Frequently Asked Questions
The word "kosher" is generally translated as "fit" or "acceptable," and refers most commonly to foods that meet the dietary requirements of Jewish law and tradition. It refers both to the food itself (certain foods being prohibited or conversely permitted) and to the preparation of the food. This is significant for vegan foods, since most vegan foods are inherently permitted, but if not prepared in accordance with the rules, they become prohibited. A summary of the relevant provisions as they relate to vegan foods follows. The rules for meats and dairy are more complex and can be found on the websites of the OU and other supervising agencies.
To be kosher, the food itself must meet certain requirements. Meat and fish must be from specific permitted animals, slaughtered according to traditional methods. Dairy foods must come only from kosher mammals, eggs only from kosher birds. For vegan foods, all plants is inherently kosher. However, all grapes and some plants grown in Israel have special use restrictions. Other than these limited exceptions, all raw produce and grains with no additives, flavored coatings or other alterations, are kosher without any special marking. Note that insects that are visible to the naked eye on or in produce are prohibited and can render the item non kosher if they are missed or hard to remove.
However, most foods are not sold raw; most have processing of some sort, and that processing can raise questions about whether the food is still considered kosher. To be considered kosher, kosher ingredients must be cooked on dedicated kosher equipment. In general, processing that does not involve cooking or adding any chemicals, and where only that one food is processed will not raise issues. But many foods are processed alongside or using the same equipment as other foods, and not all of the chemicals and added substances are listed on the ingredient panel. That means that relying on a list of ingredients without knowing more about how an item is processed is not a reliable means of determining whether something that ought to be kosher actually is.
Kosher foods fall into different categories. Foods can be designated as meat, meat equipment, dair, dairy equipment, fish, and pareve depending on the source and processing. True vegan foods would be pareve (neutral). An additional category of Passover indicates that the food may be consumed during the week of the Passover holiday when foods are further restricted. There are subcategories for certain grain and dairy foods that reflect additional strictures observed by some communities. Foods designated as meat or meat equipment may not be eaten or cooked with foods designated as dairy or dairy equipment (some communities are more lenient when the designation is "equipment." Since cooking and serving equipment is also designated as meat or dairy, these can also only be used with their corresponding foods.
This impacts vegan foods since they may be processed on equipment used for meat or dairy foods, which even if kosher, may change the designation from pareve to dairy. The most common foods that this impacts are vegan milks and cheese, which are often processed on equipment used for dairy milk and cheese production, or contain enzymes that were created using dairy derivatives. Equipment must be specially cleaned under supervision to avoid the dairy designation. For people seeking to buy vegan milk or cheese in order to eat them with meat, this is a market impediment.
- Rabbis bless foods to make the kosher. False. It is about the source and processing. The presence of a rabbi or mashgiach is to assure that both are strictly followed.
- The market for kosher foods is small because only a small segment of Jews (themselves a small segment of the population) keep strictly kosher. False. While the latter clause is true, the number of Jews keeping kosher has grown, and there are many other groups that look for kosher certification to satisfy their dietary restrictions. Seventh Day Adventists and Muslims look for kosher symbols on certain foods, even though their rules differ from kosher.
- Kosher foods are healthier or cleaner. False. Kosher foods and their plants do undergo additional inspections, but the point is not to improve the quality of the food, it is to assure compliance with kosher rules. Nonetheless, this is a widespread perception and helps sales of kosher foods.
- All vegan foods are by definition kosher. False. There are definitely fewer issues with vegan foods and it is, generally speaking, less burdensome for a vegan establishment or product to obtain certification, but there are still challenges.
The terms sometimes cause confusion, since both mean a diet that does not include consuming animals. Vegetarians do not eat any animals:
- Beef, pork, game
- Poultry, such as chicken, turkey, goose or duck
- Fish or seafood
- Animal proteins (such as gelatin or cheese made with animal rennet)
- Soups or stocks made from meat or bones.
- Most vegetarians eat honey, as well as products that may be processed with animal byproducts but that do not contain them (see sugar, below)
- Ovo vegetarians eat eggs
- Lacto vegetarians eat dairy products
- Lacto-ovo (or ovo-lacto) vegetarians eat both eggs and dairy
A vegan diet adds the additional restriction of no animal products or by-products at all, which means no:
- Dairy of any kind
- Cane sugar, unless it is marked organic or vegan (since it is filtered through bone char; beet sugar is fine)
Some are not be as strict with ovens or broilers, unless there is likely to be cross contamination, but some will even insist that the food not be cooked simultaneously or even that different utensils should be used for non-vegan foods.
No. To be kosher, the food's ingredients must themselves be inherently kosher and also processed in accordance with kosher rules.
Raw (unprocessed) vegan ingredients are almost always kosher, but there are a few exceptions, and processed foods require some level of kosher supervision.
- Grapes and Grape Products.
Many vegan foods contain wine, wine vinegar (including balsamic), grape juice, or grape jam. Unless those items are certified kosher, they render the product non-kosher. That is because there are special rules for processing grapes that derive from the use of wine in religious ceremonies (whole grapes are not an issue). Grape derivatives are found in jams and jellies, liqueurs and brandies, salad dressings and condiments, fruit juices, and in natural and artificial flavors used in all foods.
- Animal Products Used in Production.
It is possible for very small amount of animal products to be included in a vegan-certified food, and it is not always apparent when an animal product is used. Ingredient lists may not include things like release agents or the details of emulsifiers, oils, flavors, bases, colorings, conditioning agents, etc.
