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The Delicious but Complicated Story of Kosher for Passover Coke

And the mystery of what makes Diet Coke kosher and why Mexicoke isn’t

Yellow-capped two liter bottles of Coke and Diet Coke wait to be devoured by Jews and gentiles at Ralph’s in Los Angeles.

Kosher for Passover (or K for P) is a big deal for the 7.6 million Jews in the U.S. and those around the world.

It’s such a big deal that in the 1930s Rabbi Tobias Geffen of Congregation Shearith Israel in Atlanta worked with Coca-Cola (whose headquarters is in ATL) to figure out a way to make the popular bubbly drink kosher for the weeklong holiday.

Geffen signed an ironclad NDA, and was given unprecedented access to the top secret formula of the soft drink.

He famously determined that if the company reverted back to sweetening its sodas with pure cane sugar and/or beet sugar instead of corn syrup, it would be on its way to making a drink acceptable among Orthodox Jews and those who observed the stricter dietary rules through Passover.

In 1935, the rabbi published a teshuva (a Jewish legal response) declaring Coca-Cola as being kosher for Passover.

“With the help of God, I have been able to uncover a pragmatic solution according to which there would be no question or any doubt concerning the ingredients of Coca-Cola,” he wrote to the delight of millions.

The partnership was notable, in part, because it was the first time that a giant U.S. company changed the way it made its most popular product so that a religious minority group could enjoy it during a weeklong observance.

Kosher for Passover Coke has been produced ever since. But you should catch it while you can because both Jews and Gentiles sometimes panic-buy them for different reasons.

The Hoarding of the Cokes

A Ralph’s in Beverly Hills announces a special on the Kosher for Passover Coke.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine why Jews would want their K for P bottles of bubbly. But why would non-Jews stock up on the yellow caps?

Simple: the only way for most Americans to get Coke with cane sugar instead of corn syrup is to purchase “Mexicokes,” glass bottles of the soda imported from south of the border. Many consider natural sugar Coke from Mexico a superior taste and are therefore willing to pay $1-$2 for a 12 ounce bottle or around $3 for a half liter.

So to get the chance to buy 3, 2-liter bottles for just $5? Such a deal.

Esther Kustanowitz, a writer and co-host of Jewish pop culture podcast The Bagel Report, explained that members of her tribe often buy so much of the sweet stuff to the detriment of their neighbors.

“People start buying it up because they’re afraid they won’t have enough,” she said.

“People would ask, ‘do you need a case for a week?’ And they’re just like, ‘well, I just don’t want to run out,’” she explained.

According to Kustanowitz, some merchants around the Pico/Robertson neighborhood she lives in ration out the pop.

“They stock it, but they don’t put everything out right away. Then the week before Passover, they put everything out. By the second day of Passover, almost all the Passover stuff is gone. So if you haven’t gotten it in the first two days and you run out of stuff, you can’t get it, or you have to go to multiple stores in order to get it.

“So that’s why people front load all their buying so that they have enough to get through. It becomes like a zoo and a circus. Every year I say, ‘I’m not going to drive myself crazy.’ But I do a little bit,” she said.

Since there’s a limited supply of K-for-P Coke, should non-Jews avoid buying it?

The idea of Jews running from store to store seeking out the yellow-capped Coke because they are sold out everywhere is not a vision well-meaning Gentiles would want to be part of. So should non-Jews hold off on buying these special bottles until after Passover has passed?

“It’s a very considerate question,” Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel of Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego said. “I would say maybe don’t hoard it. Make sure there’s enough to go around, but by all means have some. You shouldn’t feel guilty about that.”

Kustanowitz concurred. “The subjective morality of the supermarket is not something I feel equipped to weigh in on,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s morally reprehensible for you to buy a product that you want when you see it in a store. So if they’re in the supermarket, any person can buy them. You shouldn’t have to present a synagogue membership card in order to get it.”

Rabbi Gimbel added that K-for-P products are rarely used by Jews once the week is over. Yes they’re still kosher, but their status kind of changes.

“For example, matzo that I have left over from last year, I actually can’t use it. It’s not considered kosher for Passover for this year,” he explained.

The pitfalls of using Instacart to buy Kosher for Passover products

An modern alternative to schlepping from one store to another is using an app like Instacart to find kosher products. Unfortunately the people tasked to do your shopping for you may not know what to look for, Kustanowitz discovered.

