouth, and how heat transfers in huge commercial kettles to make sure the food stays hot enough, just to give a couple of examples.

“Here’s another one: When you make your own salad dressing at home, the oil separates from the rest of the ingredients. But when you buy a salad dressing from the store, you want it to be completely blended together so you don’t need to shake it before using it. So we’ll add an emulsifier to the recipe.”

How about those pre-cut salads we eat by the bagfuls? By far the biggest gift to dieters and balebustas in recent history! Do we ever stop and think how that lettuce stays so crisp and fresh for so long? Yet another food scientist feat! “A vegetable is a living plant and it takes a very delicate system to keep it alive and fresh. You want some gases in and other gases out. Think about your lettuce that you cut up at home. How long does it last in your fridge before it wilts or turns brown? A day? Two days? These bagged salads are washed in California, it takes three or four days just to get them to your house, and they can still be fresh two to four days later! There’s a whole science to how it’s made. The way the veggies are washed, the plastics that are involved in making a bag that maintains just the right atmosphere inside…”

“Give us the insider scoop!” I cajole. “I know they put something in those salads—the vegetables taste very different from fresh veggies. What do they use?”

“I don’t really know,” Arlene says. “Maybe citric acid? Each manufacturer does something different.”

“Well, do you know and you’re not allowed to tell me because it’s a trade secret?” I press.

Arlene admits that sometimes there are trade secrets involved, but in the case of the bagged lettuce she does not have insider information. “But some of them are allowed for Pesach without certification while others are not, so that means they’re processing them differently,” she points out.

While food science is the holistic study of food, the field includes a variety of sub-specialties, including microbiology, chemical engineering, food chemistry, and toxicology. So when I excitedly ask Arlene about the hotly debated topic of food additives, my hopes are quickly dashed when she tells me that it would take a toxicologist to discuss the pros and cons of monosodium glutamate and it is not her area of expertise. Oh well. However, I discover, too late, that I have just walked headlong into a food scientist’s pet peeve.

“Chemicals! Everyone’s always complaining about chemicals!” cries Arlene. “We laugh about this all the time. Everything’s a chemical! Water, table salt and sugar are all chemicals. Everything’s actually comprised of chemicals, if you think about it! Everything we eat is a chemical, and they’re all based on food! Chemicals, by the way, are natural! Digestion that happens in your body uses chemicals, by the way!”

Whoops! But there’s more.

“People are always complaining about the chemicals in our food, but let me ask you this: Do we really want to go back to the old world where people didn’t have enough to eat and the only thing they had was what they produced in their garden?!

“Many years ago, we took my husband’s grandfather to the Boston-area Plymouth Plantation, a preserved plantation from the 1600s that shows how people lived when they came to the United States 400 years ago. Our zeide was from the shtetl, a man in his 80s, and he saw the displays and said, ‘What’s so special? Looks just like the shtetl I left in Russia!’ The fact is that we forget we’re so spoiled. That’s how people lived not that long ago, before the processed foods industry came around. People starved! If you had a bad harvest, you had nothing to eat. We don’t even realize how spoiled we are! We have foods on our table from all around the world. If it weren’t for ‘chemicals,’ none of that would be available. Because we’ve figured out how to develop a controlled atmosphere and how to transport food so that it stays fresh and safe, we can make all this happen.

“Even canning wasn’t perfected until Napoleon Bonaparte offered a prize for anyone who could innovate a way to feed his troops—that’s how canning was made scientific, in the 1800’s. Before that, you were very limited. In the winter, in Russia, you were in trouble. As an aside, that’s why Europeans started exploring the world, because they were looking for spices to use as preservatives in food and also to cover up the taste of the spoiled food they were eating. Do we really want to go back to those ‘chemical-free’ days? I don’t think so!”

No question, she makes a very good point.

There has, however, been a new emphasis in the manufacturing world on using natural additives to replace synthetic substances. Rosemary and oregano extract, for example, are widely used in Israel as natural preservatives and other companies are catching on. Mustard, she tells me, is actually a natural emulsifier. Natural sourced ingredients are, however, more expensive, and, as Arlene explains, they may work differently, necessitating changes in the delicate “ecosystem” of a particular food, which makes them trickier to implement.

Ironically, though, keeping kosher is what nixed Arlene’s plans to work as a food scientist. “I didn’t realize that a food scientist is required to taste all the food that she is working with,” she laments. “That pretty much killed my chances of working in the industry.” Since heimishe companies private label, it is extremely rare, if not impossible, to find food companies that run only kosher products. Therefore, a kashrus-observing food scientist, who cannot taste treif, cannot find a suitable job. “Had I realized this from the beginning, I would have gone into some other aspect, like toxicology, which assesses the safety of additives.” Still, her quest for kosher was destined to take her to places she never even dreamed of treading. When she realized how difficult it would be to work in her field of study, Arlene decided to become—quite literally—a kosher expert. “I did a lot of reading of kashrus books, whatever I could get my hands on, and I used my food science background to really understand the nitty-gritty.” She then got a job working for a local kashrus agency, which, she quips, “was basically the work of a rabbinic coordinator without the title or the pay!” In a field largely peopled by men, especially in the 1990s, having a woman “mashgichah” going into the plants was, as Arlene’s supervisor told her, “past nisht.”

