Not only Jews look for the kosher symbol on food these days. In a surprising turn of events, "kosher" has become the most popular claim on new food products, trouncing "organic" and "no additives or preservatives," according to a recent report. A noteworthy 4,719 new kosher items were launched in the United States last year—nearly double the number of new "all natural" products, which placed second in the report, issued last month by Mintel, a Chicago-based market research firm.
In fact, sales of kosher foods have risen an estimated 15 percent a year for the past decade. Yet Jews, whose religious doctrine mandates the observance of kosher dietary laws, make up only 20 percent of those buying kosher products. What gives? "It's the belief among all consumers that kosher food is safer, a critical thing right now with worries about the integrity of the food supply," says Marcia Mogelonsky, a senior research analyst at Mintel.
Whether kosher foods are actually less likely to be contaminated with, say, E. coli bacteria remains up for debate. While research is scant in this area, experts say it makes sense that kosher food could be safer because it's more closely monitored. "Jews aren't allowed to ingest bugs, so produce must go through a thorough washing and checking to ensure that no bugs are found within the leaves or on the surface of the fruit or vegetable," says Moshe Elefant, a rabbi and chief operating officer of the Orthodox Union KOSHER, a kosher certification organization based in New York. But bacteria can remain even after this type of washing, so consumers can't assume they're less likely to get food poisoning with bagged spinach marked kosher than with a conventional bag.
The same caveat applies to poultry and beef. A salting process that removes blood from the meat has antibacterial effects, but salmonella and E. coli can still survive, says Joe Regenstein, a professor of food science who teaches a course on Jewish and Muslim food laws at Cornell University. Kosher beef, though, is much less likely to contain the misshapen proteins that cause mad cow disease, rare as that is, probably because the animals are slaughtered young, before the disease sets in.
Another selling point of kosher foods is that they're easily decoded by those looking to avoid dairy or meat. "One of the fundamental rules of kosher certification is that you can't mix meat and milk," says Elefant. So each product is labeled either dairy or meat—or "pareve" (also spelled parve) if it contains neither. Pareve foods can't even be manufactured on equipment previously used for dairy or meat products. "People with severe dairy allergies are looking for that pareve designation," Elefant says. They might also turn to kosher salami and hot dogs, since nonkosher cured meats often contain a preservative made from milk sugar.
Some consumers, though, may simply buy kosher because they prefer the stricter supervision that goes into certifying kosher foods. "Food companies agree to allow a third-party inspector to come in unannounced, at essentially any time," says Regenstein. These inspectors check, among other things, that products are being manufactured only with those ingredients listed on the label. Companies, he says, must carefully keep records of where ingredients come from—not always the case for small nonkosher food manufacturers—which allows for quick recall if a product gets contaminated with a nonkosher ingredient or food-borne pathogen. "That alone is worth the price of kosher," Regenstein opines. Contrary to what some folks think, however, a rabbi doesn't bless the food. "Kosher dietary laws are actually just a simple set of rules," explains Elefant, "and the kosher certification helps those who make a commitment to live under those rules."