“Last year was one of the first times I ordered from Ralph’s, via Instacart, for Passover food because I wondered how much of this stuff they’re going to have and how many errors will happen. I actually did a search for ‘Yellow Cap Coke,’” she noted.

The ingredients are exactly the same on the label but the cap reveals which of these sodas is K-for-P. If you were an Instacart person, would you know which one to grab for your customer?

Kustanowitz tried several searches on Instacart and on one for Diet Coke, a photo of a bottle with a yellow cap appeared. So she clicked it.

Success, right? Wrong.

“What arrived was one without the yellow lid, of course, because it’s too small of a detail for anybody who’s not looking for it to notice.”

But she has some advice to the companies.

“What there should be, generally, but especially for this one time a year is a Kosher Instacart,” she said. “Someone should be able to say, ‘oh, I know you’re looking for pareve chocolate chips, which means neither meat nor milk, but this one has dairy equipment, but there’s no dairy ingredients. Is that okay?’”

Why are there Passover rules and how do they apply to Coke, which wasn’t even invented back then?

A 1907 CE Bible card depicting Moses and the parting of the Red Sea.

“Most people know Passover is the restriction against eating bread and that’s kind of the core of it. And the reason for that is because when the Jews, who had been slaves in Egypt, finally left thanks the leadership of Moses, they didn’t have time for the bread to rise. So we took the dough out without letting it rise. And so it’s a symbolic reflection of that moment of Exodus from Egypt,” Kustanowitz explained.

“You might say ‘what does soda have to do with bread?’” she continued. “So the answer to that is that it’s become more than just about not eating bread or not eating products that could be made into bread, which then includes a bunch of other grains. You add to that the layer of custom depending on where your family is from. Some Jews eat rice and corn and legumes on Passover and others do not,” she said.

The restricts extend to anything that could go near your mouth one way or another: lotion, moisturizer, dish soap, laundry detergent, sponges. When trying to remain kosher for Passover, none of those products can have materials that have unleavened materials.

“When thinking about kosher, in some ways, it’s kind of similar to how people have approached COVID precautions,” Rabbi Gimbel noted.

“So take someone who wears an N95 mask, a shield and gloves, changes clothes when they get home… that would be considered glatt kosher, which is like Super Kosher. Now you can have a kosher lifestyle that, just the same way with COVID precautions, doesn’t necessarily go to one extreme and still keep kosher,” he explained.

Keeping away from Kitniyot

“So some people will really go over the top, which brings us to something called kitniyot, which are legumes, seeds, rice, corn, sunflower seeds, and sesame seeds. Those are forbidden in some communities,” he said.

There are two reasons why these items are not allowed.

  1. They might look like leavened substances.
  2. Because they didn’t have the same kind of food and safety back in the day that we do today, a bag of wheat could very easily have been right next to a bag of rice in the marketplace. And some of the wheat could have gotten in with the rice. And so it could have been contaminated.

So the reason Rabbi Geffen told Coke to get rid of the corn syrup and return to the practice of real sugar was to appease the tradition of avoiding the kitniyot.

Why Mexican Cokes are not Kosher nor K-for-P

Despite the fact that Mexicokes are delicious and made of real sugar instead of corn syrup, it takes more than just pure ingredients to deem something kosher.

Kosher items are stamped with a variety of labels that tells the sharp-eyed consumer in what way the item is kosher. Details may include, as Kustanowitz said, if there is dairy in the ingredients or even if dairy equipment was used in processing the food.

“Things that are kosher for Passover, just like things that are regularly stamped with a kosher seal have to be supervised,” Rabbi Gimbel said. “A rabbi doesn’t have to watch every single step all the time, 24/7, but they have to supervise the process. So there’s a rabbi who comes in and monitors the process of making those specific Coke products and deem them not only just kosher, but kosher for Passover.”

The process of making a kitchen — or in this case, a factor — kosher is called kashering. And it aint cheap, which is why there are no K-for-P Pepsis and why Mexicoke doesn’t have a kosher label.

“There’s a lot of expense that goes into that because there’s a whole ritual around it,” Rabbi Gimbel said.

Watch how much detail goes into running a Kosher Steakhouse

“You have to do an incredibly thorough cleaning. When some people make their kitchens kosher for Passover, for example, they’ll wipe down the counter as they normally do and then take boiling water and pour it over the countertop,” he continued. “Some people will bring in blow torches to blow torch their ovens clean. So you can imagine the scale to which you would have to do that to a giant factory.”

