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There's pork in those Pop-Tarts: Navigating the supermarket as a Muslim
Living as a Muslim in America, and especially the Midwest, can be a challenge sometimes. Surprisingly, it's not the big stuff that I end up dealing with every day, but the small stuff, the stuff you don't think about until it's right there in front of you: whether you can eat the candy that's been set out on a desk, or the birthday cake a coworker brings in, or the food at a neighborhood barbecue.
The Caribou Coffee where I work sells this really delicious yogurt parfait. One day a big bearded Muslim guy came to the store and inquired about what he can buy for a snack that has no pork in it. My co-worker and I explained a couple of items we have that are good and have no pork products, such as the yogurt. He read the ingredients and asked what soy lecithin was made of. My co-worker says it could be made from pork. In fact she said she’s pretty sure it is from pork. There goes my perfect snack. In my case it was another thing I liked that I can't have any more: s'mores. A friend of mine happened to read the ingredients one night over a campfire and informed me how I couldn’t eat s'mores any more, after eight or more years of enjoying s'mores over a campfire. (For the explanation, keep reading.)
My old boss and I once spent an hour of company time searching Google and trying to see if I could eat the Skittles on her desk. Our customers, who are 90 percent Somalis, had a tough time controlling their kids and explaining to my boss how she should stop offering their children the candy because they can't eat it because of the pork in it. My manager couldn’t believe that simple, good old Skittles could really have pork in them. So, it is time to see what really has pork in it that everyday Muslim folks might come across.
First, a little information. Very few foods you find are going to say right on the label “contains pork” (except maybe pork chops). What you can look for, and what many foods have, is ingredients that are derived from animals, usually pigs. The most common ones are gelatin, which comes from bones and connective tissue, and shortening or lard, which is fat. There's also lecithin (from the yogurt story), which mostly comes from soybeans (and will say “soy lecithin”), but can also be made from animals. If you see a logo that looks like a letter K, or a U in a circle, or the words “Kosher” or “Parve” (sometimes spelled “Pareve”), it means that the food has been certified Kosher, and contains no pork products.
This list is far from complete, but here are just a few of the biggest things I've been asked about.
Skittles: According to the company, Skittles changed their formula in 2010 and no longer contain gelatin. Unfortunately, Starburst, made by the same company, still do.
Montain Dew: I'd like to take this opportunity to clear something up that is responsible for a lot of misunderstandings. It's been said that the Yellow #5 dye in Mountain Dew is derived from pork. This is not true. However, this does not mean that it's any better for you. As it turns out, Yellow #5 is derived from petroleum.
Yogurt: I never would have thought this, but some cheaper brands of yogurt have gelatin added to make them thicker. Thankfully, the yogurt in my favorite parfaits does have it but it is made of beef, according to the factory who finally returned my phone calls after weeks of trying to talk to a human being. McDonalds yogurt parfaits also has gelatin, but the gelatin is kosher, meaning it's proven to come from other animals besides pigs. It's important to look at the ingredients when you get yogurt, as it's more common than I thought.
Marshmallows: Just about every brand of marshmallows have gelatin in them. However, it is possible to find kosher marshmallows, which use gelatin from fish. They are harder to find, but I can have s'mores again! Marshmallow crème, which comes in a jar, also has no gelatin in it.
Corn muffins: This is another one in the last place you'd expect. It turns out many boxed cake and muffin mixes have powdered lard or animal shortening right in the mix. The most common one out there, and the one that clued me in to this the hard way, is Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix.
Cake frosting: This is a place I was sure I'd find a lot of shortening and gelatin, but it turns out most of the common brands have none. In fact, Betty Crocker frosting is certifited kosher. Remember to always check the ingredients, though.
Canned beans: Baked beans, a barbecue favorite, are something that it's easy to forget contains pork. Even the ones without actual chunks of pork usually have pork cooked into the sauce. You can find vegetarian baked beans pretty easily now, and regular canned beans, like kidney, black, lima, or garbanzo beans have no animal products in them. It sounds obvious, but I've met people who hear about baked beans, and are afraid to buy any canned beans from the supermarket.
Pills: Gel-caps, and most pills with liquid or powder come in a capsule made of gelatin. It's possible to find vegetable capsules, usually called v-caps, but if you don't know it's usually gelatin.
Gummi bears: Almost all gummy candies have gelatin in them. There are a few exceptions, like Dots, but be sure (as I've hopefully beaten into you by now) to read the ingredients.
Pop-Tarts: I'm sorry to have to say this, but Pop-tarts have gelatin in them, too. On the bright side, Muslim parents now have a good reason to say no to their kids when they ask for them!
Like I said, this list is far from complete, and is just some of the most common items I've run into in my life. Hopefully this list will help not just Muslims, but everyone else, too, and help to avoid a lot of the awkward situations I've found myself in explaining why I can't eat something.