What Is Kosher And How Does It Impact Your Diet And Eating Habits?

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Maintaining a kosher diet — one that follows the dietary tenets of Jewish law — isn’t an exact science.

“The most important thing to understand about the word ‘kosher’ is that it has nothing to do with nutrition or health,” says Alyssa Katz, MS, RD, a community registered dietitian with Henry Ford Health. “It’s about following religious tenets that are outlined in the Torah.”

What It Means To Be Kosher

“Kosher” is a term Jewish people use to describe food that is “pure,” or raised, prepared and served according to the 3,000-year-old dietary laws of Judaism. The basic guidelines include avoiding pork, shellfish and all insects, as well as keeping meat and dairy foods separate.

“Bacon, cheeseburgers and pepperoni pizza are out,” Katz says. “You also have to be very careful about ensuring that your produce is washed thoroughly so there are no bugs.”

There are three basic categories of kosher food. Each must be handled and processed according to certain specifications:

  • Meat (fleishig), includes mammals, poultry and any products made from them, such as broth, gravy and bones. Meat must come from animals with split hooves (cows, sheep, goats, lambs). Meat from pigs, rabbits, squirrels, camels, kangaroos and horses is not kosher. All animals meant to be eaten must be slaughtered by someone who is trained and certified to butcher animals according to Jewish laws.
  • Dairy (milchig) includes products such as milk, cheese, butter and yogurt. To be kosher, dairy products must come from a kosher animal and never be mixed with meat-based derivatives like gelatin or rennet (an animal-derived enzyme often used in cheesemaking).
  • Pareve are foods that don’t fall into the meat or dairy categories, including fish, eggs and plant-based foods. Fish is only kosher if it comes from species with fins and scales, such as halibut, salmon and tuna. Eggs must be free of blood and inspected before eating.

If you’re eating meat, kosher law requires waiting a specified amount of time before then eating dairy (typically six hours, depending on your specific tradition). You can eat pareve foods alongside either meat or dairy — as long as they’re not prepared or processed on equipment that has come into contact with meat or dairy.

“Keeping kosher also requires paying attention to which foods touch your plates, cookware and utensils. Plates that have come into contact with meat, for example, may not be used for dairy and vice versa,” Katz says. “Of course, how you decide to keep kosher depends on a variety of factors from your level of observance to your access to kosher products.”

Grocery Shopping Tips For Kosher Eating

Kosher dietary laws not only detail which foods are permitted and forbidden but also how allowed foods must be produced, processed and prepared prior to consumption (a rabbi usually observes the production process to ensure kosher practices). Unfortunately, that can make grocery shopping tricky.

The good news: According to Katz, there are dozens of different kosher certification labels that appear next to the usual food labels on packaged foods to help guide your process. In addition to specifying whether a food is meat, dairy or pareve, these labels ensure that products adhere to kosher guidelines for processing.

While many products carry kosher certifications, shopping for prepared foods is challenging because it must be cooked in a kosher kitchen. Similarly, all packaged foods that come into contact with equipment that processes meat or dairy are not considered kosher.

“When in doubt about whether a food or eating practice is kosher, it’s best to ask your rabbi for guidance,” Katz says.


Looking for more nutrition advice and want to make an appointment with a registered dietitian? Call 1-855-434-5483 or visit Nutrition Services on henryford.com.

Alyssa Katz is a community dietitian with Henry Ford’s Generation with Promise team.

Categories: EatWell