By Rabbi Tzvi Rosen, Star-K Kashrus Administrator; Editor, Kashrus Kurrents
Those of us who remember the famous marketing jingles of years past certainly recall the memorable multitudes of people locking their arms together while singing the praises of a soft drink, “What the world wants is the real thing!” Today, that exclamation resounds throughout the beverage industry while most of the world is looking for the healthy, natural, nothing artificial, real thing … others just want something yummy.
Judging by the countless soft drinks that fill the supermarket shelves, and how busy and successful the corn sweetening industry has become, due to the demands of this burgeoning industry, the lion’s share of the beverage market continues to be controlled by these carbonated elixirs. However, if you stroll down the aisles of the supermarket beverage section, you see a far more diverse display of drinks than you would have seen even two years ago. There is a definite movement towards greater diversification. Are there any marked kashrus differences between sodas, energy drinks, juice cocktails, or juices? Can these terms be used interchangeably, or does each beverage category have its own unique identity and process? Let us examine the facts.
By far, the king of the trade is that thirst quencher known as the soft drink, which by definition is any beverage that does not contain alcohol. Soft drinks are also known as soda, soda pop, and even fizzy drinks – depending upon your geographical location. For the sake of uniformity, we will use the term “soda.” Soda is a soft drink creation which involves two major processes: a) compounding the emulsion to create the flavor, and b) bottling the finished product where the sweetening agents, carbonation and water are added.
Compounding soft drink flavors is achieved in one of three ways: a) Raw ingredients are blended together into soda flavor emulsions at the bottling facility; b) The flavor can be compounded at a separate technical center dedicated to blend soda emulsions; and c) The soft drink company contracts a large national flavor house specializing in flavor formulation. The flavor house will create custom emulsions with specifications laid out by the soft drink company. Regardless of the method, the most intensive part of kosher soft drink certification entails compounding, since this is where the kashrus of the flavors, colors, oils and blending agents are certified. Some formulas can be either simple or complex, artificial or very natural, while some flavors and essential oils are procured either domestically or internationally. Some international flavors come from Eretz Yisroel, where issues such as teruma, maaser, orla and shvi’is need to be addressed. Other select ingredients are compounded in far away locations that are not easily accessible. Whatever the case, the emulsion requires a reliable kosher certification.
Less questions surface at the bottling facility, where the soft drink flavors are filled with filtered water sweetened and carbonated. Soft drinks are cold filled and, as a rule, are not pasteurized so the equipment does not present a problem. However, intermittent review is always necessary to maintain the kosher integrity of the finished product.
Flavored seltzers seem to be less complicated, but this may be very deceptive. Sometimes a flavored seltzer will be comprised of plain seltzer with the addition of a flavor. At times, the seltzers will not only be flavored but they will also be sweetened and more kindred to a soda than a seltzer in taste and complexity. In all instances, the formulations require a reliable hechsher for year-round and Kosher for Passover use.
Kosher for Passover soda and seltzer productions substitute sucrose or liquid cane sugar for dextrose (corn sweetener). Of course, the flavor emulsions have to have special Kosher for Passover certification. Interestingly, many died in the wool Coca Cola enthusiasts, whose sophisticated taste buds detect a difference between dextrose and sucrose – the original Coca Cola sweetener, wait all year to purchase Kosher for Passover Coke. The real thing!
In the carbonated beverage industry, the terms “soda”, “pop” or “soft drink” can be used loosely and interchangeably; in the juice industry, the product terms become much more rigid. In turn, a lot of practical kashrus insight can be gained from the stringency of their etymology.
According to the FDA standard of the industry, in order to be called a juice the beverage must be 100% juice, and nothing extra may be blended. This rule is strictly enforced with orange juice and grapefruit juice; any additive, such as vitamin C or calcium, must be so indicated on the label. Cranberry juice, because of its tartness, requires additional sweetening to be palatable; hence, a new beverage category was created – juice cocktail.
Once pure juice is concentrated, it loses its identity as a juice and is called pure juice or juice concentrate. The addition of sweeteners or other concentrates to the juice concentrate is reflected in the renaming of the newly combined product. These products are now known as juice bases or juice blends and are not subject to internal industry control. A producer has the discretion and flexibility to add juices, sweeteners and outside ingredients, such as flavors, colors and additional additives.
From a kashrus perspective, the most problematic juice additive is one of the beverage industry’s most versatile – grape juice. The efficacy of grapes includes grape juice, which is an excellent addition to fruit juice blends. White grape juice and raisin juice are frequently used as a sweetener; grape skin extract is a great natural color; oil of cognac and wine fusel oil, which are derived from grapes, are often used as flavoring agents.
Furthermore, juices are filled while they are hot unlike sodas that are cold filled. Therefore, the equipment such as the pasteurizer and fillers must be monitored. Combining all of these factors together creates a serious need for reliable kosher certification of all juice blends. It is important to note that not all reliable kosher certification agencies kasher the juice pasteurizer between non-kosher and kosher certified juice productions. The reasoning behind this is based on the fact that there is always much more than six times the amount of kosher juice versus the beliah, absorption of non-kosher grape juice, that occurs in the walls of the pasteurizer. Despite this reasoning, other kashrus agencies require kosherization between non-certified grape juice and certified kosher juice productions.
