The Ins and Outs of Cream Cheese Kashrus
(This article appeared in OU Daf HaKashrus - Shavuos 5779 edition.)
People ask me if cream cheese without a hechsher may be used. After I reply, “No; cream cheese needs a reliable hechsher”, I occasionally see their surprised reaction, as I ponder the numerous kashrus hazards engendered by cream cheese, about which almost no one is aware.
Unlike “hard cheese” (more commonly known as rennet-set cheese, since it is manufactured with the rennet enzyme), cream cheese is an acid-set cheese, meaning that it is manufactured through acidification. Sweet cream (the fatty part of milk) is pasteurized and homogenized, and is then pumped into a processing tank, where the cream is injected with acid cultures, which lower the cream’s pH. (The casein protein particles in milk and cream, which are precipitated out to form cheese, naturally bear a negative electric charge and thus repel each other, preventing their aggregation and formation into cheese. Acidification is needed in order to neutralize the negative charge and enable aggregation of casein particles, or micelles.) Upon acidification/lowering of pH, the cream’s casein, along with some milkfat, descends to the bottom of the tank, separating away from the rest of the cream. This collection of casein, with milkfat, is cream cheese curd – the basic material of cream cheese.
The curd - which is in the form of a gel – is then heated to 104-131 F degrees, and it is agitated and broken apart, so that whey will separate out and drain off. Whey - an opaque liquid that contains tiny whey protein particles - is the portion of cream or milk that did not form into cheese; the casein protein and fat in milk were removed and converted into cheese, leaving behind the whey. (Whey from acid-set cheese production is called acid whey; whey from rennet-set cheese production is called sweet whey.)
Salt and stabilizers are then added to the cream cheese curd. The stabilizers – usually various powdered gums – serve to prevent further syneresis (loss of moisture). Whey protein concentrate is also occasionally added for texture, and gelatin can be added as well, for texture and mouthfeel. Various vegetables and seasonings – and even cheese powders (such as cheddar or parmesan powder) and meat particulates (such as bacon bits) may be incorporated at this point. If the cream cheese is of the whipped variety, nitrogen gas will be injected into the product. It should also be noted that some cream cheese may contain trace amounts of rennet, used to thicken the product.
The cream cheese will typically be hot-packed at 149-158 F degrees. After packaging, the product is cooled for 12 hours and is ready for sale.
Although cream cheese is typically made from sweet cream, it can also contain whey cream, which is the residual fatty portion of sweet whey and is often derived from non-kosher cheese production. In fact, whey cream is ideal for use in salty dairy products, and cream cheese is no exception. Kashrus agencies therefore must exercise great vigilance in reviewing cream sources at cream cheese facilities, assuring that non-kosher whey cream is never present.
Acid cultures are kosher-sensitive, as are the many possible other additives used in cream cheese.
In short, nearly every ingredient in cream cheese needs reliable kosher supervision.
Unlike many rennet-set cheeses, cream cheese (and all acid-set cheeses) are manufactured at very hot temperatures. This means that the processing equipment’s status needs to be kosher. While this might seem like a given - as who would expect a kosher cream cheese plant to have non-kosher equipment? - it is not always the case, since the equipment is often used for other acidified dairy products, which frequently pose serious kosher challenges.
Chazal, the Talmudic Sages, prohibited cheese that is not made under the special supervision of a Yisroel. (Avodah Zarah 29B, 35A-B) Various reasons are advanced for this rabbinic prohibition, but the reason accepted by most halachic authorities is the concern for the use of rennet enzymes from the stomach flesh of neveilah/non-kosher animals. Unsupervised cheese is termed Gevinas Akum.
Cheese is only permitted if it is Gevinas Yisroel – Jewish-supervised cheese. (Yoreh Deah 115:2) This rule is unrelated to the rules of Cholov Yisroel (Jewish-supervised milk) and Cholov Akum/Cholov Stam (milk not under Jewish supervision). Therefore, even if a person eats Cholov Stam dairy products, he may only eat Gevinas Yisroel cheese. (It must also be noted that the prohibition of Gevinas Akum pertains even to cheeses that were unquestionably made with kosher, microbial/synthetic rennet; Halacha nonetheless mandates the presence of a full-time, on-site kosher supervisor (a mashgiach temidi) for every production of such cheeses. The mashgiach temidi verifies the kashrus of the rennet for every single vat of cheese that is made, and, according to some opinions, he must physically add the rennet to each vat.)
