Determining whether or not food is vegan/vegetarian can be a chore at the best of times. We’ve all been there, scanning the ingredients list and hoping “milk powder” or “chicken fat” doesn’t crop up. Sadly though, even if they don’t, you may not always be buying a vegan item. There’s a variety of animal-derived substances which are cleverly disguised under names which make them sound like scientific chemical components in rocket fuel, which will probably be swimming around somewhere at the bottom of the ingredients list of most processed foods along with all the E numbers. Well, you can’t blame them for inventing new names… “beaver anal glands” doesn’t sound like the most appetising ingredient does it? Here’s a rundown of ten of the most common, and also questionable, ingredients in a lot of processed foods. Starting with…
Castoreum (A.K.A. Beaver anal glands)
No, I didn’t make the beaver anus thing up. Castoreum is a common ingredient in perfumes and colognes, because everyone knows that the best way to attract the opposite sex is with the delicate scent of beaver excrement. Strangely enough, beaver anus apparently also tastes like raspberry as it is a common ingredient in raspberry flavoured sweets and candies. Would have thought a better way to bring out the raspberry flavour in those sweets would be with, I dunno, raspberries?
Carmine/cochineal (A.K.A. Boiled bug juice)
For those of you who love those raspberry sweets, you may not just be consuming beaver anus but also carmine, a colouring derived from the cochineal bug. The carmine dye is a deep red colour, commonly used as a food colouring. It occurs naturally within the insects as an anti-predation mechanism. Somewhat ironic, seeing as it’s because of the production of this acid that literally billions are boiled alive every year in order to produce the red colouring…
Shellac (A.K.A. Bug slime)
Whilst we’re on the subject of bugs and candy, it’s important not to forget shellac. Produced from a bug called the lac beetle, which is coincidentally of the same family of the cochineal (pretty unfortunate family really), this waxy substance is usually found as a coating for many shelled candies in order to give them an extra bit of shine. Sweets like Skittles and some cake decorations and sprinkles such as hundreds and thousands contain shellac.
Lanolin (A.K.A. Dirty sheep grease)
Moving swiftly away from bugs, we move onto sheep. This one’s really quite gross actually. You know when you don’t wash your hair for a couple of days and all that grease builds up? Well, the same thing happens to sheep in their wool. Only they don’t wash for a lot longer. And the grease is then collected up, renamed from unwashed-sheep-grease to lanolin, and stuck in a variety of foods such as chewing gum.
L-cysteine/Cystine (A.K.A. Duck feathers. Or human hair.)
L-cysteine is a substance commonly used in bread production, and is derived from duck or chicken feathers. There have been some reports of it also being derived from a cheaper source – human hair. Whether that’s acceptable on your moral spectrum or not is one thing. Whether it’s disgusting or not is another issue entirely… The worst thing is, because it reacts with a protein in wheat, by the end of the bread production cycle L-cysteine is no longer present within the bread. As a result, there is no legal requirement to list it in the ingredients. Best way to dodge this is to stick to wholemeal bread.
Rennet (A.K.A. Cow stomach)
Ok, so this shouldn’t be a problem for vegans (unless you’re a cheeky vegan who eats cheese on the sly like a certain Miss Alicia Silverstone…), but it’s important to mention rennet for our cheese-guzzling vegetarian friends. Whilst in the UK, labelling can be fairly comprehensive as to whether or not cheese is vegetarian-friendly, in some countries it’s not. And it’s certainly less easy to tell if you’re eating out. Rennet, which is derived from the fourth stomach of a young cow, is still regularly used in cheese production despite many alternatives being available. Flouncel’s top tip is (surprise, surprise) go vegan!
Whey (A.K.A. That bit of milk that no one really wants)
Whey is a fairly obvious one. At least, I’d hope most vegans had heard of it and knew it wasn’t suitable (which is the same reason gelatin isn’t on this list). But I’m mentioning it because the stuff manages to make its way into all kinds of foods. Whey, which is a substance that’s left over after cheese production, is surprisingly prevalent in foods where you wouldn’t expect it to be. A typical example is crisps, where it seems to be hidden in all but the plain salted crisps in the form of dried whey. Whey is also infamous for making American accidentally-vegan favourite, Oreos, unsuitable for UK vegans where it is, for some reason, included.
Casein (A.K.A. Another by-product from milk, which you probably shouldn’t eat anyway…)
Casein is strangely found in some soya cheeses, as it’s very efficient at making them melt. Whilst initially looking like a fairly healthy protein-packed addition to the diet, casein has been linked to worsening austism symptoms, and many follow a casein-free diet because it’s similar in molecular-structure to gluten. Casein is common in many dairy products, but vegans should watch out for it in cereals and some candies and breath mints, as well as a variety of alcoholic beverages.
Isinglass (A.K.A. Fish bladder)
Not to be confused with hobbits and Isengard, the number one ingredient which makes various wines and beers (particularly ale) not vegan friendly is isinglass. It is obtained from the dried bladders of several varieties of fish (usually cod). By mixing it in to an unfiltered alcoholic drink, the sediment will clear rapidly by itself thus preventing the need for a filtration process. For any vegalcoholics out there, sadly fish bladders aren’t vegan. Or particularly appetising.
Bone Char in Sugar (A.K.A. ermm… bone char in sugar?)
We had one Vegangsta bring up the issue of bone char being used in sugar production in a previous post. A by-product of the meat industry, cattle bones are used in the production of some white sugar by acting as a filter to draw out the colour whilst the sugar is in a liquidised form. Fortunately, most major brands in the UK such as Tate and Lyle, Billington’s and Silver Spoon all avoid using bone char in creating their white sugar, but I can’t speak for every brand in the world. Probably best to check your brand out, and, if possible, stick to unrefined brown sugars.
So, there you have it. Ten ingredients to watch out for in your future purchases, and also some food for thought. Instead of sitting there wondering what the first person who drank a pint of cow’s milk thought he was doing (which I’m sure we’ve all done), instead wonder about what the first people to add sheep grease to chewing gum, duck feathers to bread, or beaver anus to raspberry sweets thought they were doing.