The Story of Vitamins
Our Sages teach us that the world was created using the mystical attributes of the letters of the Aleph Bais. Each letter contributed an essential and unique ingredient to the spirituality of the world, which together completed the creation.
Our Sages also teach us that a symbiotic relationship exists between the spiritual and physical worlds. When scientists began analyzing the myriad of components in the foods we eat and determined that they contained certain micronutrients that were vital to life, they chose to categorize them by the letters of the alphabet.
Vitamins are known by their alphabetical acronyms and indeed have the ability to affect both our physical well-being through their nutritional value and our spiritual well-being through the Kosher certification issues that they present.
A vitamin is defined as a nutritional substance necessary for life but one that cannot generally be produced by the body itself. The term vitamine was coined to stand for vita (life) and amine (a specific family of compounds containing nitrogen, originally thought to be a trait common to all such compounds).
When further research showed that some vitamins contained no amine structures, the final –e was dropped, leaving the term as we know it today (at least in American English). Vitamins were identified as specific nutritional factors only within the past hundred years, but their properties have been known since ancient times.
Some 3,500 years ago, King Amenophis IV in Old Egypt ate liver to help him see clearly at night, and Hippocrates healed night-blindness with raw liver soaked in honey. Although neither understood the chemical basis for this therapy, science has since ascribed the curative properties of liver to a chemical called retinol. Because retinol was the first vitamin to be identified, it was given the name vitamin A.
As other vitamins were discovered, they were identified by subsequent letters of the alphabet. (The “missing letters” in the vitamin alphabet came about because some compounds were originally thought to be vitamins and were given a letter, but subsequent research led to their being excluded from the list.)
Vitamins were also grouped by the general biological systems they affect. For this reason, several vitamins are identified as subscripted numbers under the “B” group. (Again, some numbers were assigned and then rescinded, leaving breaks in the sequence.) Most vitamins were originally identified in animal tissue, and were these to have remained the source of our vitamin supplements we might have serious Kosher certification concerns. Fortunately, virtually all vitamins today are produced by other means, although Kosher certification concerns exist nonetheless.
Vitamins are divided into two categories: fat-soluble and water-soluble varieties. Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, and in nature can be found only in fatty animal tissue. Many fresh vegetables, especially orange and yellow ones (for example, carrots), contain beta carotene, which is a precursor to vitamin A and is easily converted by the human body from its inactive form in the vegetables to the active form.
Historically, however, fresh vegetables were available only seasonally, and for hundreds of years children looked forward to a regimen of cod liver oil that provided them with this nutrient, as well as with vitamin D.
Today, we obtain our vitamin A from a number of sources, such as butterfat, in which it is also plentiful, as well as through eating fresh vegetables. With the advent of butter replacements such as vegetable margarine, and in our current zeal to reduce the butterfat content of the dairy foods we eat, there was a concern that an insufficient amount of vitamin A would be available in our diet. The government has therefore mandated that vitamin A be added to low-fat dairy products and beta carotene to margarine (in which it is also used to provide color).
Although the original sources of vitamin A were of non-Kosher animal and fish origin, modern vitamin A, used in the forms of palmitate and acetate, is produced synthetically and poses little inherent Kosher certification concern. However, palmitic acid (used to produce the palmitate ester that is most bioavailable, that is, the easiest for humans to use) and other oils used to store these vitamins do require a Kosher certification. Products that advertise natural vitamin A, sometimes referred to as l-retinol, generally come from animal tissue and must, therefore, have a reliable Kosher certification.
Vitamin D is another fat-soluble vitamin and was identified as necessary to prevent rickets and other diseases affecting bones. Vitamin D is called the “sunshine vitamin” because it is produced in the body by the reaction of solar ultraviolet (UV) irradiation with cholesterol. This reaction occurs just under the skin, and is known as vitamin D1.
However, many people do not get enough sunlight, and other forms of vitamin D are now routinely added to milk to ensure an adequate amount together with the calcium in the milk. Two commercially available forms of this vitamin are available, vitamin D2 and vitamin D3, each with its unique Kosher certification concerns.