Today, nearly 30 years later, a lot has changed. The Star-K and the OU, according to Arlene, are now offering classes in kashrus for women and some kashrus organizations are of the opinion that women, with their finely-attuned people skills, may actually be better mashgichos for places such as nursing homes, where there’s constant staff turnover and the “rules” need to be patiently explained and diplomacy is of essence.

Her brainchild, kashrut.com, was born from a decidedly unkosher circumstance.

“It was 1994. I got a call from a friend who heard from a co-worker that a local supermarket had pepperoni pizza with an OU on it. I went to the store, bought the pizza, took it and photocopied the label and faxed it to the OU, which confirmed that it was a bad label. The OU then put an ad in the local Jewish newspaper warning people about the mislabeled pizza. A year after that, it was dairy tuna fish. The Jewish Press ran a warning that a certain brand of tuna fish was mislabeled as pareve and it was really dairy. Well, a friend of mine had a case of this fish in her house and she didn’t read the Jewish Press, so she didn’t know that it was dairy!”

The Internet was very young in those days, but Arlene intuitively realized that for real-time, important alerts, newspaper ads were not the way to go. She bravely opened her own website, with nothing but willingness and her technical skills, and kashrut.com was born. Arlene reached out to all the kashrus agencies that existed at the time and asked them to fax their alerts, which she then posted on her site. With time, the website expanded to include a Pesach section with all the kashrus-related information listed there, as well as other important information such as food safety recalls. The website has no bells and whistles, which Arlene doesn’t mind. “People always tell me I should upgrade it, but it’s easy to load, easy to maintain, and it works, so that’s all we need!”

Arlene’s kashrus alerts are popular and timely. Her website has been averaging 30-45,000 visitors each month and approximately 7,000 people from all over the world have signed up to receive her emails. In addition, she gets myriad inquiries of all types with questions on every topic imaginable, which she diligently answers. “I have a list of kosher fish on the website and I’ve gotten tons of questions from gentile visitors to the site specifically about fish. ‘I’m a religious Christian and I follow the Bible. Can you tell me which fish are kosher?’” From her vantage point managing kashrut.com, Arlene notes the change in communication over the years. “I used to get all sorts of interesting emails giving me the full story of the inquirer. Now, with text messages, I just get hasty sound-bytes, ‘XYZ kosher?’ No more stories,” she chuckles wryly.

Once a scientist, always a scientist. Lest you think that Arlene simply serves as a conduit between the various kashrus agencies and her site visitors, think again. “I fact-check everything I post,” she explains. “Let’s say I get an alert from Agency B about Agency A, I’ll call up Agency A just to make sure that the information is accurate.” It’s a full-time job, except that it’s completely volunteer, although Arlene hopes that kosher manufacturers will recognize the relevance and importance of her work and help support it by advertising on her website.

Meanwhile, Arlene’s other day job is serving as a kosher consultant where she employs her background in food science as well as her expertise in kashrus to help companies with all things kosher. “I can help non-kosher manufacturers find kosher companies that can private-label their products. Or I can work with companies that have a product that is currently non-kosher and help them find kosher substitutes for their ingredients,” she says.

It’s mind-boggling to realize how kashrus has become a mainstay in the entire food manufacturing universe. “When you have major companies like Kellogg’s, Post, General Mills—it’s just incredible! The American kosher population is tiny, but there’s an amazing percentage of products that are kosher. Basic ingredients are now kosher certified, so you can have clam chowder where everything except the clam is all 100% kosher!”

Interestingly, Arlene credits Menachem Lubinsky, the brains behind the annual Kosherfest exhibition, with spurring the kosher industry to expand the way it has. “Since there’s a forum for showcasing kosher products, people are inspired and empowered to create new foods and ingredients,” she posits. “Whatever you want to say about it, the kosher industry is a neis, an outright miracle!”

She has four grown children (one daughter is actually a toxicologist!) and eleven grandchildren, Baruch Hashem, and her life is full to capacity. As we try to set up a time for an interview, she tells me she can’t do Thursday afternoon because she “walks the eiruv with a friend.” That’s a new one for me! Turns out, she was quite serious. In Sharon, MA, dozens of residents have taken upon themselves to check the eiruv by walking designated lengths every Thursday afternoon before dark, or Friday morning, to verify its kashrus. Arlene walks two miles with her friend every week to check that all the wires are properly lined up! Talk about quest for kosher!

There’s no end to Arlene’s knowledge about kashrus and the science behind it, but she leaves me with an apt observation that puts Torah right at the forefront. “I’ll tell companies, ‘The rabbis recognized the existence of residue on equipment a thousand years before the FDA!’” she says proudly. There’s nothing egalitarian about Arlene; she stands ready to do her part for klal Yisrael with her amazing depth and breadth of knowledge, yet she leaves the paskening to the rabbanim.

What’s it like to be raised by a kashrus expert? Well, when Arlene’s daughter was once asked, rather rhetorically, “Who would you call if you had a question about kashrus?” Without missing a beat, she replied, “My mother!”

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