Can I Eat Plant-Based “Cheese” on a Burger or Steak?
Shailah of the Week by Rabbi Zvi Nussbaum
Rabbinic Coordinator, Kosher Hotline Administrator for the Orthodox Union
The optics are definitely bad! In halacha, it is known as maarit ayin, leaving onlookers with the impression that something wrong was done when in truth halacha does not prohibit. An example would be the prohibition of hanging wet clothes outdoors on Shabbat, giving the impression that laundry was done on Shabbat.
Maarit ayin plays a big role when it comes to food. For example, according to the letter of the law, blood from fish would be permitted but is prohibited since its appearance is identical to that of an animal. Nevertheless, if fish scales are present and noticeable at the time of consumption, it is permitted since there can be no confusion with animal blood. Similarly, blood from a human being is permitted, unless it noticeable as a separate entity. For example, although it is permissible to swallow blood from bleeding gums, it is however, prohibited if it appears on food while eating. The blood must be scraped off the food. This requirement is also because of maarit ayin, since any blood on food could have originated from anywhere, including an animal.
The perception of maarit ayin, according to the Rema, is not a reason to avoid mixing chicken with almond milk, despite the appearance of mixing milk and meat. In his opinion, since mixing chicken with cow’s milk is a rabbinic prohibition, maarit ayin does not apply. Nevertheless, if one would mix almond milk with beef, maarit ayin would apply and it would be prohibited because mixing beef and cow’s milk is basar b’chalav and violates a Torah prohibition. Even so, the nuts should be visible in the milk.
Nowadays, with the advent of a booming parve market, many traditional dairy products are available in pareve. Some of the new questions include margarine at a fleishig meal, or does it look too much like butter? Moreover, may one serve pareve ice cream or coffee creamer afterward?
Rav Ovadia Yosef wrote a teshuva, pointing out that according to the Rema there is certainly no concern of maarit ayin, unless there is a possible perception that a Torah prohibition is being violated.
Maarit ayin is a question of perception, causing suspicion that there is a violation of halacha. The common, everyday use of these products should remove any possible suspicion. Since these pareve substitutes for dairy or meat are used regularly by many, there is no reason to suspect someone of not acting in accordance with halacha, but rather using a pareve imitation.
As with any issue of halacha, one should consult with one’s halachic authority for practical guidance.