Vitamin D2 is produced by irradiating a chemical called ergosterol, converting it to ergocalciferol (vitamin D2). Ergosterol is produced by a fungus, so named because it was first isolated from a fungus (ergot) growing on rye. Today, a strain of yeast that produces a far higher yield of ergosterol is grown in large fermentors and although it requires a Kosher certification, as do all fermentation products, it poses no innate Kosher certification concern. Passover certification would depend on the Passover status of the yeast.
Vitamin D3 is produced by irradiating 7-dehydrocholesterol, a product derived from the cholesterol found in the skin, which is thereby converted into cholecalciferol (vitamin D3). The source for this cholesterol is what poses the potential Kosher certification concern. Sheep’s wool has been used as a clothing material since the dawn of time (see Sotah 11a, in which, according to one opinion, the clothing supplied to Adam and Eve was wool).
While on the sheep, however, wool is dirty and oily, and wool processors wash raw wool with various chemicals to remove this grease. From this washing process they obtain wool grease, which is processed into a lubricant called lanolin. When lanolin is further processed and irradiated it is converted into vitamin D3.
The question is whether lanolin itself is Kosher, because it is an excretion from a live animal. For many years, some authorities recommended to avoid using vitamin D3 under the mistaken belief that the lanolin was somehow animal fat that was exuded from the flesh into the wool, a misunderstanding of the term “wool fat.” Were this to be the case, it would have been forbidden as Ba’sar Min ha’Chai (flesh from a living animal).
On further clarification, however, lanolin was determined to be a secretion of the skin, which does not have the forbidden Halachic (Jewish law) status of meat, and this concern became moot. Its status as a secretion of a living animal, however, does leave room for discussion. It is arguably still subject to the rule of Yo’tze, something that is produced by a forbidden animal (in this case, one that is not yet properly slaughtered) remains prohibited.
Much has been written on this point, with Halachic authorities arguing on both sides. Some have argued that because the lanolin becomes inedible during processing, it is no longer a subject of concern; items prohibited because of Yo’tze become permitted if first rendered inedible. In addition, some have argued more to the point that wool is a permitted item per se (either before or after the animal is slaughtered) and items derived from it pose no Halachic concern. Others have argued that lanolin should be treated as any other prohibited excretion, and thus they avoid using vitamin D3.
Vitamin E, another fat-soluble vitamin, poses a totally different Kosher certification concern. Vitamin E was originally identified in wheat germ oil and was named tocopherol (from the Greek “to bring forth child”) because it was deemed essential to reproduction. Its primary form, α-tocopherol, can be produced synthetically and poses little Kosher certification concern.
Natural vitamin E, known as mixed tocopherols, is currently produced from a by-product of the soybean oil industry. Crude vegetable oil contains many impurities, which must be removed to produce the edible oil we use in cooking. As part of the oil-refining procedure, the oil is deodorized, a process by which the volatile impurities are distilled from the oil and removed as a vapor.
This deodorizer distillate is rich in mixed tocopherols and is condensed and processed into natural vitamin E. The Kosher certification concern stems from the fact that many edible oil plants refine both vegetable and animal fats. In such a case, soy deodorizer distillate from a deodorizer that is also used for animal fat deodorizing would be non-Kosher. Today, literally hundreds of soybean oil refineries around the world are monitored by Kosher certification organizations to ensure that a formerly discarded material indeed meets Kosher requirements.
Vitamin K is somewhat unique in that it exists in both oil- and water-soluble forms. Vitamin K, which is essential to the proper clotting of blood, received its alphabetic designation from the German word koagulation. Vitamin K1 (phylloquinone) was originally isolated from alfalfa sprouts and can be found in many green vegetables such as cabbage, spinach, and turnip greens. Vitamin K2 (menaquinone) is produced by bacteria that are normally resident in a person’s intestines. A synthetic version, vitamin K3 (menadione), is the form generally used as a vitamin supplement and poses no Kosher certification concerns.
All fat-soluble vitamins, however, do share one major Kosher certification concern. In their natural state, fat-soluble vitamins are dissolved in an oil emulsion, but to produce a vitamin tablet they must be converted into a powdered form. This is accomplished through a process called spray drying, in which a fine mist of the vitamin in the oil emulsion is sprayed into hot air. The subsequent drying process creates a powder.
