On cacti throughout South America, thousands of tiny bugs, known as cochineal beetles, are found. They feed on the plant, consuming its sap and then, in many cases, are killed by humans to produce vibrant red food and cosmetic dyes. Yes, it turns out, many pink and red candies, jellies and cakes actually contain crushed insects.
Unfortunately, cochineal is far from the only non-vegan additive used in many of the foods we see on the shelves every day. Here’s what to look for the next time you’re stocking the snack cupboard. But first, what are food additives, anyway?
What are food additives?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), food additives are “substances added to food to maintain or improve the safety, freshness, taste, texture or appearance of the food.” While some are synthetic, others are natural. Salt and sugar, for example, both count as additives. But natural doesn’t mean plant-based. Cochineal is natural, but since it comes from an animal it is not vegetarian.
“Food additives can be derived from plants, animals or minerals, or they can be synthetic,” explains the WHO. It states that these are generally divided into three broad categories: flavoring agents (used to enhance taste); Enzyme preparations (used to enhance biochemical reactions); and “other additions.” The latter could be sweeteners or food coloring, for example.
7 Non-Vegan Food Additives to Watch Out for
To make things extra confusing, there are some additives that can be plant-derived or animal-derived. Both stearic acid and glycerin, for example, can come from any natural fat, including animal fat or vegetable fat. So, with that in mind, it’s worth doing a bit of research about where its ingredients are sourced or looking for a vegan certification if you’re not sure.
That said, there are a few additives that do clearly To help you identify which ones aren’t vegan, we’ve listed some common animal-derived ingredients with their individual E number codes below.
1 Cochineal: E120
As highlighted above, cochineal comes from crushed beetles. It is often used as a red food dye, and may also be labeled as carmine. Cochineal can be obtained from wild or farmed insects (up to 89 billion die a year according to some estimates!), and can also be found in red cosmetics such as lipstick and blusher, for example.
2 Shellac: E904
Shellac, a type of natural resin, is also derived from bugs, only this time it is secreted from the female lac insect. In the food industry, it’s used as a coating or glaze (you might refer to it as a confectionary glaze) and is responsible for giving candies their glossy shine – think jelly beans, for example. According to the animal-rights organization PETA, it takes about 100,000 shellac bugs to make one pound of shellac flakes.
3 Wax: E901
The insect world is a pretty popular source of food additives. Beeswax is another natural additive used in foods, and as you probably guessed, it comes from bees. Honey bees produce natural beeswax to help form their hives, but in foods, it is often used as a hardening agent, helping to harden and stabilize formulas. Many activists and vegan advocates believe that consuming wax is unethical, as insects have to work hard to produce it. According to Proveg International, a worker bee needs to consume 10 kg of honey to produce just one kg of wax.
Lactitol is a sugar alcohol derived from lactose, a disaccharide found in cow’s milk. This means that this particular food additive—often used as a low-calorie sweetener—is a product of the dairy industry. The latter is associated with cruel practices including repeated artificial insemination of female cows in factory farms.
5 Edible bone phosphate: E542
The clue is in the name of this one. Edible bone phosphate comes from, you guessed it, animal bones (mostly cattle and pig bones). According to The Vegetarian Society, it is often used in dry foods “as an anti-caking agent, to prevent particles from sticking together.” It can also be found in beauty products as well as toothpaste and nutritional supplements.
Bugs aren’t the only source of animal feed additives – lanolin is another popular ingredient and it comes from sheep’s wool. It is a fatty wax, secreted by animals to help keep their fur dry, but is often used as a softener in the food industry. It is often used as an emollient in cosmetics and skin care products. Lanolin sounds innocuous, but it’s actually a byproduct of both the wool and meat industries, both of which are associated with cruel practices.
7 Lysozyme: E1105
Lysozyme is a preservative, which is added to food to prevent the growth of microorganisms and make it last longer on the shelves. But, since it is often derived from chicken eggs, it is not vegetarian. Most chickens in the US and UK are factory farmed and kept in cramped, industrial conditions. According to many reports, chickens in factory farms often have less than the size of an A4 piece of paper to roam around.