If you are a vegan the aim is to avoid all animal products, from the obvious and straightforward through to the weird and (not very) wonderful. Not eating meat is, in theory, simple, but there are lots and lots of rather strange non-vegan items that find their way into the diets and lives of those not living under the vegan flag.
These are often somewhat hidden and can be tough for all but the most committed and knowledgeable of vegans to avoid. If you have any doubts, check out our is it vegan? guide to learn more about what to look out for. Otherwise, read on, as we take a look at the weirdest animal products used in a range of items. Vegan or not, would you really want to eat or use any of these?
Anyone fancy a beer? OK, just let me go catch a fish, take out its insides, dry its swim bladder and I’ll be right back. Still fancy that beer? Isinglass is the more scientific-sounding name given to the fining agent that is used to filter and clarify many beers and ciders.
As we discuss in our is beer vegan? article, isinglass is used in many mass-produced beers. The swim bladder is part of a fish’s innards that it uses to control flotation and swim depth and, frankly, we think it is better left inside the fish!
Whilst eating insects is commonplace in many countries and is touted as the diet of the future by some, most people in the western world find the idea rather unpalatable. Vegan or not, most people in the UK just don’t want to eat insects and other related “bugs” and “creepy crawlies”.
That doesn’t stop them, of course, just so long as said insects are processed so they don’t actually look like insects. The cochineal is a scale insect native to the Americas. It is used to make red food dye; and this dye – included on food labelling as E120, carmine, cochineal extract or various other pseudonyms that don’t exactly scream “crushed up insects” – features in a wide range of products.
Anything bright red that isn’t naturally that colour might well have been dyed with carmine. That includes drinks, sweets, paint, makeup, yoghurts, soups, cakes and more. It isn’t just cochineals that non-vegans are eating though. Shellac may not actually be made from an insect but it comes from the secretions of the lac bug, another scale insect. Shellac is used as a food glaze, in paints and varnishes and in a host of other everyday products.
Grease from Sheep
Whilst some meat-eaters might yearn to eat lamb, as far as we know, no omnivore has ever said, “I’m looking forward to a lovely Sunday down the pub licking the grease off a sheep. Ooh yes, a tasty bit of sheep grease and a couple of pints of fish swim bladder-filtered ale sounds cracking!”.
And yet many non-vegans routinely consume what is, effectively, the greasy oil that coats a sheep’s wool. This grease is known as lanolin and, as we discuss in our is cereal vegan piece, is used to make vitamin D that fortifies foods, including cereal and fruit juice.
As well as being used to make vitamin D, lanolin is also used in a wide range of cosmetic products, so not only do you have sheep grease for breakfast, you may also smear it on your face! It is also used in a range of lubricants and polishes, as well as in clothes to aid water-repellence.
As we point out in our things you didn’t know weren’t vegan post, the issue of figs and wasps is a bit of a trick question. Through a remarkable feat of co-evolution, figs and wasps have developed a relationship called mutualism. In short, this means that they depend on each other for survival and certain types of wasp can only survive alongside certain types of fig tree and vice versa.
This has led some to claim that the crunchy texture inside a fig is either a wasp or a wasp larvae, but in fact, neither are true. What is true, however, is that figs may effectively have inside them a dead wasp. We say this is a “trick question” however, as the wasp has actually been totally broken down and digested by a fig enzyme called ficin. Moreover, because the survival of both the fig and the wasp (as a species, rather than the individual wasps which, as said, end up getting digested by the fig!) depend on this process, and the wasp has acted of its own free will, the fig can be classified as vegan friendly.
The Anal Secretions of a Beaver
This sounds like some sort of fake news spread by the Internet and, in truth, it sort of is. Castoreum is a strong-scented brown-yellow substance that a beaver secretes from castor sacs near its tail. Because of this, castor, or castoreum, often includes some beaver urine and secretions from the beaver’s anal gland.
Whilst many websites and even mainstream media outlets suggest that castoreum is widely used in food flavourings, such as vanilla, this is, in fact, not true. Fact checking site Snopes claim that actually castoreum is rarely used in food. They cite the Vegetarian Resource Group, who asked five companies producing vanilla flavouring whether they used castoreum and all five did not.
The US Food and Drug Administration classifies castoreum as “generally recognized as safe” but according to Fernelli’s Handbook of Flavor Ingredients, consumption in the US equates to “less than a millionth of a pound per person”. The reality is that very, very few foods now use this “beaver juice” as a flavouring.
However, we aren’t quite out of the beaver secretion woods just yet. Whilst the use of castoreum in food is very limited, Snopes concludes its investigation into the subject by saying “Castoreum does still have a significant market even today, but almost exclusively for the use of the perfume industry, not the food industry.” So, if you buy perfume, as ever, check it is vegan to be on the safe side.
