According to Pew Research, as of 2017, there were 3.45 million Muslims in the United States, representing 1.1 percent of the population. As the population continues to grow, becoming familiar with Islamic dietary restrictions is a good idea for anyone in the food service industry.
Islamic Dietary Laws
According to the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA), "halal" is an Arabic word that translates to "permitted" or "lawful." With regard to Islamic dietary laws, the term refers to any food products, food ingredients, food contact material, cosmetics and medicines that are suitable for consumption for any person of the Muslim faith.
Many things are clearly halal, but for certain items, it isn't clear. According to Islamic dietary restrictions, non-halal items include:
- Pork and all its by-products, including gelatin.
- Shellfish, though fish with scales are allowed.
- Any animal that wasn't slaughtered appropriately.
- Blood and its by-products.
- Birds of prey (those with talons) and any other carnivorous animals, including reptiles and insects.
- Alcoholic beverages and any other intoxicants.
- Foods contaminated with any materials listed above.
Under Islamic dogma, this means Muslims cannot take supplements, medications or vaccinations that contain any ingredients that are not halal. Therefore, checking the labels and having a good understanding of the ingredients used is essential.
Many processed foods in America are not considered halal food. Those that contain gelatin, emulsifiers, enzymes and questionable flavors are not allowed because the ingredients may be haram, or "prohibited."
The IFANCA details the Islamic dietary laws with regard to halal slaughter, also known as zabiha. The animal must be cut so that it bleeds, and the bleeding results in the animal's death.
Though there are four schools of thought as to what should be cut, all agree that the slaughter is halal. The animal must be alive at the time of the cut. The person making the cuts must be a sane adult Muslim.
In addition, the blessing of the blade, also known as the tasmiyah, must be said upon each animal, whether slaughtered by hand or by machine. Further processing doesn't occur until the animal is lifeless.
When machine slaughtered, the animal must be cut and the blood drained. For halal certification, the process is done under IFANCA supervision.
What Is Halal Food?
Halal food is any food that abides by Islamic dietary proscriptions. The IFANCA states that in the United States and Canada, all Halal meat is required to meet all federal and state meat inspection laws before it is sold. According to the University of Toronto, halal food items include:
- All fruits, vegetables and grains, except those that cause intoxication
- All beef, poultry and lamb products slaughtered according to Islamic dietary laws
- All animal-derived products that come from zabiha animals
- All vegetable ingredients, except those that may lead to intoxication
- Fish with scales
The Department of Halal Certification Europe provides a list of food additives that are considered halal. These include:
- Agar agar
- Casein: Only when sourced from vegetable enzymes
- Corn syrup
- Acetic acid: Only if it is made synthetically or with plant sources
Halal food cannot come into contact with other foods or packaging that is not considered halal. The food must be prepared, processed and packaged in accordance with the laws. If it is not, according to Islamic dietary restrictions, the food is no longer halal.
Foods like butter and cheese may or may not be halal depending on the animal they came from and the ingredients used in their production. If the cow producing the milk was fed animal byproducts or wasn't slaughtered correctly, it is not halal. If the enzymes used to produce cheese are not plant-based or synthetic, the cheese is not halal.
MedlinePlus offers some healthy substitutions for many ingredients, and in the case of butter, it is OK to use olive or corn oil because these are plant-based. In the case of cheese that's not halal certified, it's safe to go with a vegetarian cheese substitute.
The Typical Muslim Diet
Muslims do not consume alcohol in any form. Products that contain alcohol, such as vanilla extract and rum cake, are not considered halal. Alcohol-free extracts are considered halal. If there is any doubt about the origin of an ingredient, it is not consumed.
Muslims, therefore, can eat much of the food Americans do, provided it is whole food or a processed food that has been certified halal.
The only time they deviate from their typical diet is during Ramadan. Considered the holiest month of the year, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.
Read more: Why Intermittent Fasting May Help You Lose Weight
According to the Islamic Networks Group (ING), Ramadan is the ninth month of the calendar, based on a 12-month lunar year that lasts approximately 354. Because the lunar year is shorter than the solar year, the lunar month moves 11 days earlier every year.
All Muslims, except for pregnant and nursing woman, children and the elderly, are expected to fast from sunrise to sunset every day for the entire month.
Once a child hits puberty, they are expected to participate in Ramadan. Over the course of this month, the Muslim family prepares a breakfast-like meal known as suhur. At the end of the fasting day, they break their fast to eat their dinner, known as iftar.
Read more: 13 Do's and Don'ts of Intermittent Fasting
The Muslim diet places emphasis on moderation. It's important not to eat too much or too little. One of the ways Muslims ensure that they're getting just enough food is by eating slowly. This allows each bite to be savored and also gives the brain time to communicate with the stomach and determine fullness.
Though the Muslim diet contains no pork products of any kind, there's nothing to prove their way of eating healthier. The United States Department of Agriculture doesn't separate halal or kosher meat from other meats in the nutritional database. At this time, there are no studies that look at the people eating halal meat products to determine if their cholesterol levels are better than those who consume non-halal meat.
- Pew Research: "New Estimates Show U.S. Muslim Population Continues to Grow
- Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America: "What Is Halal?"
- Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America: "What Is Required for Islamic (Halal, Zabiha) Slaughter?"
- University of Toronto: "Halal Food Standards"
- Department of Halal Certification Europe: "Halal Guidelines"
- MedlinePlus: "Simple, Heart-Smart Substitutions"
- Islamic Networks Group: "Ramadan Information Sheet"
- United States Department of Agriculture: "USDA Food Composition Database"