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Here are a list of useful ingredients commonly found in many foods and beverages that indicates whether they are vegetarian, vegan, or non-vegetarian. This guide is places emphasis on the commercial sources of ingredients most commonly used today while mentioning other possible sources of ingredients.

Classification of Commercial Ingredients
Each entry lists commercial sources, alternative names (if any), foods or beverages containing the ingredient, and, in some cases, manufacturers’ information about current supply sourcing.

The classification scheme is as follows:

  • Vegetarian: The ingredient contains no meat, poultry, fish, or seafood, nor any products derived from them or any other part of an animal’s (including insect’s) body. The ingredient was not processed using animal-derived substances (such as bone char). Eggs and dairy, and substances derived from them, are vegetarian. Insect secretions, (such as honey), are vegetarian.
  • Vegan: The ingredient contains no animal-derived products or byproducts whatsoever. Its processing occurs solely with or by non-animal substances.
  • Non-vegetarian: The ingredient, or substances used to process the ingredient, is derived from meat, poultry, fish, or seafood, or some other part of an animal’s (including insect’s) body (such as cochineal, rennet or gelatin).

There are cases where both vegetarian and non-vegetarian sources are available for a given ingredient, but some manufacturers told us that they use vegetarian sources only. Since we cannot generalize this to all suppliers, we have classified these ingredients as typically vegetarian, typically vegan, typically non-vegetarian, or may be non-vegetarian, depending on the information received from manufacturers. In this Guide, information received from specific companies is listed with the ingredient’s entry, space permitting.

Note: Some manufacturers may produce non-vegan foods on equipment used to produce vegan foods. Non-vegetarian foods may be manufactured on equipment used to produce vegetarian foods. Ingredient classifications here do not take this into account. Also, this does not consider whether ingredients were tested on animals. For more information on these or related issues, I’d advise you to contact the manufacturer directly.

More on Definitions
It is a tedious undertaking to classify the sources of food ingredients for these five reasons:

  1. Ingredients can be composed of multiple parts where each part may be derived from a different source. The common preservative, sodium benzoate, is an example. It contains both mineral (sodium) and synthetic (benzoate) parts. In these cases, both (or all, if more than two are present) sources are listed.
  2. Processing aids, used during the commercial processing of an ingredient, may be unknown or vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. A common example is cattle bone char used to decolorize cane sugar. Consumers can inquire about processing aids when in doubt. In many cases, manufacturers do not have to list processing aids on food labels. Only careful research may reveal their presence. Manufacturers may call them “proprietary.”
  3. Synthetic” ingredients may contain components derived from several different sources such as animal, plant, microbial, or mineral sources. In all cases, the word refers to something that has been created in a laboratory by a chemical process. Since most synthetic ingredients today derive ultimately from petrochemicals, which consist of both decayed plant and animal matter, all synthetics are technically of plant and animal origin. Synthetic ingredients, except those known to contain non-vegetarian substances as defined in the section above, are classified as vegan.
  4. Non-vegetarian or non-vegan aspects of vegetarian food production exist at the agricultural or transportation level, such as insects inadvertently killed during harvesting or the use of manure or other animal-derived substances as fertilizer on fruit or vegetable crops. Now it is economically unfeasible given current agricultural practices for most companies to ensure that their foods were produced in a completely vegetarian manner. (This situation may change in the distant future because of technological and agricultural innovations and consumer interest.)
  5. Consumers, foodservice and healthcare professionals, dietitians, and food manufacturers always have a changing and expanding knowledge base about how ingredients are sourced and how food ingredients are processed. As information about food ingredient sourcing and processing becomes more readily available, people’s perceptions and expectations of what is vegetarian or vegan slowly change. Consequently, consumer demands may evolve while company executives and food technologists may alter their methods and change ingredient sources to meet emerging preferences, needs, and economics.For example, consider the transformation seen over the last thirty years with regard to the cheese enzyme, rennet, (once an almost exclusively animal-derived substance to a now largely microbially sourced ingredient in most U.S. domestic cheeses). Some vegetarians once may not have even been aware of rennet in cheese, but now many vegetarians want to know its source and may refuse to purchase or eat animal rennet-containing cheese. The writer observes the same evolution occurring in the case of L-cysteine, now typically extracted from duck feathers, and predicts that it may one day become largely microbially produced. (Now, microbial production of this amino acid is very expensive.)

Commercial Sources
To determine commercial sources,  hundreds of chemical, food, and beverage companies were contacted by phone, letter, fax, and email. Sometimes, technical service or sales representatives were very helpful in providing information. In some cases, they did not know about the origins of the source materials used to make their ingredients. Often, representatives were unwilling to disclose proprietary information. As a result, some entries here lack precision or specific company information.

