Kosher goes mainstream

The Globe & Mail, September 11, 2004

In a world of runaway food paranoia, kosher is being seen as a safer alternative by Jews and non-Jews alike, reports SHAWNA WAGMAN

Norene Gilletz was dumbstruck.

The Toronto-based doyenne of kosher cooking was already aware that kosher cuisine had a measure of popularity beyond people who follow Jewish dietary laws. But even she was surprised when her U.S. publisher announced that members of the Mormon Church were snapping up copies of her latest book.

“They just love the idea of kosher,” Gilletz says. “There’s this perception that kosher food is clean and good and very high-quality.” It also helps that the Salt Lake City-based publisher of Gilletz’s Healthy Helpings: 800 Fast & Fabulous Recipes for the Kosher (or Not) Cook has ties to the Mormon community.

The popularity of blintzes among Utah’s faithful won’t surprise the kosher-food industry. Mormons are among a group recently identified as “crossover kosher consumers.” Along with some Muslims, Hindus and Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons make up a large group of North Americans whose dietary demands overlap with Judaism’s kosher laws. And the crossover doesn’t end there.

For many of today’s label-obsessed, gastrointestinally challenged consumers, it’s not religion that rules the gut — it’s lifestyle. Health-conscious eaters of all stripes are turning to kosher products faster than you can say, “Soy vey!” Everyone from vegetarians and vegans to the lactose-intolerant and food-sensitive have shown an increased appetite for kosher food. Even dieters are drawn to kosher’s cachet. But health professionals warn us to take kosher’s healthy image with many grains of salt — sodium tends to abound in traditional kosher kitchens.

For observant Jews, to “keep kosher” is to follow the dietary guidelines known as kashrut. Basic rules include no pork or shellfish, the separation of meat and dairy, and the requirement that animals be slaughtered according to a set of humane rituals. Every food item with a kosher trademark symbol, such as COR or MK, must pass strict inspections and be supervised throughout production by a rabbi.

Unlike a lot of diet fads that tend to fade, the number of kosher devotees has been increasing for nearly two decades, says Rafi Litenatsky, sales manager of Kosher World

( http://www.kosherworld.com ), the California-based kosher-food industry trade show. The crossover market now accounts for 40 to 60 per cent of the kosher market. “Kosher has gone beyond selling to the kosher community by leaps and bounds,” Litenatsky says. “Kosher is for anybody.”

Consumers with food sensitivities have had to learn to interpret labels like junior scientists just to avoid the ingredients that make them sick. For them, kosher laws reduce the guesswork. Any product with the kosher “pareve” (or “parve”) symbol is designated “neutral,” meaning it contains no dairy or meat products, or any of their derivatives. Rabbis regularly inspect kosher farms, factories, restaurants and retailers to check for possible oversights, right down to the cleaning of equipment and sources of things like food dyes and gelatin, which can easily come from animal or insect sources.

This extra set of eyes helps to pacify the concerns of many food-phobic consumers. “The more people find out about what they eat, the more they’re looking toward other agencies — outside of government — to say that something is healthier, better, more natural, more palatable or safer for them to eat,” says Litenatsky. “Kosher has basically become the new Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”

Buying kosher is as much a matter of taste as health for Ottawa resident Rita Likasik. When spotted shopping at Loblaws recently, she bypassed the prepared food counter at the entrance and headed straight to the kosher deli at the back to pick up favourite items such as European pastries, liver and onions, potato salad and hot chicken stew. While she is not Jewish, she says growing up in Montreal and having parents from Poland exposed her to Jewish food and European-style cooking.

“It’s more homemade here [in the kosher section] than the front of the store, where the food is more Americanized — lots of deep-fried foods, and too much salt, preservatives and food colouring,” she says, “We already have enough chemicals in our lives.”

In fact, one thing many kosher foods contain is plenty of sodium (salt is used not merely as a flavour-enhancer, but to cleanse kosher meat and poultry). Look no further than top-selling kosher convenience foods like Tradition’s Instant Noodle Soup with its whopping 840 milligrams of sodium and its long list of difficult-to-pronounce ingredients to see why equating kosher with healthier can be dubious. There are many kosher guidelines — the one banning shellfish, for example — that have little bearing on health generally.

Still, when consumers have to deal with news of mad-cow disease and tainted meat scandals, buying food that’s double-certified safe might reassure the mind if not the body. Likewise, a kosher hot dog sold at the SkyDome might not be any healthier than its non-kosher counterpart. Still, the fact that the product is pure kosher beef rather than a combination of mechanically separated meat, fillers, binders, gluten and MSG, might help to explain the long lineups of non-kosher sports fans for kosher franks.

Meanwhile, the everyday supermarket aisles are filled with products bearing kosher certification — everything from peanut butter and yogurt, to ice cream and margarine. Many food giants such as Krispy Kreme, Kraft Canada and Coca-Cola are stepping up efforts to join the nearly 80,000 kosher certified products available today, up from just 16,000 25 years ago.

Canadian manufacturers have been slower than their U.S. counterparts to take the kosher plunge (you can find out more at http://www.cor.ca and http://www.mk.ca ). Enter savvy grocer Loblaws, which offers a total of 1,340 kosher-certified products through its President’s Choice and No Name brands, according to Geoff Wilson, vice-president of industry and investor relations for Loblaw Companies. Those products include the famous Decadent Chocolate Chip Cookie.

Even kosher sushi has become all the rage in Orthodox Jewish circles — a fact that wasn’t lost on Spencer Woodrow. Four years ago, the Toronto entrepreneur opened Umami, a kosher sushi bar.

When his friend Ronnie Strauss, who keeps strictly kosher, complained that he had nowhere appropriate to take non-kosher clients out for dinner, the two decided to fill yet another niche by creating Umami Fusion, a kosher fine-dining restaurant on Toronto’s trendy Eglinton Avenue West strip. Woodrow says its kosher status isn’t overtly advertised, so everyone feels welcome. “The fact that we’re kosher is simply an enhancement,” he says.

As for the belief that kosher is just for Jewish people, Woodrow says: “We’re trying to change that.”