Sticking with the rotten world of perfume, ambergris, which to you and I may as well be called “whale vomit”, has long been used in the perfume industry. In recent times, it has largely been replaced by synthetic substitutes, in part due to the lack of control over supply of fresh whale vomit and the resultant expense.
However, whilst the trade of ambergris is illegal in some countries, including the USA and Australia, it remains legal in many, including the UK. It is still used in the scent industry and once again, the only sure fire way to avoid this rather unpleasant substance is to check with the manufacturer.
A Loaf of Hair & Feathers
As discussed in our is bread vegan? article, some bread contains L-Cysteine. This is used to improve flour and makes the process of producing bread quicker and easier. L-Cysteine is a permitted food additive that may be listed as E920. Traditionally, it was made from duck feathers, pig hair or human hair and until relatively recently such L-Cysteine was relatively common in bread, biscuits and other baked products.
However, whilst there seems to be confusion regarding regulations, the use of L-Cysteine has reduced significantly over the past 15 years. Moreover, most that is now used is synthetic L-Cysteine, although some may also be made from human hair. Vegan or not, human hair in your bread is highly unappealing so if you buy mass produced bread, you might want to check the ingredients or ask the producer.
Lamb intestine is the sort of thing you might expect to find in some form of haggis, tripe or other offally unpleasant food (oh sorry, that’s an offal pun!). Would you expect people might insert their penis in one? Probably, well, definitely not. But indeed, that is what some non-vegan folk do.
Slightly euphemistically referred to as “lambskin”, some condoms are made from a lamb’s cecum, which is a pouch at the start of a lamb’s large intestine. Feeling sexy yet? Such condoms were popular in the 19th and early 20th century but, somewhat amazingly, are still around today.
Those that advocate their use point to their biodegradability and superior heat transference and thus sensation. Others strongly believe that a lamb’s large intestine belongs inside a lamb, not inside a human orifice.
Cow Stomach & Crackers?
We’re partial to a bit of hummus on a nice cracker. Hummus is incredibly healthy and a complete vegan protein, but strangely some folk seem to prefer cow juice processed with the lining of a baby cow’s stomach. If you’re exceptionally tired, we’re talking about cheese.
Obviously vegans are saying a massive “no” to dairy milk and we look at the fairly obvious reasons why when asking is milk vegan?. Aside from the ethical issues, many people simply find the idea of drinking the milk of another animal slightly weird.
But when it comes to cheese, things go up a notch by the not so tasty addition of rennet. This is an enzyme that is taken from the stomach lining of very young calves. The cheese industry uses it to help curdle the milk. The calf’s stomach is removed to facilitate this process and, unsurprisingly, the calf is killed before this takes place.
Hooves, Trotters, Bones, Skin, Fat
Gelatine is used in a wide range of foods and products, from sweets to mousses, cosmetics to medicines and from photographs to cards. Equally, it can be made from a range of base products, the one thing these share being that they are not things vegans would want in their food or on their faces.
Gelatine is derived from collagen, which is in turn is derived from animals. Pigs and cows are the most common sources, although fish-based gelatine is also available. Skin, bones, hides, trotters, feet is processed through a combination of boiling and chemical addition to create the finished gelatine. That then goes in your sweets. Enjoy.
Progress in the Form of Synthetic Alternatives
Lots of the items mentioned above are still pretty commonly used and certainly isinglass, gelatine, cochineal, rennet and lanolin are fairly common ingredients in a range of foods and other commercial products. However, as we have noted when discussing some of the other rather unpleasant animal parts and derivatives, in lots of ways, times have changed.
The items on our list are still used but the use of some things, such as L-cysteine from animal feathers in bread, is very much dying out. Similarly, lambskin condoms, whilst they have enjoyed something of a resurgence, make up only a small section of the overall condom market.
In many ways, this shows that people are beginning to treat animals a little more fairly and that where possible synthetic alternatives are being used. Often, of course, this is down to commercial reasons, which is to say price, rather than ethics, but the end result for animals is the same.
What we would also say is that you may find talk on the vegan grapevine of certain other unsavoury ingredients being used. In the modern world, it is always wise to fact check anything that sounds a little unbelievable, with misinformation spreading so easily in this age of unparalleled availability to the means of communication and media.
For example, we have read of animal urine being widely used in goods, when in fact, urea is now produced almost exclusively by synthetic means. Musk, erroneously described as a genital secretion in some realms, is now also almost always synthetic.
To conclude, there are lots and lots of animal nasties being used in a huge number of different ways. But not as many as there used to be and not as many as some sources would have you believe.