When It Comes to Kosher Food, Arlene Mathes-Scharf of Kashrut.com Knows What’s Up

Written by Gabe Aaronson on . Posted in Food/Dining

The September 2017 Natural Products Expo East in the Baltimore Convention Center was the place to be for anyone interested in health food trends. Thousands of supermarket executives, food industry experts, and inquisitive members of the public attended the tradeshow from Sept. 13-16 to learn what the 1,500 natural product exhibitors offered.

Unlike most attendees, Kashrut.com founder Arlene Mathes-Scharf was there not only to learn, but also to teach. She spent two days visiting as many booths as possible, educating food company representatives about kashrut and the kosher food market. “Kosher was the original food certification,” Mathes-Scharf told the natural food reps. “The rabbis knew about food residue on equipment a thousand years before the Food and Drug Administration.”

Many of the big trends in natural food were on display at the Expo. This year, said Mathes-Scharf, she observed new prominence among vegetable protein products; meat and dairy products from grain-fed animals; avocado- and coconut-based foods; vegan and gluten-free foods; and probiotic or fermented foods, such as pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, kambucha, and various vinegars. Of particular interest to kosher consumers were the varieties of delicious non-dairy ice creams and cheeses. Trends that do not benefit kosher consumers include the growing popularity of insect-based protein and collagen (a meat-based ingredient) in natural foods.

Mathes-Scharf has a Master’s degree in Food Science from MIT and worked on kashrut for over seven years for the Rabbinical Council of New England (the vaad in Boston). She started Kashrut.com in 1996 to give U.S. kosher consumers easy access to kosher news from all of the major kashrut organizations. Previously, kashrut organizations would publish alerts — such a non-kosher item being misbranded with a kosher symbol — in just the local Jewish newspapers. However, Jews in Chicago rarely read the New York papers, so they could easily miss important kashrut news. Kashrut.com used the newly-popular internet to bridge the geographical gap.

Since then, Mathes-Scharf has turned Kashrut.com and her newsletter into a one-stop-shop for consumers seeking kashrut news. Kashrut.com also has a section with information for the kosher traveler, with articles like “Being a Guest at a Hotel on Shabbos,” plus a very popular section on kashrut for Passover.

Kashrut.com is also a resource for food manufacturers that want to become kosher. At the Natural Products Expo East, Mathes-Scharf directed anyone interested in kashrut — which was most people she met — to her website.

Usually a food or food ingredient manufacturer becomes kosher because a distributor (such Shoprite or Trader Joe’s) demands it, said Mathes-Scharf, but schmoozing with company representatives is the second-best way of spreading awareness of kashrut. The best way, she said, is for consumers to call up food companies and say, “I want to eat your products. Why aren’t you kosher?”

According to market research firm Mintel, kosher certification appeared on fully 41 percent of new packaged foods in 2014, which  is up from 27 percent in 2009. Given that only 2 percent of the U.S. population is Jewish and only 10 percent of Jews are Orthodox, one could easily ask the opposite question: Why are so many food products kosher?

The answer lies in how supermarket chains choose which products to carry, according to Menachem Lubinsky, CEO of Lubicom Marketing Consulting and founder of the Kosherfest tradeshow. Supermarkets generally choose their products based on the demands of consumers in large markets such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Miami. Since U.S. Jews are concentrated in large cities, that means Jews’ food preferences have outsize influence on downstate food markets as well.

Kosher consumers also buy more food — spending on average two to three times as much money on groceries annually — than non-kosher consumers, according to Lubinsky. With 52 Shabbats and 12+ days of Jewish festivals (each of which has one to three meals with several guests), practicing Jews buy a lot of food each year. This extra spending gives kosher consumers extra influence on which products appear on supermarket shelves.

Lubinsky said that because big manufacturers want to access the kosher market, overseas ingredients suppliers must go kosher to sell to a company like Pepsi, Coca Cola, or Kellogg’s. As a result, Lubinsky said, said there are kosher certified companies in 99 countries — many of which have very small domestic Jewish populations.

Mathes-Scharf said that Lubinsky’s annual Kosherfest expo has itself expanded the United States’ kosher food market. Lubinsky started Kosherfest in 1988, as the only tradeshow dedicated to kosher food from around the world. It generally showcases 500-600 new kosher products from manufacturers and distributors both large and small.

This year’s Kosherfest took place on Nov. 14-15 in Secaucus, New Jersey. According to Lubinsky, it reflected many of the trends that Mathes-Scharf saw at the Natural Products Expo East, such as organic and gluten-free. It seems that just as Jewish consumers set the kashrut trends for the larger U.S. food market, so too U.S. consumers set the trends for the kosher market as well.

By Gabe Aaronson

 Gabe Aaronson is a special correspondent for Kol HaBirah