Today, the segment of the soft drink industry that has grown with reckless abandon is energy drinks. Energy drinks are soft drinks that claim to improve and increase a person’s mental alertness and physical activity. In truth, energy drinks use high doses of caffeine and other herbs as stimulants. Generally, energy drinks include glucose, taurine, glucuronolactone, caffeine, ginseng extracts and ginkgo biloba. The central ingredient of energy drinks is caffeine in the form of guarana, yerba mate or special energy compounds.
Obviously, energy drink ingredients require reliable certification. Many of the ingredients are manufactured worldwide. In 2001, the U.S. energy drink market generated $8 million in retail sales. In 2005, sales exceeded $3 billion; in 2007 sales reached $5.4 billion and are predicted to exceed $10 billion by 2010.
One main kashrus concern does not relate to how the energy drinks are produced, but rather how they are being consumed. The ingredients of energy drinks are intended to improve mental and cognitive performance. However, excessive consumption of these beverages may cause drug-like effects such as mild euphoria or anxiety attributable to the high levels of caffeine they contain. To make matters worse, there is a trend to mix these drinks with alcohol. This combination can be detrimental, as the stimulant properties of the energy drink mask the dulling effects of the alcohol. This allows for the consumption of more of the energy drink without feeling its potential danger.
Our rabbis point out a terrific insight regarding drinking a potentially harmful beverage, e.g. energy drinks, in excess. The Gemara 1states that if one has already recited “Borei Pri Hagafen” on wine at a meal, and is then presented with additional wine, a new brocha should be recited. The brocha recited over the additional wine is not “Borei Pri Hagafen,” but rather “Hatov Umeitiv,2indicating our thanks to Hashem for the abundant and plentiful bounty with which He has blessed us. Why was this brocha of “Hatov Umeitiv” specifically singled out for drinking additional wine? Our rabbis explain3 that wine is a beverage that may serve as a conduit to simcha, as Dovid HaMelech so beautifully states, “Wine gladdens the heart”.4 However, if drunk in excess, a gladdened heart gives way to a drunken stupor. Therefore, we thank Hashem for His goodness and hope that we do not abuse this privilege.
Probably the most exciting popular drink of this generation, for both young and old alike, is the ever famous frozen carbonated beverage known as the Slurpee. Believe it or not, Slurpees were discovered when some sodas were put into a freezer to cool them down and they became slushy. In fact, after much kashrus research it was discovered that the Slurpee machines actually maintain the frozen consistency of the Slurpee and do not tamper with or add additional ingredients to the bag in the box Slurpee flavor. This is similar to a soda dispensing machine. In a Slurpee dispenser, the water is filtered and blended with the bag in the box flavor which is frozen to the desired self-serve consistency. Slurpee is an exclusive 7-Eleven product controlled by Southland Foods, which has exclusive contracts with Coca Cola and other soda manufacturers that produce Slurpee products. There are special couplings that connect the bag in the box products to the Slurpee machine, and Southland maintains a network of district supervisors who do onsite inspections to ensure that all of their stores are in Slurpee compliance. If a franchise owner is caught cheating, he will lose his franchising rights.
The question is frequently asked of the Star-K hotline, “Can I go to any 7-Eleven and purchase Slurpees?” Obviously, if the 7-Eleven store maintains kosher certification as does the 7-Eleven store in Oak Park, Michigan the answer is, “Absolutely!” However, if a consumer wants to verify a kosher Slurpee certified product that is being dispensed in a non-kosher certified 7-Eleven store, he should ask the store manager or counter attendant to see the actual box. Otherwise, the kosher consumer will make the same decision that he makes when purchasing Coke or Pepsi from a soda fountain or soda dispensing machine.
ICES AND SNO-CONES
Similarly, ices and sno-cones have become a very popular summertime treat. Sno-cones are made from crushed or shaved ice and are flavored with delicious fruit flavors. These flavors are either pumped directly onto the top of the shaved ice as is customary at sno-cone stands, or blended into the ice as in the popular fashion of Rita’s ices. A question is often raised regarding the purchase of a sno-cone from a corner stand, since so many sno-cone flavors are certified kosher and clearly bear a certification mark on the label. The answer is a qualified “Maybe”. It has come to our attention that proprietors may use the original flavor bottles as dispensors and simply refill the pumps from a larger container that may or may not possess reliable kosher certification. While this is certainly cost-effective from a business point of view, this may not be in the best interest of the kosher consumer from a kashrus perspective. A question is also raised regarding whether or not one could consider ices to be truly pareve, when sold in a store that serves kosher dairy and kosher pareve varieties, while at the same time possibly using the same scooper for both varieties. Obviously, companies do not want to cross contaminate products, but it is up to the vigilant consumer to see that the scoopers are separated or cleaned between use.
An intriguing halachic query regarding iced beverages questions whether they are viewed as a liquid or a solid as it pertains to the required brocha acharona, “Borei Nefashos“. If ices are considered a solid food, the criteria for a brocha acharona would be the consumption of a “k’zayis” (the approximate size of seven Tam Tam crackers) b’cheday achilas pras (approximately 2 to 4 minutes). If the ices are considered a liquid, then one would have to consume a reviis (approximately 4 oz.) in 30 seconds. According to some authorities5, ices are considered a beverage and would be exempt from a borei nefashos. Other authorities6 maintain that it is considered a solid, and if a k’zayis is eaten a borei nefashos is required (if you don’t get brain freeze!).
It is evident that there is great fluidity in the beverage industry. As the kosher consumer has become more sophisticated and demanding, so have the kosher certifications for these great summertime beverages.