The Real Thing: How Coke Became Kosher

A bottler pours a taste of “kosher for Passover” Diet Coke for a local rabbi, 1983. During Passover, Coke uses a formula free of corn syrup for its kosher Coke. (Detroit Free Press/Ira Rosenberg)

A bottler pours a taste of “kosher for Passover” Diet Coke for a local rabbi, 1983. During Passover, Coke uses a formula free of corn syrup for its kosher Coke. (Detroit Free Press/Ira Rosenberg)

These chemists deserve much of the credit for the remarkable growth in kosher food products. Of course, clever food marketers have played a role, too. The famous tagline “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s” along with Hebrew National’s brilliant phrase “We answer to a higher authority” have doubtless expanded kosher food’s appeal. But both advertising campaigns rest on a claim that kosher food is more reliable, safer, and more consistent in its contents than nonkosher food because rabbis’ devotion to their faith places their judgment above suspicion. And these claims in turn depend on the hard work done by Rabbi Geffen and the ranks of kosher chemists who have been scrupulous in their application of kosher law to modern food.

The result has been widespread interest by nonkosher consumers in kosher food. In the late 1980s the prestigious market-research firm Packaged Facts issued an influential report showing that only one in four purchasers of kosher products were in fact Jewish. Twenty years later a similar report would show that only one in ten kosher food purchasers were observant Jews. Today this fact is widely accepted among food manufacturers, who also maintain the corresponding belief that kosher certification can in many cases bolster their product’s image and increase sales, not only to observant Jews but also to many other consumers concerned about what they eat.

The diligence of kosher chemists has made it possible for kosher food to have such a broad appeal. Insistence on stringent standards for ingredients and processing means that Muslims can trust that kosher-certified food will not contain any ingredients originating from a pig. Vegetarians can be confident that kosher food labeled as dairy will contain no meat products. Conversely, lactose-intolerant or allergic consumers know that foods labeled meat or parve will not trigger milk-based health problems.

Ironically, kosher food’s appeal to nonkosher consumers was an entirely unanticipated outgrowth of kosher chemistry. When Orthodox rabbis developed the rigorous rules governing the production of Coke and other processed food products, they were not thinking about the non-Jewish consumer. They were concerned exclusively with being true to the principles of Jewish law. But this unintended consequence has made the growth of kosher-certified products a mitzvah, a good deed, from which many have benefited, not only observant Jews.

Roger Horowitz was a 2009–2010 Gordon Cain Fellow at CHF's Beckman Center. He is currently the associate director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society at the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware. This article is drawn from a book he is writing on the history of kosher food in the United States.