It is not clear that vegan certifications (self certified or third-party) have the same resources as major kosher certifiers to verify what is being used given the global nature of sourcing. This is especially challenging given that many items come from Asia where it is more difficult to supervise production and packing.
In the last several decades, the Jewish community has become more strict about insects commonly found in produce. While vegans also do not want to eat insects, the standards of inspection that are commonly used by kosher inspectors are more strict and thorough than used in for many foods that are claimed to be vegan.
While there is some disagreement about the level of inspection actually required, in general if an insect is discernible to the naked eye, it would be prohibited and careful inspection is required. The standards for infestation set by the FDA and other countries are often greater than kosher rules allow. Kosher inspectors will clean and carefully inspect produce, and may reject an entire shipment if the infestation is severe. Some varieties are deemed excessively infested either entirely or on a seasonable basis (asparagus tips, artichoke hearts, fresh berries). This is a less significant issue in products that are dried or pureed.
Equipment & Processed Foods
All equipment and utensils used must only be used for kosher foods and of the same category of kosher foods, or the resulting product, even if all the ingredients are kosher, will be rendered non-kosher.
- Used Utensils.
Many restaurants have purchased used equipment and utensils and staff may cook non-vegan or non-kosher food after hours. In either case, the equipment could make any food subsequently cooked on it non-kosher.
- Shared Equipment.
In a processing or canning plant, vegan foods are often made alongside or immediately after non-vegan foods and even if the equipment is cleaned thoroughly, if it is not done in accordance with kosher rules under supervision, the resulting food would not be kosher.
- Bulk Shipping.
Vegetable oils may be shipped in bulk containers that are also used for animal fats. In all these cases, a special cleaning process must take place under supervision to render the equipment kosher.
- Involvement in Cooking.
Some foods require that a Jew be involved in the cooking process. Generally, foods that cannot be consumed raw and would be appropriate to be served at a royal banquet fall into this category. There are many such foods in vegan restaurants. The involvement of a Jew in cooking may be as little as lighting the pilot on the stove, but any involvement that is significant and leads to the food being cooked may be sufficient (some communities are stricter).
- Additional Restrictions for Jewish Owned Businesses.
For an establishment owned by Jews, there are additional obligations. There are special rules about ritual immersion of certain utensils and certain foods purchased or owned by a Jew during the Passover holiday become forbidden after the holiday (these foods must be disposed of or sold to non-Jews for the duration of the holiday following very strict procedures). there are also special rules for breads and other baked goods.
Even if kosher, a vegan food might be labeled as dairy rather than pareve by kosher supervision if the equipment was previously used for dairy and does not undergo a purging process between runs of dairy and vegan. It is common for vegan milks to be processed in dairy plants and many brands are marked dairy by the kosher agency. Currently, most cheese cultures that are kosher are certified dairy, so it would not be possible to claim that vegan cheeses made with such cultures are pareve.
Pareve is a category of kosher foods. Since meat and dairy are strictly separated in kosher food preparation and eating, foods are classified by whether they can be eaten with or within a certain time frame of meat or dairy. Pareve foods can be eaten with either meat or dairy foods. Produce and grains are the primary foods that are considered pareve.
But other items include honey, eggs, and egg-products like mayonnaise, none of which are vegan. Although fish is technically a separate category, it is often treated as if it were pareve. When kosher certified, sugar, maple syrup, gelatin, beer, and wine are also pareve, but may not be truly vegan depending on how they are processed.
However, most non-vegan additives, colorings and flavors are also not kosher, and while it is possible to make some from kosher animals (such as kosher gelatin), these are rare in the market.
There are lots of terms out there: clean meat, cultured meat (or dairy), cloned meat, lab-grown meat), etc. The most common term in the industry is probably cellular agriculture. A recent study by Wildtype, a cellular agriculture company that is producing salmon, preferred "cell-cultivated."
All of these terms refer to producing agricultural products like meat, dairy, and related items (such as gelatin) using cells that are reproduced using advanced biotechnology.
Proteins, fats, and tissues that would otherwise come from farming animals for meat, dairy, eggs, or collagen, can be produced without using animals. For meats, this is typically done by using cells taken from animal tissue, skin, hairs, or feathers, and getting them to reproduce and grow in a lab. In some cases, yeasts or fungi are manipulated to produce the same proteins or fats that animals would produce, such as milk proteins.
The techniques could produce real meat and dairy products without the environmental or ethical issues with raising, milking, and slaughtering farmed livestock. As the world population grows and the demand for protein grows with it, traditional agriculture is becoming less sustainable, and also faces issues of disease, antibiotic use, ethical treatment of animals, and greenhouse gas and other environmental challenges. As an alternative (or supplement) to plant-based substitutes, cellular agriculture is a promising new way to create meat and dairy products. The appeal to vegans depends on the motivation to reject traditional meats and dairy.
Most of the discussion about lab cultured products involve taking cells from animals to create muscle or fat tissue. These would not be considered vegan, although for many people who avoid animal products due to issues of animal welfare, these would be acceptable.
However, there are products being produced using genetically modified yeasts and mycelium so that they are coaxed to produce proteins and fats without taking cells from animals. The resulting product is not a GMO. Some of these products could be considered vegan. There are some products coming to market now, including dairy proteins, dairy fat and gelatin.