Here, commercial sources will be listed in the order of the most commonly used to the least commonly used, according to the information received from manufacturers. In the case of microbial sources, if manufacturers have not specified whether certain microbial processes are bacterial or fungal, the commercial source will be listed as “microbial.” Unless the culture media on which the microbes grow contain animal-derived substances, (and in all cases to our knowledge only vegetable-derived substances have been used), microbial sources are vegan as defined here.

Food Labeling Issues
Since the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 ruling that mandates labeling of common food allergens, some companies are becoming more transparent about the sources of many of their ingredients. This is true in the case of ingredients containing or derived from milk, egg, fish or shellfish sources, all common food allergens. However, the FDA does not require of manufacturers that all ingredient sources be clearly indicated on labels.

Moreover, there is ambiguity regarding some FDA labeling regulations that presents concerns for vegetarians and vegans. “Natural flavors,” which could be either animal- or plant-derived, is a prime example. All readers with questions or concerns about specific food products should contact the manufacturer directly.

It is also the case that some substances, many of which are removed from the final product; remain in minute amounts; or are rendered inactive by a chemical or physical process during production, require no ingredient labeling at all. Many enzymes often fall in this class of substances requiring no labeling.

This is intended to help people shop for vegetarian and vegan food and beverage products. It may also be used as a reference when answering others’ questions about food ingredients. I hope this will aid people to make educated food choices depending on their dietary preferences.

This is not intended to discourage anyone about the feasibility of a vegetarian or vegan diet in today’s world. It should not be construed as a way to rationalize a meat-centered diet. Most importantly, I hope that this will never be used to criticize those who try to maintain a vegetarian or vegan diet in the face of “hidden ingredients,” proprietary processing aids, or the use of shared equipment. Please consider this source a guide to information needed when making educated food choices.

acesulfame K

Also known as: acesulfame potassium, Sunette.
Commercial source: synthetic
Used in: dry beverage mixes, canned fruit, chewing gum.
Definition: A low-calorie sweetener.
Vegan

acetic acid

Commercial source: vegetable
Exists in: many fruits and plants, in milk, and in synthetic form.
Used in: catsup, mayonnaise, and pickles.
Definition: Common preservative and flavoring agent which is the principal ingredient of vinegar.
Vegan

acid casein

Commercial source: animal (milk-derived).
Used in: cereal and bread fortification.
Definition: Principal protein in milk which has been treated with an acid.
Vegetarian

acidulant

Commercial source: vegetable, mineral, or synthetic.
Examples: citric acid, lactic acid.
Used in: baked goods, beverages, dry mixes.
Definition: Acids used in processed foods as flavor enhancers or acidity regulators.
Typically Vegetarian

acrylic acid

Also known as: acrylate-acrylamide resin.
Commercial source: synthetic.
Used in: produce coatings (such as waxes).
Definition: A petroleum-derived chemical used mainly to make plastics.
Vegan

activated carbon

Commercial source: vegetable (domestic production) or animal (cow bone-derived, foreign production).
Used in: sugar processing, water purification.
Definition: Carbon which can decolorize sugar and absorb impurities from the air and water.
May Be Non-Vegetarian

adipic acid

Also known as: hexanedioic acid.
Commercial source: synthetic.
Exists in: some vegetables, such as beets.
Used in: artificial flavorings in baked goods, baking powder, condiments, dairy products, meat products, oils, margarine, relishes, snack foods, canned vegetables, beverages, gelatin desserts, confections.
Definition: An additive used in foods to impart a tart taste.
May Be Non-Vegetarian

Product information: DuPont Chemicals, a manufacturer of adipic acid, reports that oleic acid derived from animal fat is used as a defoaming agent in the production of adipic acid. The oleic acid is present in the final product at a few parts per million. An alternative to this part of the process is thought to be possible but there are no plans to use it.

agar

Also known as: Japanese isinglass.
Commercial source: vegetable.
Used in: baked goods, ice cream, custard, meringue, and confections.
Definition: A vegetable gum obtained from seaweeds and used to thicken foods.
Vegan

agar-agar

See agar.

alanine

Commercial source: bacterial, fungal, or synthetic.
Exists in: living organisms.
Used in: seasonings, dietary supplements.
Definition: An amino acid needed by humans which can be produced by the body.
Typically Vegetarian

alanine

Commercial source: bacterial, fungal, or synthetic.
Exists in: living organisms.
Used in: seasonings, dietary supplements.
Definition: An amino acid needed by humans which can be produced by the body.
Typically Vegetarian

albumen

Commercial source: animal (egg-derived).
Used in: pastries, baked goods.
Definition: The spelling for the form of albumin (a protein) which is present in commercial egg white.
Vegetarian

albumin

Commercial source: animal (egg-, milk-, or blood-derived) or vegetable.
Examples: lactalbumin (milk); legumelin (peas).
Used in: pastries, baked goods, imitation sausage, soups, stews.
Definition: General term for a group of proteins which acts as binders in foods.
Typically Vegetarian

algin

Commercial source: vegetable-mineral.
Used in: ice cream, icings, puddings, dessert gels, cheeses, soda water, and preserves.
Definition: The name for a class of vegetable gums obtained from seaweed and used to provide thickening in foods. Sodium alginate is the most common.
Vegan

alginate

See algin

alginic acid

Commercial source: vegetable.
Used in: ice cream, beverages, salad dressing, cheese, cheese products, processed foods.
Definition: A derivative of seaweed used in many foods for its jelling and thickening properties.
Vegan

alpha tocopherol

See vitamin E.

