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Ta'am Tov B'Tuv Ta'am: A Flavorful Blend of Kashrus and Spices

by Rabbi Tzvi Rosen, Star-K Kashrus Administrator

Unquestionably, the one area of food ingredients that attests to the global nature of the food industry is the spice trade. The Torah is replete with reference to the spice trade from the spice traders that carried Yosef to Egypt, to the incense that was fundamental to the tabernacle service. Spice trading has thrived from the beginning of commercial trade. New World exploration forged forward fueled with the hope of finding shorter spice routes to the Far East. Centuries earlier Marco Polo witnessed flourishing spice trade first hand, during his travels to the Orient. Spice empires thrived as the European powers deepened their trade with the Far East. Today, spice trading continues to prosper. Spices hail from Albania to Zanzibar and arrive to these shores in many different forms as whole spices, spice extracts, oleoresins and essential oils. What are the kashrus issues facing this fascinating ancient/contemporary industry? Have modern processing techniques simplified or complicated matters?

What are spices?
Are spices and herbs synonymous, or not?

The term spice is derived from the Latin "species aromatacea", meaning fruits of the earth and are defined as an "aromatic, pungent vegetable substance used to flower food". Charlemagne defined herbs as "a friend of physicians and the praise of cooks". Herbs are defined as a "plant without woody tissue that withers and dies after flowering". The FDA considers spices and herbs as one and the same and categorically defines culinary spice and herbs as an aromatic vegetable that gives flavor and seasoning to food rather than nutritional value. Spice sources include bark, bulbs, buds, flowers, fruit leaves, roots, seeds and plant tops. Halacha (Jewish law as pertains to kashrus) categorically classifies herbs and spices as products which are flavoring agents for food.

Below is a list of some popular spices obtained from different plant parts:

Plant Part:  Spices:
Fruit/Berry Allspice, Capers, Capsicum (Cayenne - Red Pepper), Mace, Nutmeg, Paprika, Black Pepper, White Pepper
Bark/Stem Cinnamon
Seed Anise, Anise China Star, Caraway, Cardamon, Celery, Coriander, Cumin, Dill Seed/Dill Weed, Fennel, Fenugreek, Mustard, Oregano, Poppy, Sesame
Leaf Chervil, Rosemary
Stem Basil, Bay, Chives, Marjoram, Oregano, Parsley, Sage, Tarragon, Thyme
Bud/Bulb Cloves, Garlic, Onion
Flower/Stamen Saffron
Root/Rhizome Ginger, Horseradish, TurmericWhole Spices

Whole Spices

Today, much of the imported spices are shipped to spice facilities in the same fashion that has been done from the beginning of the spice trade. Spices are picked by hand, dehydrated, placed in burlap bags and shipped to their destinations in their whole natural dried state. Most spice dehydration is done in the field, known in the spice trade as sun drying. Other spices are air dried in hot air drying tunnels. Drying reduces moisture content making it less costly to ship.

Much of the rigorous processing of the modern day spice house centers around the cleaning and decontamination of any undesirable adulterants. First and foremost spices have to be cleaned. The spices pass through metal detectors and destoners to remove foreign material or debris. They are then sifted through many sifting screens so that any small contaminants or insects will be ferreted out. This process is only the initial stage of modern day spice house cleaning.

Spices often have to be micro biologically cleaned as well. To this end, one of three processes can be employed. Whole seeds and berries are cleaned through steam distillation. Another treatment employs ethylene oxide gas. The third method is radiation. These processes generally rid the spices of almost 100% of bacteria, yeast, molds, insects and other forms of living matter. Due to these aggressive cleaning processes, the problem of insect infestation in spices dehydrates is virtually nonexistent. Any residual insect fragments that were not removed by cleaning, screening and fumigation would be Batul. Since drying and cleaning equipment are used exclusively for spice productions, cross usage of the equipment for other products is not a concern.

Spices from Israel

Spices imported from Eretz Yisroel present different kashrus concerns. Modern cultivation techniques have given indigenous spices, spices that have grown in its natural country of origin, competition from countries that have similar climate which can produce the same spices as their indigenous counterparts. This has given rise to spices and herbs growing in all areas of the world.

Israel is a major supplier of onion, garlic and bay leaves. Kashrus Agencies are aware that Israel is a major supplier of parsley and paprika. Furthermore, some Israeli companies play a significant role in the dehydration of spices, hence, the country of origin becomes a major issue, and the separation of proper tithes is of paramount concern. It is crucial that the country of origin be determined when giving kosher certification to a spice company. When a consumer purchases a spice product and the country of origin is not stated, one can purchase spices without worry, based on the concepts of Safek Derabanan LeKula and Holchin Achar Harov.


Is it correct to assume that all spices that are sold in the spice and seasoning section of the supermarket are additive free?

The answer is not always. True, most spices that state that they are 100% pure are indeed pure. However, even in many pure spices, in order to reduce caking or moisture (spices' natural nemesis), anti caking additives are often added to help keep the spice dry and free flowing.

Typically, a silica gel (sodium silicate), is added as an anti-caking agent. Silica gel is a kosher anti-caking agent. Calcium stearate, magnesium stearate and/or potassium stearate can and have also been used as effective anti-caking agents. Stearates are typically derived from non kosher fats. Stearic acid can also be derived from vegetable sources. Therefore, even pure spices needs careful scrutiny. Typically, pure spices list anti-caking agents in their ingredient declaration. However, if a pure spice does not list anti- caking agents on the ingredient panel, based on the concept of Holchin Achar Harov , one does not have a halachic concern and can make the purchase.

