One of the perks of working in kashrus is that we get to see the food we eat being made and the processes involved. The processes can be rather interesting, but it does not always lead to better appetite! As the Gemara in Sanhedrin (39a) says Antinonus asked Rabbi, "Why did Hashem have to put Adom to sleep when He took out the rib to create Chava? Was He trying to steal something and therefore had to take it in a sneaky manner?" To answer, Rabbi took him to watch the slaughtering and butchering process and showed him how watching the process took away his appetite for an otherwise tasty piece of meat. (Unfortunately, I still haven’t managed to lose much weight.) Flavor companies are a prime example of a fascinating industry, from both perspectives — kashrus and production (with sometimes not so appetizing processes).
Growing up, like most people, I thought "natural flavors" were actually squeezed out of the relevant fruit, meaning "blueberry flavor" was squeezed out of a blueberry and only artificial flavors came from chemicals. In reality, natural flavors are made from bottles of chemicals just like artificial flavors are made from synthetic chemicals. The only difference is that the chemicals for natural flavors are derived from natural materials rather than from synthetic sources, like petroleum, coal, gas or minerals. (In the US, even if the item undergoes synthetic chemical processing, it is still considered natural as long as all the ingredients used were natural. In the European Union, they require that only natural process, such as fermentation, can be used to produce natural flavors.)
Sometimes, natural ingredients are added that actually have almost no practical effect on the flavor (such as fruit juices), but when added the company can label the flavor as "natural and artificial" (N&A) instead of just artificial. This information is very important because now you can understand why a natural cheese flavor can be pareve, or conversely a natural orange flavor can easily be dairy or a natural cherry flavor can be non-kosher.
Certifying modern food production facilities is not just about walking in and looking around. In many factories, the kosher complexities are often hidden from view and not at all obvious. It takes an understanding of the technology and production methods employed in the factories to provide proper kosher certification.
Flavor production facilities, also known as "flavor houses", are especially complex. A flavor house produces the flavorings that are used in commercial products. For example, lemon iced tea contains a lemon flavor that is created by a flavor company and then is used as an ingredient by the iced tea company. At first, flavor companies can sound scary and foreboding with ingredients like methyl cyclopentolene, 2,6 Decadeinal, 3,6 methyl heptylpryazine, etc., which are very foreign to the average mashgiach or consumer. In reality, while the ingredients used in flavor production are often confusing or foreign, the approval and certification of those ingredients can be quite complex and requires special knowledge of chemical processes. This will IY"H be discussed in a future article. The actual technology for making a flavor in a flavor house is deceptively simple. A flavor house contains many shelves and racks of bottles and drums with different chemicals in each, along with mixing tanks. The workers in the flavors house (compounders) just mix the flavors together following a recipe, without any complicated processes or technology.
To create a flavor, the flavorists test many combinations and amounts of chemicals to find the ideal recipe. After rigorous testing, a recipe is finalized (that’s why there are so many different kinds of vanilla flavored ice cream, for example). While there is complex chemistry involved in the creation of the flavor chemicals (some chemicals carry the skull and bones insignia on them and if more than the correct amount is mixed into a recipe, it could be poisonous), the design of the flavors (the actual recipe) is a process of mixing tastes (called notes) and is actually more of an art than a science.
It is expected that the ingredient approval department will have a challenge determining how each ingredient is made and which can be approved or must be rejected, but that is done in the central OK office, not on the factory floor. On the floor, the mashgiach should have it easy; if all the ingredients have been vetted by the Ingredient Approval Department at the OK, and added to the mashgiach’s list of ingredients permitted in the facility then you might think there are no problems. Well, it’s not that simple. A typical flavor facility has thousands of ingredients with unfamiliar and confusing names. No one inspecting a bakery is going to confuse shortening and flour – they don’t even look remotely similar. Nor is one likely to confuse Bunge Shortening with Cargill- Magic Chef shortening. But in a flavor company you can have (almost) identical bottles – one containing Geranyl Acetate (innocuous from a kashrus standpoint) and one holding Geranyl Caproate (very kosher sensitive). Additionally, a typical flavor facility will have around 3,000 ingredients. The OK currently certifies a flavor house with close to 8000 ingredients and checking the thousands of bottles on the shelves is not an easy task. It takes extremely serious attention to detail to keep track of all the ingredients. While many of these ingredients are readily available as kosher, it is common for a flavor facility to have both kosher and non-kosher versions of an ingredient on the shelves, requiring much diligence on the part of the mashgiach.
