Does kosher mean healthier?

The NYT on the Jewish diet's growing popularity with gentiles and conscious eaters

Published January 13, 2010 4:14PM (EST)

In the Michael Pollan world, people are always looking for new ways to eat more sustainable, healthier food -- or at least convince themselves that they are. Today, the New York Times reports on a new healthy-eating trend (that may not actually be all that healthy) that's becoming increasingly popular among gentiles and lapsed Jews: Kosher foods.

Writes Kim Severson: "Only about 15 percent of people who buy kosher do it for religious reasons, according to Mintel, a research group that last year produced a report on the kosher food explosion. The top reasons cited for buying kosher? Quality, followed by general healthfulness."

But most people, Severson writes, aren't buying it because they're intimately familiar with the Jewish dietary laws that govern kosher eating (which include, "rinsing blood from carcasses with salt and water, never mixing meat and dairy, and allowing fin fish but not shellfish") but because they associate the food with humane farming, health, and good taste -- three assumptions that, Severson explains, may not actually be correct:

  • Jewish dietary law requires that animals be treated well and slaughtered swiftly, but not all manufacturers obey these rules rigorously, and the level of animal treatment depends on the individual farm operation.
  • While one study found that salmonella levels were lower in kosher chickens than in conventional chickens, as a result of the kosher practice of salting and rinsing the bird, another found that kosher chicken had the highest levels of listeria (which sickens people relatively rarely, but can also be deadly).
  • There's little taste difference between a normal foodstuff that's been blessed by a rabbi (kosher Oreos?) and its non-kosher equivalent -- and, while some chefs prefer kosher chickens, including Cook's Illustrated magazine founder Christopher Kimball, it's more likely the quality of the chicken, not the kosher-izing, that's the clincher.

The New York Times isn't the first publication to catch on to the growing popularity of kosher foods (the New Yorker recently ran a piece about China's growing kosher export market), but it suggests, without saying it, that the real reason behind the growing market is trendy eaters' increasingly desperate search for the "next big thing" in healthful eating and an easy, catch-all term to simplify their choices, like "organic -- even if it's not necessarily all that healthy. (Oh yeah, you're eating slow foods? I've gone kosher!).

By Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

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