For those of us who aren't Jewish, kosher foods, like Matzo-ball soup and gefilte fish, have long been relegated to half-understood punchlines in Woody Allen movies.
But that's all changing, thanks to America's increasing obsession with “pure” foods, and with a deliberate push by kosher-food companies, the biggest of which, Secaucus, N.J.-based Manischewitz, is launching a nationwide campaign to bring kosher comestibles to the other 98 percent of the country.
“I think kosher is in some ways becoming a new organic certification for some consumers, even though organic even isn't that old,” says David Rossi, vice president of marketing for R.A.B. Food Group, parent company for Manischewitz.
“The idea of kosher, in a world with so many health and product claims, is just and continues to have with consumers this idea of being cleaner, purer, better, and because of that, many consumers are looking for kosher foods and something positive, even though they don't keep kosher.”
In fact, non-Jews are now the kosher-food market's fastest-growing segment, which is good news for Manischewitz and its competitors, considering that the Jewish population in the United States isn't growing.
And, of course, nowhere close to 100 percent of that 2 percent of Americans keep kosher.
Manischewitz wants to keep the non-Jewish trend accelerating, and has changed the look of its packaging from the familiar but dowdy orange-and-green boxes to a more streamlined, modern look with text boxes that focus less on Jewish holidays and traditions.
Meanwhile, kosher-food trade shows have become bustling gathering places to brainstorm ideas to market products to non-Jews, who make up about 30 percent of the kosher market.
“We've seen a growth of other ethnic goods, so our thought is, not everyone who eats Asian food is Asian, so why is it that only people who keep kosher should buy kosher?” Rossi says. “How can we take this brand and not just have it appeal to the core 5.2 million Jewish consumers in the nation?”
Candace McMenamin, who owns an auto-repair shop in Columbia, S.C., said she's tried some kosher foods for health reasons.
"I've used kosher products in place of other things, like I use their chicken broth just because it seems like it would be healthier," she said. "My two boys like trying them, and they like the potato pancakes, but I don't know if they'd try that fish."
Kosher foods is now a $10 billion-a-year industry covering 86,000 kosher-certified products (the number was 50,000 in 1996), and is growing at between 10 and 15 percent annually.
According to a survey released at the recent Kosherfest trade show, only 21 percent of the 10.5 million Americans who buy kosher do it for purely religious reasons.
Rossi said Manischewitz isn't producing new items to appeal to the broader audience, but is relying on giving a facelift to tried-and-true favorites.
New kosher products coming out include better kosher wines — no more sickly sweet grape juice wines — exotic cheeses and snack foods.
And the trend continues for well-established mainstream companies to make their existing products kosher — Absolut vodka, for example, recently applied for kosher certification.
Being kosher, similar in many ways to the Muslim idea of keeping halal, means adhering to strict rabbinical rules about preparing food, and which foods can be eaten.
Pork, rabbit and shellfish, among other meats, are strictly forbidden, as is eating dairy products with meat, or preparing food on a surface that has also been used to prepare something that is taboo.
Animals have to be slaughtered in a specific, humane way, and rabbis have to supervise the production of foods, particularly in certain circumstances, such as the lighting of ovens or the making of wine.
“It's like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” said Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz, the rabbi in charge of kosher operations for R.A.B. “In the case of the English language, when you say something's not kosher, it's not right. There's always been a perception that kosher is a higher-quality product. It's twice watched.”
But some question whether ancient religious dietary laws — whose primary purpose many experts say was to keep a perilously surrounded culture unified and independent, not to keep people better fed—really translate into healthier eating habits in today's world.
“Personally, I think it's more a religion issue than anything else,” said Marion Nestle, chairwoman for New York University's Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health.
“It would be very difficult from a nutrition standpoint to argue that the food is more nutritious. It doesn't have a lot to do with nutrition; it has a lot to do with traditional cultural issues and the way things have been handled for millennia, some of which makes sense and some of which doesn't according to a nutritional standpoint.”
Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, professor of performance studies also at New York University, who specifically researches Jewish foods, said that the number of products now bearing the kosher label has grown so much exponentially that it's almost lost its meaning as a mark of distinction.
Some companies, like Coca-Cola (COKE), for example, didn't have to change any of their production methods to earn the small circled “K” that adorns its bottles, and even Coke executives would be hard-pressed to promote the soft drink as health food.
In some cases, “kosher” can actually mean the product's less healthy than the non-kosher version, as with artificial, ersatz foods that help consumers get to enjoy “forbidden” flavors while still obeying dietary restrictions — like non-dairy creamers and hydrogenated fats, which count as neither meat nor milk.
Vegetarians and those with food allergies are the people who may still benefit most from paying attention to the kosher symbol, she said.
“What the kosher seal does do is provide assurance that if a product is identified as NOT meat, the most scrupulous standards have been applied, and this could be important to vegetarians,” Kirshenblatt-Gimblett wrote in an e-mail. “The larger point is that you can trust the label because the inspection has been more scrupulous. This matters to people with allergies, food restrictions, whether medical or religious, etc.”
Even Manishewitz's people stress that they're not making any claims about kosher food necessarily being healthier.
“It doesn't mean it couldn't have any artificial colors or ingredients, though it does mean products are very carefully scrutinized,” Rossi said. “Kosher foods don't have fat or calorie requirements, and it isn't that a product is kosher that's low-fat or low-sugar. It's not being positioned by us or anyone else as a diet food for keeping the weight off, for example.”
But for a growing number of non-Jews, kosher is still the way to go. With one exception, of course.
“Gefilte fish,” Rossi said. “We have yet to find the breakout idea for selling gefilte fish to the non-Jewish consumer. If we could do that, we'd be very happy, and as crazy as it sounds, we're always thinking about it.”