alum

Also known as: potash alum, aluminum ammonium, potassium sulfate.
Commercial source: mineral.
Definition: A general term for ingredients which contain aluminum.
Vegan

amino acid

Commercial source: animal (usually derived from domestic mammals and birds), vegetable, bacterial, fungal, synthetic. Certain amino acids have a typical source. See individual amino acids for more information.
Examples: alanine, arginine, aspartic acid, cysteine, cystine, tyrosine.
Used in: baked goods, nutrient supplements.
Definition: The building blocks of proteins.
Typically Vegetarian

amylase

Commercial source: bacterial, fungal, animal (pig-derived).
Used in: products containing sugars derived from corn, baked goods.
Definition: An enzyme which breaks down starch into a simpler form.
Typically Vegan

annatto

Also known as: annatto extract, annatto seed, norbixin.
Commercial source: vegetable.
Used in: margarine, shortening, cheese, seasonings, sausage casings.
Definition: A natural yellow-orange food coloring derived from a tree seed.
Vegan

anticaking agent

Also known as: free-flow agent.
Commercial source: vegetable, animal (cow- or hog-derived)-mineral.
Examples: cornstarch, calcium stearate
Used in: seasonings, table salt, table sugar, powered foods such as instant breakfast drinks, and soft-drink mixes.
Definition: An additive which prevents other ingredients in foods from sticking together.
May Be Non-Vegetarian

antioxidant

Commercial source: Typically vegetable or synthetic.
Exists in: foods containing vitamin C and vitamin E
Examples: BHA, BHT, vitamin E, vitamin C.
Used in: vegetable oils, potato chips, cereals, dehydrated potatoes.
Definition: A class of additives which prevents fats and oils from going bad. A second class of antioxidants prevents cut fruit and vegetables from turning brown.
Vegetarian

arabic

Also known as: acacia, acacia vera, gum arabic, catechu, Egyptian thorn.
Commercial source: vegetable.
Used in: confections and beverages.
Definition: A vegetable gum with many functions such as thickening foods.
Vegan

arginine

Commercial source: Typically vegetable.
Exists in: living organisms.
Used in: nutritional supplements.
Definition: An amino acid needed by humans which can be produced by the body.
Typically Vegetarian

artificial coloring

Commercial source: Typically synthetic. Artificial coloring may be derived from vegetable or animal (insect) sources.
Examples: FD&C Blue #2, FD&C Red #40.
Used in: dry mixes, confections, beverages, candy, ice cream, margarine, meat, meat products, butter, cheese, baked goods, gelatin desserts, cereal, pasta.
Definition: An additive, not duplicated in nature, which gives color to foods.
Typically Vegan

artificial flavor

Commercial source: Typically synthetic. Artificial flavor may be derived from vegetable or animal sources.
Example: vanillin.
Used in: processed foods, beverages, cereal, salad dressing, baked goods.
Definition: The most common type of food additive which is used to replace or supplement real, more expensive flavors. They contain all or some substances which are not found naturally in the food or beverage to which it is added.
Typically Vegetarian

ascorbic acid

See vitamin C.

aspartame

Also known as: Nutrasweet, Equal.
Commercial source: synthetic.
Used in: soft drinks, breakfast cereals, desserts, chewing gum.
Definition: An artificial sweetener.
Vegan

aspartic acid

Commercial source: Typically bacterial or fungal.
Exists in: living organisms.
Used in: aspartame, the synthetic sweetener.
Definition: An amino acid needed by humans which can be produced by the body.
Typically Vegetarian

autolyzed yeast extract

Also known as: yeast autolyzates.
Commercial source: fungal.
Used in: flavor enhancer, nutrient.
Definition: An extract from yeast which provides a “meaty” flavor to foods.
Vegan

Product information: There are no aspects of the manufacturing process in which substances of animal or animal-derived origin are used, according to FIDCO Inc., a manufacturer of this ingredient. 

autolyzed yeast extract

Also known as: yeast autolyzates.
Commercial source: fungal.
Used in: flavor enhancer, nutrient.
Definition: An extract from yeast which provides a “meaty” flavor to foods.
Vegan

Product information: There are no aspects of the manufacturing process in which substances of animal or animal-derived origin are used, according to FIDCO Inc., a manufacturer of this ingredient.