What happens if a Jew accidentally eats something that’s not Kosher during Passover? Are they ostracized?

Even though Passover is just a week, accidents can happen. Someone might pour a glass of Diet Coke from a non-yellow capped bottle instead of from a K-for-P one.

Are they no longer good Jews if they do this?

“There’s a common association that if you keep a different level of keeping kosher then you’re a Better Jew,” Rabbi Gimbel said.

“I choose to make different dietary choices. I don’t keep glatt kosher. Does that mean that I am less of a Good Jew as my neighbor down the street who keeps a fully kosher house, but is stingy with the wages for his workers?” he asked hypothetically.

Mexicokes have real sugar, but that doesn’t make them kosher.

“So one of the big philosophical differences, not theological, but philosophical differences between Judaism and Christianity — and I’m painting with a really broad brush here — generally Christianity is focused on this idea of reward and punishment, where the reward or the punishment comes in the afterlife,” the rabbi continued. “Judaism doesn’t emphasize that as much. Judaism has never been a ‘do good in this life so you can be rewarded in the afterlife.’

“So it’s not so much that we keep kosher because of a feeling that if we eat a shrimp, that God’s gonna throw down a lightning bolt and take us out. Kosher is about more than just the food we eat. It was the first lifestyle brand,” he said.

“Keeping kosher is: this is what it means to be Jewish. This is what we do. Even going back to ancient civilizations, if, when archeologists want to find evidence of Israelites, they look at the fossilized poop and look for the absence of pig DNA,” he concluded.

If Coke became kosher because it replaced corn syrup with cane sugar, then how is Diet Coke kosher despite having no sugar?

At this point it should be noted that Coca-Cola HQ was not very forthcoming for this article. Many questions were asked like who is the new rabbi overseeing the facilities, why aren’t Mexicokes kosher, and what makes Diet Coke kosher?

An official statement from the giant brand would have been helpful. But all the company offered up was this broad statement:

“The Coca-Cola Company offers products as kosher year-round (KYR) and kosher for Passover (KFP). In the United States, both Coca-Cola and Diet Coke are available as KYR and KFP in locations where the bottlers have decided to seek certification. Kosher for Passover products can be found in select markets during the Jewish holiday of Passover (e.g. March 27 — April 4, 2021). Only finished products bearing the logos of one of the designated Rabbinical organizations we work with can be guaranteed to be Kosher as the production is supervised by these organizations through the entire end-to-end production process.”

Because no follow-up questions were answered directly, nor were any Coca-Cola experts made available to answer what should be fairly simply questions, we are forced to speculate.

Diet Coke is sweetened with aspartame which is created in a seed tank filled with different types of bacteria. Those bacteria need to thrive. In order to do that, they mix in a feeding solution which includes warm water and carbohydrates: foods like cane molasses, glucose, or sucrose. Sometimes corn syrup is added.

“Here’s where it gets super complicated, because sometimes Jews are super complicated,” the rabbi said.

“Think of it like peanuts, if you’ve got a severe allergy to peanuts, you not only can’t eat peanuts, you can’t eat anything that was processed in a facility that processes peanuts. That’s why it’s this idea of taking an abundance of caution and really making sure that you’re really careful about what goes in it.”

Being careful extends to how things even look. Because the torah says you shouldn’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk, that usually means you cannot eat beef with cheese, aka you can’t eat a cheeseburger.

Is it chicken or is it veal?

And even though that doesn’t include poultry, the rabbi has a great example of why he would avoid eating a particular chicken meal on an outdoor patio.

“Theoretically if you’re walking by a restaurant and you see someone eating a chicken parmesan, you don’t know if that’s chicken or veal parmesan, per se,” he said, thus you should avoid it all together.

The same goes with the mush that makes up aspartame. Odds are whatever the concoction is, in order to get the supervisor’s stamp of approval, it means it was probably not made of any corn syrup or anything that could be perceived as corn-ish… or corny.

In the end, Coca-Cola’s commitment to providing this drink to a small portion of observant Americans is something that has the rabbi singing with glee.

“I think the world would be a better place if we were able to modify what we offered just slightly so that everyone could participate in it,” he said.

“I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony, and buy the world of Coke. And if it’s kosher, that’s nice too.”

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