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Kosher: The Hottest Word On Food Labels

Grandma's can of matzo ball soup and jar of gefilte fish have never seen such love.

No, there hasn't been a massive boom in the Jewish population, but demand for products made under strict rabbinical supervision — i.e. kosher products — is exploding, according to data from market research firm Mintel. So what accounts for the revival of these most ancient food rules?

The kosher market is no longer limited to orthodox Jews. It's Muslims and Seventh-Day Adventists, who have similar rules about how meats should be handled to keep them pure. It's vegetarians and Buddhists. And increasingly, it's all kinds of people looking for a little reassurance.

"There is a feeling by many consumers that kosher is somehow better, more wholesome," says Mintel analyst Lynn Dornblaser.

As we've reported before, kosher products are not necessarily any safer or better for you, but the sentiment prevails.

So much so that since 2007, more than a quarter of all new foods released each year have claimed to be produced in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. That's ten times the proportion of new kosher products back in 2002, according to Mintel's research.

Something similar is happening with claims about gluten, Dornblaser says. Claims that a food is free of or low in gluten or other allergens are among the fastest growing types of claims made on new food products in recent years.

Even people without a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease are opting for gluten-free products on the theory that if it's gluten-free, it must be healthy. As a Harvard gastroenterologist told NPR's Allison Aubrey last October, "It's just not the case." But people seem to believe it anyway.

Dornblaser tells The Salt that companies respond to what customers want. "We see those consumer demands showing up in these numbers," she says.

In fact, label claims say a lot about consumer demands – or at least, what marketers think we're demanding. Before 2003, when the craze over the Atkins diet took hold, there were hardly any foods marketed as "low carb." As the diet's popularity peaked in 2004, low-carb claims were emblazoned on 13 percent of new products. But now that number has dropped to a trickle.

Other trends, says Dornblaser, develop more slowly as consumers' values change. These days, she says, there's more of "a focus on what we would call 'inherent goodness'," meaning claims that "address the bigger global picture."

"That's an important and kind of a fundamental shift that we see in the market place," Dornblaser says. She says the slow but steady growth of label claims about genetically modified ingredients, or ethical farm practices, probably reflects ongoing changes in American's attitudes about those issues.

Mintel looked at about 20,000 food products introduced in 2011 for their analysis.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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