For those following a vegan diet, choosing foods without animal products can be challenging at times. We received a reader question asking which food additives are derived from animals. To answer this question, we reached out to Dr. Sean O’Keefe, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology at Virginia Tech.
"Gelatin is certainly animal-derived and is used as a gelling agent." A gelling agent is used to help thicken and stabilize different foods. "Some other ingredients, such as glycerol, could be either plant- or animal-based." There are many shades of gray when categorizing these additives, so only the manufacturer would know for sure.
"Glycerol, for example, is the same molecule from animal or plant source, so the manufacturer would have to differentiate the two." Dr. O'Keefe explains that there are a few additives that are insect-based. These additives would include primarily shellac, and carmine (cochineal). Animal-based food additives include gelatin, lactose, lactic acid, casein, whey, fish oil sources of omega-3 fatty acids and many others. Many food products could contain animals/insect additives. Natural red colorings include beet juice, carotenoids, and carmine, so one needs to look at the label. Shellac may be found on confections and is called resinous/confectionery glaze.
As far as suggestions for a vegan aiming to avoid these additives, it is best to read labels and when in doubt, contact the consumer helpdesk provided by the company.