You Eat Fish Don't You?
The Perks and Pitfalls of Parve for Vegetarians
Anyone who has been a vegetarian or vegan knows how quickly label reading becomes a force of habit. We peruse the aisles of the market, looking for chicken stock in soups, gelatin in candy, and question whether we should continue to buy refined sugar, food coloring and other products we are unsure of. Luckily we have a life saver when it comes to looking at labels; the kashrut and parve symbols written on products.
Before describing how these symbols can be helpful, we should first more closely examine the meaning of parve and its relation to kashrut and vegetarian ingredients. Parve (also sometimes spelled Pareve or Parevine) means that a food is "neutral" and contains no "meat" or milk products, and has come into contact with neither. The word is a designation along with the terms "Fleishik" (a meat product) or "Milchik" (a dairy product) which the kosher food industry uses to designate foods as certified kosher. While the Talmud and other collections of Jewish law have set out the specifics for what determines something as kosher, in the United States, Israel and other countries, specific certification authorities have been designated todeal with the practical matter of labeling foods as kosher. Each certification authority has its own symbol, called a "hechshur" (see examples above), some are some of which are recognized by more than others, or followed more in certain communities. However, all hechshurs make a distinction between parve and dairy.
A parve symbol does not mean for sure that the food is vegan or even vegetarian, since kashrut laws allow both fish, honey and eggs in the ingredients. Additionally, sometimes a product that has a vegan ingredient list will not be labeled parve, because it has been made on equipment or in some other way come into contact with dairy or meat products. This is especially common with snack foods, candies and chocolates, and you can often find dark chocolate with no milk but also no parve label. While there most likely are no actual non-vegetarian or vegan ingredients in the product, it is up to the individual whether shared-equipment is enough to make something non-vegetarian.
Some common kosher symbols
The definition of fish as a parve animal has made its way into the general understanding of and definition of vegetarian and vegan food in Jewish circles. Many vegetarians have told stories of having conversations with people who keep kosher, or of being invited to a kosher house for dinner and being offered fish as a vegetarian option. While this may obviously be troublesome for a vegetarian, it is an understandable confusion for a person trying to make sense of the definition of vegetarianism and is not knowledgeable about the issues involved. After all, kashrut is a method of separating and thinking about the origin of food, and for someone who keeps kosher and might be unfamiliar with vegetarianism, this separation is based on Parve vs. meat and milk not the exclusion of all animal products from one's diet. As with any interactions concerning eating habits, it is best to deal with these experiences with compassion and creativity.
For vegans, it is especially worth looking not only for the parve symbol, but also the kosher dairy symbol on products that might seem vegan from the ingredient list. As mentioned above, this may mean that the product or the ingredients may have been made on shared equipment with meat or dairy foods, but it may also be a hint that the product contains dairy. While the FDA allows something to be labeled "Non-Dairy" or "Dairy-Free" if it has dairy-derived ingredients such as casein, kashrut certification will label it "kosher dairy". This is most common in foods such as non-dairy creamer, and non-dairy cheeses and ice-creams. For vegans and others on the lookout for this dairy ingredient, the "kosher dairy" symbol can be a life-saver.
On the other hand, some meat products, because of the way they are processed can still be considered dairy or even parve. Rennet, a common cheese ingredient often made from stomach linings of cows, is still acceptable for making kosher cheese (if, of course, the rennet comes from kosher cows). Gelatin too can also be labeled kosher and parve even if it is not vegetarian. This ingredient is most important to watch out for in kosher marshmallows and other similar dessert products, which may be kosher and parve, but usually include with fish or kosher animal gelatin. For vegetarians it is best to stick to vegan marshmallows instead. Today, in addition to the kosher parve symbol, there is also a vegan symbol from the Vegan Society which is used on many products and can help in determining whether something is vegan. The symbol may appear with or without a kosher parve symbol, and can be a definite sign that there are no animal products included. The symbol is becoming more popular as vegetarian and vegan foods become more readily available, and as more people look more closely at the ingredient lists. While the symbol alone does not designate any kind of kosher certification, it may be considered for some an equally important "ethical certification".
So, looking for the parve symbol on foods can be a great help for vegetarians and vegans, yet it also must be used with caution. The question of how important shared-equipment and fish and dairy ingredients are is up to the individual, but if nothing else, seeing a parve sign can be a good sign that something is safe to eat!