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by: Rabbi Zushe Blech

reprinted with permission of MK Vaad News & Views, September, 1999.

(Judges 14:18 - Shoftim 14:18)

As Jews throughout the world usher in Rosh Hashanah, they use honey to symbolize their hope for a good and sweet year. We tend to use the concepts of goodness and sweetness interchangeably, and since times of antiquity, honey has served to symbolize the sweetest of foods. It is for this reason that the Philistines retorted to Shimshon What could be sweeter than honey? Even the land of Israel was praised as flowing with milk and honey, although Chazal interpret this honey to be the nectar of dates. Another reference to sweeteners in Tanach is Yaari Im Divshi (Shir Hashirim 5:1), which the Tosefos (Berachos 36b) explain to be sugar cane. What is common to all of these sources of sweetness is that they are based on various types of sugar. While sugar satisfies a natural craving, it is not without its downside. Too much of any good thing can lead to trouble, and sugar is no exception. Sugar is the quintessential source of energy and most foods, when digested, are metabolized by the body as basic sugar (glucose). Recognizing the importance of this nutritious commodity, the body will save the energy in sugar not needed at any given time for a rainy day -- as fat. While some stored fat is necessary, too much is not very desirable. In the never-ending battle that is waged to balance a person’s intake of energy (measured in calories) and the body’s needs, great efforts are expended to reduce the intake of calories and thus the tendency to accumulate fat. Since sugar is a major source of calories in the diet, much effort has been made to find ways of sweetening foods that reduce or eliminate the use of sugar.

Sugar may pose other health concerns. Common table sugar (sucrose) is comprised of fructose and glucose, and a diabetic must sharply curtail his intake of this material. Sugar also supports the growth of the bacteria that causes tooth decay (caries). Food scientists are a creative bunch, and have therefore come up with a variety of ways of providing sweetness to foods without actually using sugar. It is indeed paradoxical to note that these alternative sweeteners are often much sweeter than the sugar they replace, turning Shimshon’s query on its head! But just as sugar is not a panacea, sugar replacements pose their own set of concerns. The purpose of this article is to outline some of the interesting Kashrus issues they may pose.

Sugar substitutes can be divided into three categories: modified sugars, proteins/amino acids, and synthetic chemicals. Many synthetic chemicals have no nutritional value, and hence no calories. Other sweetening agents, while having some calories, are so intense that they can be used at very low levels, thereby conveying the desired sweetness with a negligible number of calories. Still others may contain a significant number of calories, but are metabolized in such a way that they avoid certain health concerns. Each type poses its unique and interesting Kashrus issues.

Saccharin was first discovered in 1879, and is one of the most widely used synthetic sweeteners. It has no caloric value and is about 500 times as sweet as sugar. It is sold in tablet form and as a powder blend. Tablets are generally measured in grains, and a ¼ grain tablet has about the same sweetening power as one level teaspoon of sugar. Saccharin is in a class of chemicals called petrochemicals -- synthesized from petroleum or coal together with other (inorganic) chemicals -- and in and of itself poses no Kashrus concerns. The commercial sweetening compounds that contain it, however, often do. Forming a tablet that will not decompose in the bottle but will dissolve when needed is a bit complicated. Most tablets, in order to function properly, therefore contain inactive ingredients in addition to the active ingredient for which it is sold. Lactose (dairy, non-Cholov Yisroel and magnesium stearate (often derived from animal fat) are commonly used in saccharin tablets to provide bulk and allow for the tableting process. Other ingredients can be added to make the saccharin effervesce and dissolve quickly when placed in water. Powdered saccharin blends pose their own Kashrus issues. One of the major shortcomings of saccharin is the bitter aftertaste it imparts to some people. In order to address this concern, ingredients such as cream of tartar and flavorings are often added to mask the aftertaste, and such ingredients may pose Kashrus concerns.

Another ironic point that should be noted with all sweetening powder blends (saccharin, aspartame, etc.) is that some type of sugar is usually the predominant ingredient in the packet! Such sweeteners are generally sold to be used as individual servings, typically equaling the sweetening power of two teaspoons of sugar. Since the amount of the actual sweetening agent necessary to achieve this level is quite minute, it is commonly blended with malto-dextrin or dextrose to create an easy to handle powder. While these ingredients do have some caloric value, the amount found in a sweetener packet is small enough for the added calories to be considered negligible. However, their use does create a Pesach concern. While many artifical sweeteners or certain brands of aspartame may be Kosher for Passover, the sweetening blends that contain them may still contain non-Passover dextrose. Indeed, several companies make special Passover productions of their sweetener -- using sugar instead of dextrose! [Cyclamates and Acesulfame-K are other examples of artificial sweeteners, whose Kashrus concerns are essentially the same as those of saccharin.]