Since the main reason for the prohibition of Gevinas Akum is the concern that non-kosher rennet was used, some poskim maintain that the prohibition does not apply to acid-set cheeses, since they do not use. (This is the opinion of Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, as related by Rav Chaim Yisroel Belsky.) Other poskim rule that the prohibition of Gevinas Akum was decreed uniformly on all cheeses, and even acid-set cheeses are subject to the prohibition of Gevinas Akum. (Chochmas Adam 53:38 and Aruch HaShulchan Yoreh Deah 115:16) Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe YD 2:48) justified the rationale of Rav Henkin's position but was unwilling to outright permit such cheese absent Gevinas Yisroel supervision.
Most of the national kashrus agencies follow the opinion of Rav Henkin and certify cream cheese via yotzei v’nichas (spot check) supervision. Cholov Yisroel cream cheese is normally manufactured according to the opinion of the Chochmas Odom and Aruch Ha-Shulchan, with a mashgiach temidi.
It is important to note that even though trace amounts of rennet may be added to cream cheese, in order to thicken the texture, the amount of rennet is insufficient on its own to coagulate the cream into a curd of any type; only with the use of significant amounts of acid culture can a curd be formed. Hence, the product is classified as an acid-set cheese and not as a rennet-set cheese. Cream cheese that contains minute amounts of rennet is not subject to the prohibition of Gevinas Akum, according to Rav Henkin’s ruling, and hence could be certified, if the rennet and all else is kosher. (Rennet used in OU-certified products is always microbial and not meat-based.)
Bakers Cheese is a variation of cream cheese, with one difference – bakers cheese always requires rennet; without rennet, used in minuscule amounts, the product would be a liquid mess. However, since without also using a significant quantity of acid cultures, bakers cheese curd cannot form, the OU’s poskim have ruled that the axiom of Zeh V’Zeh Gorem applies - due to the fact that rennet on its own cannot create the product, bakers cheese does not attain the status of a rennet-set cheese, and can be certified with yotzei v’nichnas supervision, as per the approach of Rav Henkin.
The Siblings of Cream Cheese
Cottage cheese is manufactured in a manner similar to that of cream cheese, but it is made from skim (fat-free) milk, and powdered gums are not blended into the milk. Rather, various stabilizers are typically incorporated into a cream dressing added to cottage cheese after curd formation is completed. (The cream dressing adds hydration to the product, which otherwise would be rather dry curds.) The same basic kashrus concerns of cream cheese pertain here, but the cream dressing is often prone to include gelatin. Watch out – lots of kosher concerns here.
Neufchatel cheese (American-style) is basically lower-fat cream cheese; its recipe calls for a milk/cream blend, rather than full cream. It is manufactured by cream cheese companies and is often sold alongside cream cheese.
Mascarpone is made by heating cream to 185 F degrees and adding citric acid or acetic acid. No cultures or stabilizers are used.
Queso blanco is in principle very similar to mascarpone, but it is made from whole milk rather than cream, and the milk may be heated up to 195 F degrees. Paneer is similar in process; both queso blanco and paneer are strained, and they may be pressed to varying degrees, creating a more solid texture.
Sour cream is cream that is fermented with cultures at 185 F degrees, but the fermentation is partial and does not coagulate into complete curds. An assortment of stabilizers and emulsifiers are added for texture and mouthfeel, and gelatin is always something to look out for.
Ricotta is a distant cousin of cream cheese. Ricotta production involves heating liquid whey to 190-194 F degrees and dosing it with citric acid. This causes the whey proteins to coagulate into curd, which is then scooped out of the vat and packaged. Ricotta is a whey-based cheese, rather than a casein-based cheese. Due to the heightened kashrus sensitivity of whey, ricotta plants usually require tighter kosher controls than other acid-set cheese plants.
Cream cheese may seem simple, but don’t be fooled!