What Do All Those Food Symbols Mean Anyway?

As a new Muslim in the United States, trying to determine what is halal or not has been quite difficult, and a long process. I think I’m finally starting to get a handle on this.

While learning what is halal can be challenging, the blame there does not lie with Islamic rules, but with the mainstream food industry. I’m sure that in the Prophet’s time– or even just 100 years ago– determining what was halal would have been quite simple. After all, there aren’t a whole lot of things that are haram (forbidden). They include a short list:

  • Alcohol and alcohol-based ingredients
  • Ingredients coming from the human body (i.e. L-Cysteine from human hair– gross I know! but you’d be surprised . . . more on this later)
  • Pork and pork by-products (including dairy ingredients using pork enzymes, pork fat, etc)
  • Some Muslims also stay away from sea creatures that are not ‘fish’– do not have scales– i.e. lobster, crab, etc.
  • Edited to add: Meat should be slaughtered in the way prescribed by Islamic law (more on that here )

The problem now is that the food industry puts all kind of unnecessary ingredients and by-products in our food. Next time you’re at the store, pick up any food you’d expect to contain a short list of ingredients– bread is a great example. I can bake it at home with only a few simple ingredients. Now count how many ingredients are listed on your average package of bread at the super market. It’s crazy! This is exactly why we have witnessed in the U.S. over the last decade or so the emergence of the ‘natural’, ‘whole’, and ‘organic’ food industries–people are starting to realize (some more than others) that there’s a lot of unnecessary and often harmful ingredients in our food, and it’s about time we got back to the basics.

So, with all of the confusion, how do you know what is halal? Luckily, there are standard food symbols on packages which help us through the process. It is important, however, to understand what these symbols mean so that we can make informed decisions about what we’re eating.

Due to the fact the Jewish society became mainstream and accepted in the U.S. long before Muslims, the symbols on food packages are generally Jewish in nature. You will see some foods that have a halal certification on them (these are the easiest to use!), but by and large most refer to an item being kosher.

Before going over these symbols, it’s important to note that kosher does not always mean halal. The main difference between what is kosher and halal is alcohol. So an item may contain alcohol (for example alcohol-based vanilla extract), but it will still have a kosher symbol. You should always read the food label to make sure what you are eating is halal.

Kosher symbols-page-0 copy

In addition to discussing these symbols, the Muslims Consumer Group site also notes other ways to understand a product is halal. They note that these kosher symbols mean that essentially the fat products in the food are derived from vegetables. In other words, unless it is clearly marked as a meat product, they are vegetarian.

This understanding of food symbols has gone a long way in helping me determine what is halal. Keep in mind that some food products may not have any symbol on them but may still be fine– they are likely clearly vegetarian and need no explanation. It’s always a good idea to double check the ingredients, especially if you suspect a kosher product may contain vanilla* or alcohol. The Muslim Consumer Group website is also a great source– they list tons of food products which have been researched as to whether or not they are halal. They also have a guide here which helps; near the bottom they list what ingredients to look for to understood if a product is halal. Inshallah this will help you be more aware of what is halal and what is not.

*Note on vanilla: pure vanilla extract contains large amounts of alcohol– a minimum of 35%. Vanilla itself is fine. You can find alcohol-free vanilla in some natural food stores, such as Whole Foods. Imitation vanilla also contains alcohol. Vanillin is the name for the compound that comes from the vanilla bean, so thus vanillin itself as an ingredient is also halal.  

Sources:

http://kosherfood.about.com/od/guidetokosherfoodlabels/ss/symbols.htm

http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/313/what-do-k-r-and-u-mean-on-food-and-other-packages

http://www.muslimconsumergroup.com/ingredient_types.html

Advertisements

About Meditating Muslimah

Sharing my experiences as a new Muslimah, thoughts on religion, things that inspire me, foods I love to make and eat, Islamic fashion, travel, and life in general!
This entry was posted in Food, Islam and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to What Do All Those Food Symbols Mean Anyway?

