If your response to this post title was, “WTF, Molly? That makes no sense,” then your head is about where mine was when I read this headline on Forbes.com: “Is Kosher the Next Big Food Trend?”
Big trend? Kosher? I didn’t get it. Yes, some people of Jewish heritage and/or faith keep kosher, but by no means all (the majority of my Jewish acquaintances, for example, do not). How could something so very specific to the needs of a relatively small segment of the population become a big food trend?, I wondered.
Then the writer mentioned gluten. Oh, I thought. Right.
“Gluten-free,” arguably helpful only to the 1-ish percent of the population with celiac disease (and to others who may be gluten sensitive), has nonetheless managed to become a “big food trend” because American consumers are so dumb that you can put anything on a package label and they’ll assume it means “healthy.”
Kosher may be enjoying the same halo, bolstered by the sense that something “certified” must be more rigorously inspected and therefore purer than other products—regardless of what it’s actually being inspected for. (In the case of kosher, for pork, “unclean” animal meat, the mixture of milk and meat, etc.)
Now, kosher and gluten-free aren’t totally dissimilar. One of my coworkers keeps kosher, and for an office potluck, she brought in a zucchini bread, with a clean kosher plastic knife that she asked everyone to use—“because otherwise I won’t be able to eat it.” I’d brought in a soup, which I dumped into a presumably gluten-contaminated pot to heat on the stove—except for the single serving I’d reserved in a clean gluten-free container to microwave for myself. Both she and I were too trendy to eat what the others had brought.
Additionally, for some people who don’t keep kosher, there are health-related advantages to choosing kosher foods. Vegetarians can be confident there’s no animal-derived rennet in kosher cheese, just as those with wheat allergies can be [fairly] confident there’s none of that in gluten-free foods. People who enjoy putting arbitrary restrictions on their food intake in hopes of losing weight are just as well off choosing kosher foods as gluten-free ones.
Plus, foods that are “Kosher for Passover” must be grain-free, and anything grain-free is automatically gluten-free (though the converse is not necessarily true). Many kosher-certified products are therefore certified GF, too—for example, such health foods as Katz cinnamon rugelach and chocolate-frosted donuts, and Glutino chocolate vanilla crème sandwich cookies.
On the subject of sandwich cookies, let’s consider the Oreo. A fine (though not gluten-free) occasional treat, at 160 calories in a serving of three (if you can stop at three), Oreos are predominantly composed of refined flour, oil, and high-fructose corn syrup, and offer little nutritional value. A health food, the Oreo is not.
But what it is, is kosher. In “probably the most expensive conversion of a company from non-kosher to kosher,” according to Prof. Joe Regenstein, Nabisco converted its cookie formula to cut out lard (derived from pork), and blowtorched all of its factory equipment to remove remaining traces on the lines (in the process destroying, and later replacing, some expensive equipment).
All that just to beat out Hydrox, a competing—kosher—brand that existed before Oreos. When Oreos cut out the lard, they gained enough new customers to cut Hydrox out of the sandwich cookie market. Today, many of us have never heard of Hydrox, and for good reason: it no longer exists.
However, the fact that at least three brands of chocolate-and-crème sandwich cookies—not to mention marshmallows, hot dogs, soft drinks, and more—have been able to claim kosher certification exists as powerful evidence that “kosher” doesn’t mean “healthy.”
Similarly, though I love Katz and Glutino, I know that their gluten-free (and kosher) desserts are treats, not health foods. You know that, too, I’d wager. But does anyone want to place bets on how few people in the US and worldwide do?
The idea of kosher as the next health trend has been bubbling up for at least a few years. In 2010, the New York Times published “More People Choosing Kosher for Health,” and in 2012, Dr. Weil weighed in on the question “Are kosher foods better for you?” This puts the trend just a couple years behind gluten, which was getting NYT attention in 2007, and Dr. Weil’s in 2010. If the trajectory continues, then by sometime next year, one in three Americans just might be “trying to go kosher.”
Will that happen? To make a probably not kosher joke…dear G-d, I hope not.
What do you think? Is kosher poised to become the next big thing? Are there health benefits to it that I’m missing? What package labels make you think a food is healthier?