Brooklyn, NY – It’s no secret that health foods and vitamins are becoming increasingly popular and mainstream. What is called alternative or integrative medicine is by today for many, the first alternative. While this is probably a good development, there are many Kashrus concerns and questions that come with the territory, because vitamins and herbs need to be Kosher certified. in a recent interview conducted by koshervitaminplace.com with Rabbi Avrohom Juravel he discuss Kashrus issues related to natural herbs and vitamins.
Although we all generally look for Kosher certification on anything we ingest, could you explain to our clients why this is necessary? Why would vitamins and herbs need a hechsher? Aren’t most of them just natural stuff, plants, minerals and herbs?
Rabbi J. The answer is more complex than you think. Allow us to try to explain the manufacturing process in simple laymen’s language. It is not only interesting and informative, it is also very important.
So, let’s start at the very beginning… There are several key differentiations and categories that we must be aware of in order to understand this topic. The first is that some vitamins and herbs are naturally occurring and some are synthetically processed or artificially manufactured. Of those naturally occurring, some are plants and grasses like St. John’s Wort, ginseng, chamomile, peppermint etc., and some are minerals mined from rock like copper and zinc, magnesium etc.
KVP. What are some examples of synthetic or artificially processed vitamins?
Rabbi J. Examples of synthetically processed vitamins are dl-alpha tocopherol-a synthetic form of vitamin E, co-enzyme Q-10, and the vitamin D that is added to our milk which is usually in the synthetic form.
KVP. We can understand why the synthetic forms might need a hechsher. We have no way of knowing what’s in there unless we check it out. Why do the natural ones need certification?
Rabbi J. Fair question. Here’s the explanation. If one were to break off a piece of iron or zinc from its rock, which is the natural element itself, and would try to take it in its natural form, our bodies would not be able to digest or absorb it. Calcium, which is sometimes derived from eggshells, would also not be absorbed or recognized by the body if we would eat the eggshells. Therefore the eggshells are grinded and bound to a protein or carbohydrate, and the resulting calcium carbonate is digestible and absorbable. The same goes for most plants and grasses that have to first be rendered digestible in order for our bodies to be able to benefit from them. Let’s apply this to something you could easily relate to. Most people drink coffee or tea at least occasionally. Right?
KVP. Yes. Sounds like a fair assumption.
Rabbi J. O.K. When we drink coffee we extract the components of the coffee bean and the coffee taste or flavor from the coffee or cocoa bean, by steeping it in hot water and drinking it as an extract. That is what’s in our coffee mug every morning. The same goes for tea. We allow the tea leaves and or grasses to seep into the hot water and our tea them becomes a digestible, drinkable extract. Water, either hot or cold, is the most common way to extract a substance from its original form to render it fit for consumption. Sometimes alcohol or glycerin may be used as well, and glycerin could be both kosher and treif, depending on its source.
KVP. Why then isn’t water always the preferred fluid? Wouldn’t that be much simpler?
Rabbi J. It would be simpler, but different elements respond differently to different fluids. For example, vanilla is a bean that is soaked in alcohol and what we get from that is vanilla extract. That is then used as a flavoring in countless foods, perfumes, etc. Extract derived by any kind of fluid is referred to as fluid extract, symbolized by the letters FE.
KVP. But not every vitamin or herb is in liquid form. Some are capsules, caplets or soft-gels. How are those processed?
Rabbi J. Great question, since most of the things we ingest are capsules or caplets. Powder is made by taking the fluid extract we just discussed and putting it into a special machine called a spray dryer. The 100 degree liquid extract is placed in a 300 degree chamber. All the water and moisture evaporates from the intense heat and what is left is the powder of the original fluid extract. This is the most common way to process a powder and this powder extract is referred to as PE.
KVP. So far it all makes sense. But my question was caplets or capsules, not powder.
Rabbi J. True. We first had to explain what a powder extract is because this powder is then turned into a capsule or caplet. This is what happens. Something has to coat or hold the powder together in order for it to harden and remain swallowable, dissolvable, and absorbable. The “glue” that is used to bind the powder is called a stearate and that stearate could be made of fat. What is the source of the fat? Often the fat could be treif.
So we now have two very important questions, which will then, of course, result in more questions.
The first question is what type of extract is it? If it is a liquid, remember that we mentioned that glycerin is sometimes used and its origin might be from non-kosher animal sources. If it’s a powder extract, it’s more complicated and there are additional questions to consider. Which keilim (spray dryers) were used in the extraction process? What else was used in those keilim prior to the processing of the product in question? Was heat used? Heat is usually a very important part of the extraction process.
Next question. If the powder extract is O.K., what was used as a stearate if it was then formed into a caplet?
We also mentioned capsules, or soft-gels. That is when the powder is put into a capsule and digested that way. Then we must research another topic. What are the capsules made of? Often the answer is pig gelatin.
On a totally different note, it’s also important to clarify something not directly related to your query. There are shailos that can crop up regarding vitamins (and medicines) that are ingested in a way that is similar to how we swallow food, k’derech achila, like liquids and chewables. Those halachos differ from the products we ingest that are lo k’derech achila like capsules and tablets. Therefore when kashrus shailos arise the method of ingestion also plays a role in determining whether it is muttar to take the questionable product. So too, does how critical the need for the refuah is. These are all out of the realm of discussion, but important to be aware of when asking a shailah.
KVP. The different angles and perspectives that need to be considered are amazing. What about health food? How would you classify it, and are there shailos regarding it?
Rabbi J. Health food is a large sub-group in the ever growing arena of health consciousness and alternative medicine. These are natural and or organically grown foods or processed health foods that are becoming part of our diets quicker than we can figure out what the shailos can be or if indeed there are any. The answer is yes on both counts especially regarding the relevance of bug infestation and the machinery used to process or package these foods.
KVP. This information is really fascinating and important. We are very grateful that you gave us of your time and expertise.
Rabbi Juravel is the rabbinic coordinator of technical services for the OU’s Kashrut Department. An expert in kashrut certification with over twenty-five years of experience, Rabbi Juravel attended Yeshiva Toras Chaim Talmudic Seminary in Denver and received semichah from Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey.