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Supervision of Flavor Production

What the big deal is about.
by: Judith Leff, Ph.D

reprinted with permission of The Kof-K Supervision Service.

When people hear about flavor companies and their complicated supervision, they are usually puzzled. For most of them, the word flavor evokes visions of supermarket shelves with their invariable boxes of flavors: vanilla, almond, lemon, orange, rum, peppermint, and anise, in natural or artificial versions. They naturally wonder what the big deal is about: a handful of flavors, always the same, what could be the problems? Most people are very surprised when they are introduced to the extremely complex world of flavors. First, flavors are usually associated with sweets and baked goods, and ice cream, sodas, and alcoholic drinks. In fact, at great proportion of flavors are savory. Savory flavors are used in meat products, dairy products, snacks of all kinds, soups, and gravies. A growing application of flavors is in the popular fake meats. The weirdest flavor I have come across in more than a decade of flavor reviews, is artificial sow’s (yes, it is sow with an s) milk flavor. Not only that, but it had to be kosher-certified! In addition, all flavors exist in astounding varieties. Flavor chemists are forever trying out new ingredient combinations in order to produce novel taste sensations. In addition, all the popular flavors, such as vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, and coffee exist in thousands of versions even in the same company. The goal is to find a combination that all will agree is, lets say, THE ULTIMATE STRAWBERRY FLAVOR. The search is always on for new, improved, and also cheaper ingredients. The flavor companies have, at last count, 3963 ingredients/chemicals to play with, which are Generally Accepted as Safe (GRAS). Furthermore the recent preoccupation with natural labels have spurred a whole new area of ingredient research: replacing the good old petrochemically derived ingredients with all natural ones. At this point, it is obvious enough why flavor companies require painstaking supervision.

The purpose of rabbinical supervision is to ensure that the finished product is indeed, beyond doubt, kosher. This means that the product is manufactured exclusively with approved chemicals and that the equipment used in processing also meets kosher requirements. Depending on the particular manufacturing situation, rabbinical supervision may be a monthly affair or may necessitate actual rabbinical presence sometimes 24hrs a day. Clearly, of all ingredients, flavors are the hardest to supervise. First, a single flavor often requires a record number of components, sometimes as many as 200. Second, the manufacturing processes themselves are very diverse and fraught with potential kashrus problems. Finally flavors and flavor ingredients do not lend themselves to post facto annulment when their presence in a product is less than 1.6% of the total. This is because the purpose of a flavor or a flavor ingredient is to have a noticeable effect even at the low concentration used.

Around fifteen years ago, flavor production was much simpler and the training for its supervision considerably easier. What have changed are the advent of Biotechnology and the pursuit of natural substances (in contradistinction to synthetic, petrochemically derived flavor chemicals). At that time, Kashrus organizations, especially those supervising many companies that produce and/or use flavor ingredients, such as the Kof-K, had to adapt very quickly to the new situation. Basically, kashrus supervision takes place at two levels: at the ingredient level where every ingredient must be checked, and at the manufacturing level where both ingredient and flavor manufacture have to be examined. Flavor supervision

Ideally, a flavor producing plant should be completely kosher and have a rabbi present at all times. The next best situation is when a kosher and non kosher producing plant has a constant rabbinical presence (hashgocho temidis). Most of the time, however, plants manufacture kosher and non kosher flavors without constant supervision. The following applies to such plants. In those situations, whenever a flavor includes “sensitive” ingredients, the production of that flavor requires on-going rabbinical supervision.

A sensitive ingredient is one where there is a reasonable doubt that a non-kosher form of that ingredient may, for a number of reasons (availability, cost, performance), be substituted for the kosher form. This is especially true if both forms of that ingredient are in the company’s inventory. They are then designated as parallel ingredients. Before deciding whether a flavor requires supervision because of its composition, one has to consider the following questions. Is the non-kosher ingredient better or cheaper then the kosher one? Are the majority of suppliers for a particular chemical under reliable rabbinical supervision? Does the flavor require an ingredient whose manufacture requires rabbinical presence?

The nature of sensitive ingredients may vary by countries, companies and plants. For example there are companies that use very sensitive ingredients such as glycerin or ethanol. The flavors that include them may not require supervision because the company never uses the non-kosher forms.

Sensitive ingredients

Fats and oils constitute the most common source of non kosher ingredients. These include, of course, animal and most fish fats and oils and all their primary derivatives such as glycerin and fatty acids. Furthermore, chemicals such as glycerides or fatty acids esters and all their derivatives regardless of how many times they have been reacted still have the same non kosher status as the original fat or oil. Even inherently kosher fatty acids (from plant-derived fats and oils) may become non-kosher through processing in equipment used for non-kosher items or transportation in non kosher tankers.

All products possibly derived from grapes are also sensitive. These include, grape juice, wine, vinegar, ethanol and its derivatives (esters among others), fusel oil and its constituents such as isoamyl alcohol and isobutyl alcohol.

Other sensitive ingredients include:

Production steps that require supervision

Because of the almost general presence of flavors in all processed food and even in non-food such as tobacco and toothpaste, a proper kosher supervision of flavor is essential.

Proper supervision means that the whole inventory of a plant has to be checked and approved. From then on, every new purchase has to have prior rabbinical approval. Then all kosher flavors must be reviewed, and approved, with or without stipulation for rabbinical supervision during its manufacture. Finally the kosher status of the equipment must be constantly monitored.

As we have seen, proper flavor supervision is extremely demanding because of the complexities of the ingredients and of the manufacturing processes. One might even conclude that the best way to evaluate the standards of a Kashrus organization is to examine their procedures for flavor certification.
This is hopefully the first of a series of articles where we will examine issues at the interface of modern food technology and Kashrus.

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