One of the most popular sweeteners today is aspartame, a synthesis of two basic amino acids (aspartic acid and l-phenylalinine). Aspartame is a nutritive sweetener. However, it contributes a negligible number of calories to foods due to the small amount required to provide the desired sweetness. Since it obtained regulatory approval in the 1970’s, aspartame has become the major non-sugar sweetener used in soft drinks and a host of other products. Its use is limited, however, due to the fact that it degrades when heated, and is therefore unsuitable for use in baked products. While the ingredient issues relating to dextrose blends and tableting ingredients mirror those of the artificial sweeteners, an interesting controversy relates to the Passover status of aspartame itself. l-phenylalinine is often produced through the controlled fermentation of glucose. Glucose, in turn, is produced by the hydrolysis (in this case, the degradation) of cornstarch -- which is called corn syrup. Since the custom amongst Ashkenazim (Jews of European heritage) is to prohibit the use of corn, rice, and legumes on Pesach (Kitniyos), products containing corn syrup typically are not considered Kosher for Passover. However, many authorities consider certain fermentation products derived from glucose, such as enzymes, amino acids, and organic acids, to be exceptions to this general rule and acceptable for Passover use. There are three reasons advanced for this opinion. First, these chemicals have undergone a significant change from their original state, which may be considered under the Halachic guidelines of Nishtana (literally, changed) and thus unrelated to the original base material. Second, in the case of aspartame, the corn-based l-phenylainine has no inherent sweetness. It is but one of two critical components, the other not being a derivative of corn, and it is the interaction between them that creates the sweetening property of aspartame. As such, the Halachic concept of Ze V’Zeh Gorem may come into play to permit the product. Third, the parameters of the prohibition against Kitniyos are subject to various customs, and many authorities are of the opinion that the concept of Kitniyos never extended to these types of Kitniyos derivatives. Although the MK has chosen to avoid this controversy and not accept aspartame as Kosher for Passover, many eminently reliable Poskim and Kosher certifying agencies follow the p’sak that it is permitted.

Several new categories of sweeteners have received regulatory approval and are about to enter the market. Sucralose is the trade name for a chemical that is a halogenated sucrose. It seems that by adding chlorine atoms to a molecule of sucrose, its sweetening power is increased by a factor of 600 -- and it is not metabolized by the body! It is claimed to have less of an aftertaste than other sugar replacers, and is suitable for use in baked products as well as in soft drinks. The product is Kosher -- and potentially Kosher for Passover -- and we can expect to see it appearing in many products in the near future. Another sweetener recently approved for use is called Tagatose. This product is based upon lactose (milk sugar), and therefore poses significant Kashrus concerns as they relate to a dairy, non-Cholov Yisroel status. It should be interesting to see if this sweetener attains significant use.

While the products discussed above are synthesized, other sweetening agents occur naturally. Although they have not yet been approved for use in Canada or the United States, they are already commonly used in other parts of the world and may become a factor here. Stevia is an extract of a plant, and is the most popular non-sugar sweetener in Japan. Its use in many countries is limited to pharmaceutical applications, but its inherent Kosher status may make this chemical a potential new sweetener in the future. Other, more exotic natural proteins are found in many rain forest plants. Thaumatin, also approved in Japan, is found in a tropical plant that grows in West Africa, and is claimed to be 100,000 times as sweet as sugar. Research is currently being conducted in a number of other plant extracts, and it may be that the rain forest holds the key to the next generation of natural sugar replacers.

Not all sugar replacers are sweeter than sugar. Sorbitol is hydrogenated glucose, and is in a category of sweeteners called sugar alcohols. Although sorbitol contributes almost as many calories as glucose, it is metabolized differently and does not create an insulin demand in diabetics. Although it is less sweet than glucose, it can be used to make candies in much the same way that glucose is used. Sorbitol is also used in toothpaste because it does not support the growth of bacteria that causes tooth decay. Xylitol is hydrogenated xylose (wood sugar), has a rather unique flavor, and has been approved for use in chewing gum. Lactitol is hydrogenated lactose, and has been approved for use in diabetic-approved chocolates. While sorbitol and xylitol pose few Kashrus concerns, lactitol is dairy and is not Cholov Yisroel. Since sorbitol is usually based upon and derived from corn syrup glucose, Passover sorbitol is difficult to find. Fortunately, Passover sorbitol has been produced from sugar, and has made its way into some Passover approved products. The use of these and other sugars however, can cause some confusion. By law, products that contain sugar alcohols can be labeled sugar-free, yet they still contain a significant number of calories. One should not consume large amounts of these products under the assumption that they are calorie-free. [One should also be aware that they are strong laxatives!]

As Rosh Hashana approaches, perhaps we can extend Shimshon’s parable and use it is a blessing for the New Year. And from the strong may come sweet. -- May the Judgment on Rosh Hashana be turned into a sweet decree for all of us.

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