However, when exposed to air these vitamins tend to oxidize and become rancid, and gelatin is often used to counteract this problem through a process called microencapsulation. Gelatin is added to the vitamin emulsion to form a protective coating around each particle as the powder is formed. Although other protective agents (such as gum of acacia) are used, gelatin is the most effective, and its use—at up to 45 percent of the finished powder—creates a Kosher certification concern with otherwise inherently Kosher vitamins. To resolve this issue, some vitamin companies use Kosher fish gelatin to ensure acceptability to the Kosher consumer.
The B vitamins, as well as vitamin C, are water soluble and are produced through a variety of synthetic and fermentation processes. Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, was first recognized as an important nutrient by the surgeon general of the British Royal Navy, when he prescribed fresh lemons on ocean voyages to combat scurvy among the sailors (engendering the nickname for British sailors as “limies”).
Although vitamin C is indeed found in abundance in many fruit and vegetables, the modern production of vitamin C relies on the fermentation of sorbitol (a carbohydrate) and subsequent chemical treatments to convert it into ascorbic acid. In addition to its value in nutrition, ascorbic acid serves to prevent oxidation in processed fruit and is routinely added for that purpose. The Kosher certification concern for this material primarily involves Passover.
Sorbitol is produced from glucose, which in turn is produced by the hydrolysis of various starches. Although cornstarch is used to produce glucose in North America because of its abundance and low price, in many other parts of the world wheat starch is more attractive for this purpose. Glucose (and sorbitol) produced from wheat starch is Chometz (leaven) and may not be used on Pesach (Passover), and ascorbic acid made from such a sorbitol is therefore considered Chometz. An additional concern with the vitamin C used in tablets is that it may be formulated with lactose (milk sugar), posing a general Kosher certification concern, or with cornstarch, posing a concern for Pesach.
Thiamin (vitamin B1), niacin (vitamin B3), pyridoxine (vitamin B6) and biotin (vitamin Bx) are produced synthetically and pose relatively minor Kosher certification concerns. Riboflavin (vitamin B2) and cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12), on the other hand, are fermentation products and require a reliable Kosher certification. Many serious diseases have been traced to deficiencies of these vitamins in the diet.
For example, a neurological disease called beriberi is caused by a deficiency of thiamine. Pellagra, a debilitating illness that was common in the United States in the first part of the last century, was finally traced to a diet deficient in niacin.
Although whole grains (such as rice and wheat) are rich in these and other vitamins, polished rice and white flour are notoriously deficient. Refined grains may be more appealing but they are certainly not as healthful, and for this reason most flour and rice sold in the United States and many other countries are fortified with niacin, thiamine, and riboflavin. This may indeed be a concern for S’phardim who eat rice on Passover, because although the rice may not pose a problem, the vitamin enrichment may: Chometz may have been included in the fermentation process.
The Bottom Line
Fat-soluble vitamins (for example, vitamins A, D, and E) are often derived from Kosher sources. Natural vitamin A, however, may be derived from animal tissue. If derived from such a source, it is not considered Kosher. Vitamin D2 is derived from a fungal fermentation. Vitamin D3, however, is derived from lanolin (wool grease) and some authorities consider it to be non-Kosher. Natural vitamin E is generally isolated from vegetable oil plant distillate, the source of which must be verified to ensure that the plant does not process animal fats on the same equipment.
Liquid preparations of fat-soluble vitamins are often mixed with polysorbates or other emulsifiers. These emulsifiers must be Kosher and, if used for Passover, must be approved for Passover.
Powdered forms of fat-soluble vitamins are often microencapsulated in gelatin to prevent oxidation. A reliable Kosher certification ensures that the gelatin is Kosher (fish based). Alternatively, various gums or oils are used to replace the gelatin. Because such powders are produced in spray dryers, the Kosher status of that equipment must be verified.
Water-soluble vitamins (for example, the B complex and vitamin C) are generally derived from Kosher sources. Many of them, however, are fermentation products, which generally require a reliable Kosher certification. Fermentations also require attention to concerns for Passover.