Exploring the History & Kashrus Concerns of Food Sweeteners

As we approach the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the traditional greeting among Jewish people is, “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life.” However, the common greeting has evolved into, “Have a sweet new year.” This is actually a shortened version of the benediction on the custom of eating an apple dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah eve. Honey, along with other sweeteners, is practically synonymous with the New Year holiday.

It is almost a given that honey (and by extension, all sweeteners) are innocuous regarding kosher concerns. After all, honey is mentioned twelve times in the Torah, especially regarding Eretz Yisroel, which is described as a land flowing with milk and honey.1 Even the mon (manna) tasted like wafers fried in honey.2

The honey mentioned in the Torah is actually the honey of dates3 (more on this later), but there are clear instances of bee honey mentioned as well – from the case of Shimshon collecting honey from the carcass of a slain lion4, to Yonason ben Shaul haMelech dipping his staff into a hive and consuming the honey5. The obvious issue to be analyzed is: Why is bee honey permitted for kosher consumption when it is derived from insects that are non-kosher? There is a halachic rule that the product of a non-kosher animal is itself non-kosher.6 The Gemara wrestles with this question and proposes that honey is not produced in the bee’s body; it is only collected and stored there.7 A second approach is that only flying insects themselves are prohibited and not their excretions.8

While one would assume that 100% pure honey should be totally problem-free regarding kosher, this is only true in the case of commercially obtained honey where the product is collected in bulk. However, on the retail level, unflavored and flavored honeys are usually processed on the same equipment, with the latter requiring a serious kosher certification. In addition, it has been noticed recently that honey can be adulterated with a variety of syrups due to the high price honey fetches on the market. While most syrups will not affect the kosher status of the honey, the addition of corn syrup would cause the honey to lose its Kosher for Passover status for Ashkenazi Jews. This is one reason one should only buy kosher certified honey.

There are numerous references in the Torah where Torah is proverbially described as sweeter than honey.9 In fact, Shimshon is taunted by the Philistines to describe a substance that is sweeter than honey.10 It might surprise the reader that several food items are sweeter than honey. In the food industry, the sweetness of a substance is measured by its “sweetness value,” with sugar scoring a perfect 100% and acting as the standard for all other sweeteners. Describing the standard as sugar is a misnomer, as sugar is actually a chemistry description of a class of compounds. The correct standard term is sucrose (cane sugar). In fact, several sugars, such as lactose (milk sugar) contain only 16% of the sweetness of sucrose.

Predictably, honey only scores 97% of the sweetness of value of sucrose. It therefore begs the question, why isn’t the ultimate sweetness standard in the Torah sucrose? The obvious answer is that while the collection of bee honey has been documented since ancient times (there are inscriptions in Egyptian tombs showing the collection of honey), the earliest recording of cane sugar collecting is in the 14th century in Arabia. From there, cane sugar spread to Europe and beyond. Honey was therefore the sweetest substance known to the biblical figures. It is interesting to note that there is no literal mention of sugar in the Torah!

While we mentioned that in the Torah, the predominant honey was derived from dates, in Talmudic times it shifted to bee honey. The Gemara states that were someone to take an oath to abstain from honey, he is permitted to consume date honey as this is an uncommon form of honey and was therefore not included in the oath.11 It is possible that date honey contains a higher ratio of fructose (1.73 times higher sweetness value than sucrose) to glucose than bee honey (making it sweeter than bee honey), since fructose is a fruit sugar and is therefore sweeter.

Generally, sweeteners are broken into two groups – nutritive and non-nutritive. The nutritive group, in addition to sucrose also includes syrups (such as maple, corn, molasses, etc). While years ago, small amounts of lard were added to maple syrup to control foaming, today vegetable oil is utilized instead. Kosher certification is still required for maple syrup, because vegetable oil requires certification. Corn syrup is a blend of fructose and glucose, and is used as a substitute for sucrose, which fetches a high price due to domestic import quotas. Since the fructose portion contributes the higher sweetness value, producers use enzymes (which require a hashgocha) to convert some of the glucose into fructose (high fructose corn syrup), increasing the syrup’s sweetness value. Obviously, corn syrup is not permitted to Ashkenazi Jews during Passover. Since nutritive sweeteners have a high caloric content (as well as being a contributor to tooth decay), sugars can be converted to sugar alcohol, which is lower in calories and less apt to cause tooth decay. The trade-off is that they have a lower sweetness value than sucrose and can cause bloating.

Non-nutritive sweeteners contain no calories and have many times the sweetness values of sucrose. One common retail non-nutritive sweetener is saccharine, which can be obtained in tablet or powdered form and is 300-500 times sweeter than sucrose. The kashrus concerns are that the tablets may contain stearates, which require kosher supervision, and the powdered form (Sweet’N Low) is cut with cream of tartar, which can be derived from non-kosher grape products. While often under hashgocha, many authorities are uncomfortable relying on the leniencies utilized to certify cream of tartar. In addition, the dextrose (added to reduce the sweetness in a packet so as to allow comparisons to sucrose) is definitely forbidden to Ashkenazi Jews on Passover. Dextrose is usually derived from corn (especially in the US), a kitniyos issue, but can also be derived from grain, which would be problematic to all Jews as a chometz derivative. Finally, although the government allows this substance, consumers fear this sweetener because some studies have shown a link with cancer in rats that ingested high amounts of saccharine.

Aspartame is a non-nutritive sweetener that is 180 times sweeter than sucrose. It is sold under the brand names of Nutrasweet and Equal. The main drawback is that it breaks down under heat and thus is unsuitable for baking. Although it has been thoroughly tested by the government and declared safe, health suspicions swirl around this sweetener as well. The main kashrus concern applies during Passover, because aspartame is also mixed with dextrose.

Sucralose is a non-nutritive sweetener that is 600 times sweeter than sucrose. In fact, it is derived from the chlorination of sucrose, which converts it to a zero-calorie sweetener. It, too, is mixed with maltodextrin or dextrose (a problem on Passover) and sold under the brand name Splenda. Also given the stamp of approval by the government, for many, the government’s approval isn’t enough to dispel health suspicions.

A lesser-known non-nutritive sweetener is stevia, a plant, which is 300 times sweeter than sucrose. Health concerns have limited its availability as a sweetener in many countries, including the US, where it must be listed as a supplement.

It is a custom among many Jews to refrain from eating sharp or bitter foods (such as horseradish, pickles, vinegar, etc.) during Rosh Hashanah and most of Tishrei, and to serve predominantly sweet foods as a focus on a sweet outcome for the New Year. This tradition does not require that foods be sweetened with honey; any of the above listed sweeteners are adequate. The underlying message being that people everywhere should merit a “sweet new year” and an inscription in the Book of Life.

1 Shemos 3:8.
2 Shemos 16:31.
3 Gemara, Menachos 84b.
4 Shoftim 14:8-9.
5 Shmuel I 14:27.
6 Gemara, Bechoros 5b.
7 Gemara, Bechoros 7b.
8 ibid.
9 Tehillim 14:10, 119:1-2; Shir HaShirim 4:11; Shoftim 14:18.
10 Shoftim 14:18.
11 Gemara, Nedarim 53a.