Also challenging, the end products are similar. A company can have hundreds, or even thousands, of varieties of each kind of flavor. Asking a flavor company for a "cherry flavor" is like asking an Englishman for tea or a supermarket for food. There are too many varieties for the name "cherry flavor" to mean anything and the only distinguishing factor is the flavor number. One mushroom flavor can be kosher while another can contain castoreum (beaver extract). Only by paying careful attention to every single detail, including the precise flavor name and number, can we be sure of the kashrus status.
Aside from the obvious attention to detail, a flavor house mashgiach needs a thorough understanding of the production process. In order for something to be kosher, in addition to its ingredients being kosher, the equipment it is processed on needs to be kosher. Of the three thousand ingredients in a typical flavor house, it is rare that all will be kosher. Therefore a part of the certification process will be to make sure that kosher products are only made on kosher equipment. As we discussed, flavor blending is typically simple blending of different ingredients with different flavors. There is no cooking in the process and therefore no heat should be needed. In fact, flavor companies want to avoid using heat as much as possible to prevent the evaporation of volatile chemicals which would be a health and quality concern.
In reality, natural flavors are made from bottles of chemicals just like artificial flavors are made from synthetic chemicals…
Sometimes, heat must be employed to blend various ingredients into a final product. The degree of heat involved can have an impact on the kosher status of the utensils and equipment. Yad Soledes Bo is the halachic term for heating a liquid to a temperature that a person cannot bear to touch with a bare hand. If a liquid is heated to this temperature, it can change the kosher status of the equipment or utensil used and requires a specific kosherization process to return it to its prior state. If a liquid is heated below this temperature, it is possible to avoid kashrus complications, as long as the equipment is cleaned adequately. Due to the powerful nature of the ingredients used, flavor companies thoroughly clean the equipment to avoid cross contamination and other healthy and quality issues. There are areas though where heat may be used above Yad Soledes Bo and the mashgiach needs to be aware of those situations due to the kashrus implications.
The following are some of the typical production processes that will be employed in a flavor company. In larger companies, each of these will be done in their own separate facility, but in smaller companies all of these processes often occur in the same building.
Liquid (Cold) Blending:
The vast majority of sweet flavors are made by cold blending. The process is as simple as it sounds. Flavors chemicals are poured out into tanks and mixed to create the desired flavor. But, even "cold" blending sometimes needs some heat in the process.
Liquid flavors are typically made by mixing the active ingredients into a base solvent. The most common bases are PG (Propylene Glycol) and Etoh (Ethyl Alcohol). Other bases, such as MCT (Medium Chain Triglycerides) and oils are also used.
Many flavor ingredients are powders and in order to dissolve them in a liquid base heat is often required. Examples of this are Methyl Cyclo Pentalone (MCP), acetoin, ethyl vanillin or vanillin in PG (when mixed with Etoh they do not require heat). It is possible that the company will use heat below Yad Soledes Bo and just mix for a longer period of time, but this needs verification by the mashgiach.
Some common flavor ingredients, such as capric acid, dimethyl anthranylate (used in every grape flavor), and AMF (Anhydrous Milk Fat = Concentrated Butter) are solid at room temperature and need to be heated to be poured into a mix. There are a number of common ways they can be heated – storing in a hot room or box, heated in a hot water bath, heated with a heating belt/drum warmer (an electrically heated belt that is wrapped around the drum to warm it up), or heating in a standard production kettle. Obviously, we need to make sure that kosher and non-kosher (or parve and dairy) are not heated on the same equipment in a manner that compromises the kosher integrity of the equipment.
