Is kosher food healthier?
Traditional Jewish foods are selling fast to vegans, allergy sufferers and others convinced of their health benefits.
Jo Ormond who has converted to eating kosher foods.
On her weekly trip to the supermarket, Jo Ormond heads straight for the kosher food section. There she fills her trolley with what she describes as "yummy delights" from the dried, frozen and chilled products on offer. "I scour kosher shelves and specialist shops," she says. "There is an amazing butter substitute called Tomor and I love the kosher guacamole and Rakusen's potato latkes, a sort of fritter that comes in bags."
Yet Ormond's enthusiasm for kosher food is not inspired by religion, for she is not Jewish. She is one of a growing band of kosher converts who buy traditional Jewish fare in the belief that it is healthier and purer than other types of food.
Ormond, a 28-year-old vegan, came across kosher food when she was shopping online at Waitrose and a kosher pesto sauce was recommended as the only one free of animal products. She began to explore the kosher principles of food production and found that it met her exacting dietary demands. "I buy it because there are great vegan options but also because it is made extremely safely and cleanly," she says. "And it tastes good."
It is not just vegans and vegetarians who are being drawn to kosher food by the manufacturing methods used. People with allergies increasingly buy kosher, and so do those concerned about contamination and food sourcing. A recent Mintel report in America revealed that only about 15 per cent of people who buy kosher now do so for religious reasons - most say that they make the switch because of the quality and healthfulness of the food. Figures are not yet available for the UK, although a report is planned, but there are signs that the kosher food explosion is mirrored here.
Rabbi Jeremy Conway, director of the kosher food division at the London Beth Din, which approves most kosher products in the UK, says that there has been "a tremendous rise" in demand for kosher food and in applications from manufacturers to certify their products as kosher. Most major supermarket chains now stock substantial kosher ranges. Among the latest to get the seal of approval are Mars, Galaxy and Snickers bars, which have the go-ahead to add the kosher logo over the next few months. The makers of Walkers crisps, Oreo biscuits and Ryvita crisp breads are among those who have paid to have their production processes assessed by a rabbi to get kosher approval.
"There is a growing perception among the non-Jewish community that kosher food is cleaner and so less likely to cause dietary problems," says Rabbi Conway.
Many kosher converts are unaware of the complex laws that underpin Jewish dietary traditions. For religious Jews, kosher - meaning "clean" or "fit to eat" - includes only meat from animals with cloven hooves that chew grass, so deer, cows and sheep are in but pigs and horses are forbidden. Fish with fins and scales are fine but not shellfish or shark, and all birds can be eaten except vultures, owls and ostriches. All animals and birds must be handled with care during life and killed by slitting the carotid artery, with the blood rinsed from carcasses with salt and water. Meat and dairy must never be mixed - in many Jewish households, cutlery, crockery, tea towels and work surfaces are colour-coded to avoid mix-ups, and many rabbinical authorities insist on a three-hour gap between eating meat and dairy foods.
For non-Jews, the appeal is that kosher food seems to offer a guarantee of purity and reputable source. "There is no shared use of equipment and the traceability of ingredients and batches of food is guaranteed," says Rabbi Conway. Vegetarians can rest assured that a "parve" label means that food contains no meat or dairy (though it may contain eggs and honey).While allergy experts stress that kosher food offers no particular benefits over other manufacturing methods, they concede that it can be useful for those with food problems. "Keeping kosher can make it easier to manage dairy allergies because milk and meat foods are so strictly separated," says Jackie Gaventa, an adviser for Allergy UK.
Gill McKeown, 41, from London, switched to buying kosher substitutes for dairy foods such as margarine and mayonnaise when a nutritionist recommended that she cut out lactose and gluten to help to cure her skin problems and irritable bowel syndrome. "It makes it much easier to shop," she says. "Avoiding my trigger foods keeps me on an even keel but I couldn't do it as easily if I didn't buy kosher."
But is kosher really safer? Scientific evaluation has produced mixed results. Three years ago, researchers at the US Department of Agriculture analyzed the prevalence of salmonella, campylobacter and listeria on conventional, kosher and organic-reared chickens bought in supermarkets. They found that organic chicken contained the most salmonella, kosher the most listeria. Although the conventional poultry had the most campylobacter, it was the least contaminated overall. However, in a 2008 study published in the Journal of Food Safety, researchers infected chicken skin with salmonella before first applying kosher salt, then rinsing the skin with cold water. Their results indicated that, while salt alone made little difference, the kosher combination of salt and rinsing reduced pathogen levels by 80 per cent.
Leslie Bunder, editor of the website somethingjewish.co.uk, also has reservations about the health value of kosher foods. "There are perceived nutritional benefits but I'm not sure they are real ones," he says. "If you compared a range of kosher and conventional products, for instance, a lot of the kosher foods would have excessive amounts of salt."
Gaventa says that people with nut or seed allergies should beware. "Kosher bakeries are mainly small, family-run businesses and food is often sold loose and unlabelled, so contamination from trays that have contained seeds and nuts is a big problem," she says. "A lot of foods imported from Israel contain nuts, sesame and poppy seeds, and many kosher restaurants follow Middle Eastern cooking styles, which can be a nightmare for anyone with nut, chickpea and sesame allergies."
And kosher is not cheap. A family-sized kosher chicken costs about £12, up to 40 per cent more than a non-kosher one; a kosher loaf of white, sliced bread costs £1.30, up to double the price of a conventional loaf. Not that this is stemming the kosher boom, as manufacturers struggle to meet demand. Rosie Ben-Sushan, from North London, says that her family business making kosher Italian pasta sauces and bruschetta toppings has taken off since Tesco began stocking her range."I get orders from vegetarians, Muslims and people with food intolerances," she says. "Very few of the new inquiries are from Jewish people."