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.
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.