Animal fat is not commonly used in liquid flavors, but would be used in dry blends and would need to be heated to melt. If dry blends are made in the same facility, they could share the same melting equipment and compromise the kosher status of the equipment.
Dry blends are typically exactly what they sound like. Dry powders are mixed together, typically with a ribbon blender (a large open container with a "curled ribbon", or corkscrew, shaped blending mechanism that runs down the center), but there are multiple ways to mix dry powders. I have even seen a facility where they put the powders in a drum and then roll the drum around on the floor. For the most part, this blending is done dry and cold, but here too there are a few potential complications. Sometimes, liquids are added to these blends. Typically it is done in a process called, "plating", where the liquids are poured over an absorbent powder, such as salt, and mixed in before adding the other dry ingredients. Sometimes these "liquid" ingredients might require heating in order to become liquid enough to pour and spread. If the same equipment were used with kosher and non-kosher hot liquids it would create a kashrus problem.
Emulsions are made by mixing a starch into a water and flavor mixture to create a stable blend. Many starches require heating to "activate" and start absorbing. Some special "pre-gelatanized" starches will swell even in cold water.
Spray drying is a process that converts a liquid into a powder. Many flavors will be spray dried because powders are easier to store and can be safer to work with than their liquid counterparts.
Spray drying is done in a Spray Dryer. Spray dryers are interesting pieces of equipment. A typical spray dryer can be up to two to four stories tall and approximately 10 to 21 feet in diameter (though a pilot dryer can be as small as 6 feet tall and three feet in diameter).
Spray drying is a multi-step process. First the product is mixed together with a carrier, usually a starch, in an emulsion tank. The mixture is then heated to create an emulsion. The dryer is heated to around 400˚ F (the exact temperature depends on the product being dried), The emulsion is then pumped up to the top of the spray dryer and through a nozzle, usually an atomizer which rotates at high speed, to disperse the product down into the dryer (some dryers use high pressure nozzles that do not rotate). The product then dries as it drops to the bottom of the dryer, sometimes hitting the walls of the dryer as it drops down. The product then goes up and down in various pipes and bends, called cyclones, to concentrate the product and cool it down.
As one might realize from the preceding description, spray dryers are very expensive pieces of equipment. While the OK has convinced some facilities to actually dedicate a spray dryer to only kosher pareve production, this is uncommon because the cost of the equipment is prohibitive to such restricted use.
Spray dryers are very difficult to kasher because of their size and the way they operate. The OK has a complex koshering protocol in place to ensure the kosher status of all spray dryers used for kosher production. The spray dryer must be eino ben yomo (not used for 24 hours) and the mashgiach is given detailed instructions on how to kasher the entire spray dry machine, including koshering all hoses and utensils. The koshering process is done with boiling water heated above boiling temperature to ensure that all surfaces, inside and outside, reach boiling temperature.
Sweet flavors are produced through liquid cold blending. There are also savory flavors (used for meat or similar product flavorings), which are frequently produced by reactions.
Reactions are made by reacting amino acids and sugars under intense heat and pressure to create new, unique flavors with the ingredients used to make the blend (as opposed to the liquid blending described above that is just a combination of the flavors of the components). Theoretically only ingredients that are easily available as kosher could be used in these products. However, sometimes companies want to have a natural image, so frequently some of the actual product flavor they are trying to imitate is used. For example, some pork is added to the mixture so that the company can say "Natural & Artificial Ham Flavor" even though the natural ham plays no real role in the taste of the flavor. This of course would render the flavor and the equipment not kosher.
The ramifications of this are:
If a formula contains amino acids and sugars, it will need to be heated. Proper controls need to be in place to prevent non-kosher flavors from being made on the same equipment as kosher flavors without proper kosherizing procedures.
The heating of Vanillin in PG (as described previously) can take place on the same equipment as non-kosher formulations, so care must be taken to ensure proper kosherization.
It is for these reasons that the OK invests much effort though into monitoring the kashrus and training mashgichim of flavor companies. The OK does the work so that the consumer can savor the delicious flavor without needing to give it a second thought.