Spice Blends

Not all powders that come in little bottles in the spice section are pure spices. For instance, curry powder does not come from curry spice. Curry powder is a spice blend. American curry powder is a blend of eight spices. In India, curry powder changes from province to province. Curry powder can have hundreds of variations. Similarly, chili powder is a spice blend whose ingredient compositions change with the food applications. Chili powder is not only used in chili; it is used in sauces, frankfurters, meats and pickles. Spice blends brings with it a plethora of kashrus considerations and concerns.

There are no hard and fast rules to a spice blend. As with flavors, spice blends are very much a subjective flavor art. Interestingly, even liquid flavors such as vinegar, sherry and brandy can be added, and the blend can retain its powdery nature with the addition of anti-caking agents. Furthermore, flavor dehydrates such as dehydrated chicken, meat and cheese powders can be added to the blend. These added flavoring agents which are not kosher can be generically listed as natural flavors. Each spice formulation has to stand on its own merit and each formula has to be submitted to the certification agency for review and certification. Furthermore, spice blending equipment such as ribbon blenders and filters have to be checked for their cleanliness to make sure that no residual non kosher spice blend remains are left behind. In a nutshell, spice blends need reliable kosher certification.

Spice Extraction

Some relatively new products extracted from spices that are an important consideration to kosher certifying organizations are essential oils and oleoresins.

The extraction of essential oils and oleoresins provide food technologists with many advantages, as food manufacturers can select the specific flavor profiles with much greater precision than if they were to simply use blends of whole spices. In addition, hygienic concerns as well as transportation costs are greatly reduced if the oils and oleoresins are extracted close to the areas where the spices are grown.

Oleoresins use an organic solvent such as hexane or alcohol to extract the resin from the spice. The solvent is then drawn off leaving the spice oleoresin behind. The chief kashrus concerns surrounding oleoresins are, in the event alcohol is used, is the alcohol kosher and kosher for Passover, and are the oleoresins stabilized with non-kosher ingredients?

Essential spice oils are usually cold pressed or extracted with steam generally without the use of any solvent. Cold pressing or steam distillation do not present kashrus concerns.

As new avenues for industrial spice applications arise, new techniques for more effective, uniform spice extracts has arisen. Spices, oleoresins and essential oils are now shipped in dispersions of oil or other liquids. Furthermore, dispersions can be standardized with other ingredients such as mono-di or tri glycerides or polysorbates all requiring strict kosher certification. Another technique for easier spice application is to make a liquid emulsion of spices, essential oils and a starch and spray dry the essential oil to a powder. In this case, the spray drying process has to be reviewed to make sure that no non kosher products are being spray dried on the same equipment. Oleoresins and extracts must have reliable certification.

Pesach Spice Blends

Spice seasoning blend formulations use flavor enhancers and other flavor ingredients such as MSG which has many applications, sodium erythrobate (used in deli meats), dextrose, maltodextrin and hydrolyzed vegetable proteins. Many of these flavorings and ingredients are corn or soy based. The halachic issue governing these ingredients is whether these products can be used in kosher for Pesach spice blend formulations. Some ingredients are clearly kitniyos, legumes, forbidden by Ashkenazim on Passover. Other processed ingredients are derived from kitniyos based products that go through a multi stage conversion process of enzymolysis, fermentation and regeneration until the final product is achieved. This category of kitniyos-based products has been termed Kitniyos Shenishtanu. There are divergent opinions amongst Poskim regarding Kitniyos Shenishtanu. Some Poskim say these processes have altered the kitniyos, the legume, and may be used on Passover. Other Poskim remain firm and maintain that these products retain their kitniyos status in spite of the conversions. The Star-K policy is not to use Kitniyos Shenishtanu. This is why you will not see sodium erythrobate or sodium ascorbate ingredients, found in almost all deli meats, on Star-K approved kosher for Passover processed meats.

Spice tampering is a rare occurrence with reputable spice companies. However, there have been cases on record where imported paprika has been sprayed with vegetable oil for color retention. Obviously, spice tampering would present a general kashrus concern and more so a kosher for Pesach concern. However, our research has shown reputable spice companies whose integrity, quality and reputation are at stake would not risk using substandard spices.

Chinese Spices

With the advent and proliferation of Chinese trade, more and more raw ingredients are appearing on the domestic scene from mainland China. Chinese products are less expensive, and at times, of equal or superior quality. The most recently seen Chinese garlic and onion powders are competing with domestic productions. Chinese garlic and onion, however, are more pungent than their domestic counterpart and need to be modified to correspond to the U.S. palate. Modification can be made by cutting down the spice with flour and anti-caking agents. As was mentioned earlier, anti-caking agents can present kashrus concerns and flour would truly be problematic for Passover. Chinese spices should not be used without reliable kosher and/or kosher for Passover certification.

Other Passover Spice Stringencies

The Mishna B'rura 453:13 mentions that one should preferably refrain from using anise and kimmel on Passover since they grow in close proximity to wheat fields and it is difficult to be sure that no grains of wheat are mixed in with these spices.

Since we are not sure what "kimmel" is the custom is to refrain from using caraway, cumin, or fennel, all seeds which resemble one another and each of these could conceivably be the kimmel referred to above. In addition, both fenugreek and coriander may be grown near wheat fields and should be avoided unless they have been carefully checked for extraneous grains. Some of the big spice companies own their own plantations in India and elsewhere, thus non-kosher for Passover wheat or barley is not a major concern.

Another spice which is considered kitniyos is mustard. Thus all forms of mustard including mustard essential oils and oleoresins are not used on Passover.

In an era where blending kashrus and technology has become commonplace, the spice and spirit of kosher seasoning blends right in.

Questions or comments about this article?  Send to rabbirosen@star-k.org

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