  1. Fascinating blog even though I don’t live in USA. Here (Egypt) we assume the food we buy is halal but, with ever increasing imports of ordinary as well as ‘luxury’ western foods, more and more of our potential diet is adulterated.
    But this seems a universal problem; I read that Europe and specially UK, has found that their top supermarkets have been selling beef containing large proportion of horse-meat, and that food in schools and prison has found to contain pork DNA, evidence that cheap pig meat is being sold as beef.

    • Yes! Actually, there is a similar story from Turkey, where my in-laws live. Turkey is 99% Muslim and people there assume that all the food is halal. But they recently found there, too, that there was pork in the hamburger. It’s so important to know the source of our foods!

  2. strawberryquicksand says:

    Goodness me! There is a lot of work going ito even eating to be muslim! What would happen if you ate something wrong? What if you knew you were eating something wrong but were just so hungry that you couldn’t help but to eat it? I know that if I get hungry enough, I will just about start chewing my way through the furniture… I commend you for being so devout, though.

    • First, I believe that Allah does not want to make an unnecessary burden or hardship for us. There are many health benefits for us in following halal eating rules. For example, many studies have shown links between pork consumption and a variety of negative health effects. So essentially, if we eat foods that are forbidden to us, I believe the largest effect is on our own body; it is for our own health and well-being that we should avoid certain foods. If we mistakenly eat something that is not halal, it is okay. Allah knows our intention and knows if it was not intentional. I believe that as long as we do our best to try and eat halal foods, Allah will not count it against us. For example, some Muslims don’t know that vanilla has alcohol in it, so they may eat it. But once they learn this, they shouldn’t eat it anymore, and I believe Allah will not judge them for having eaten eat before.

      Regarding your question about if you have no other choice, this is an exception. By a rule of thumb, our health and well-being comes first. If there is no other food available to us, it is better to eat something ‘haram’ than to starve. All of this being said, Muslims should always be learning and growing. They should not just close their eyes, claim ignorance, and eat what they want. They should be always trying to make sure what they eat is halal. And if they’re not sure, they should find out or avoid the questionable food. You CAN find halal foods in this country, you just have to know where to look 🙂 We even have a halal grocery store here, though it’s a long drive to take on a regular basis.

      Another thing I wanted to mention is that for me, attempting to eat halal is like someone trying to avoid food allergies. My mom has always suffered from many food allergies, so I am used to always having to check the food labels to make sure the ingredients were safe for her. But once you get an idea on what is okay and what is not, it gets easier.

  3. Salaam, I realize this may not directly be related to the article but I would like to discuss something with you.

    What does one do when he/she see’s that individuals are capitalizing on the aspect of Halal and monetizing the act of certifying Halal? In specific I have come to be aware of a group of Imams which have decided that IFANCA and ISNA are not doing enough and that they themselves can monitor what is halal and what isn’t. through this they have self-appointed themselves as a valid authority and use masjids, a place of worship to spread their public relations/propaganda (which in turn heavily imply that if its not certified by them, it isn’t halal).

    these individuals are using theory and interpretation of strict religious texts to support their claim, however people who are doing Halal and are actually on the front lines know how to accommodate Halal requirements and North American environments, and have been doing such for decades.

    the problem arises when the Imams and this newly formed Authority is registered as a Not for Profit organization but the imams themselves are on the payroll. It makes the youth who see these blatant actions of deceit less confident in the ummah.

    your thoughts?

    • Salam . . . I am not really aware of such and issue and so do not have previous opinions on such a topic. But as far as the info you have provided, I have two thoughts. First– everyone needs to make a living. I see nothing wrong with people who make money by performing a religious service to the community. If that is how they spend most of their time, how else can they survive? Where else can their income come from? I would think that working in a way serving the Muslim community which actually be preferable to some ways of employment. All non-profits have people who they pay to work for them. That being said, such work should be ethical, should not take advantage of the community, and they should not be making an unnecessary amount of money, but an average salary. Being ethical would also include not lying to people and trying to use religion to guilt people to use your business and not someone else’s.

  4. Salaam! I really like your blog! so I nominated you for a Liebster award. Check my blog for more details. Thanks

Let me know what you think! (In English please)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s