Vegetarian Journal’s Guide to Food Ingredients is a partial listing of common food ingredients taken from an ongoing VRG food ingredients project. Our objective in this booklet is to provide an easy-to-read, useful list of ingredients commonly found in many foods and beverages that indicates whether they are vegetarian, vegan, or non-vegetarian. Our Guide is unique in that we place 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.

Our 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 in this Guide do not take this into account. Also, this Guide does not consider whether ingredients were tested on animals. For more information on these or related issues, readers are advised 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. For the purposes of this Guide, 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, we contacted hundreds of chemical, food, and beverage companies by phone, letter, fax, and email. Sometimes, technical service or sales representatives were very helpful in providing us with 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 in this Guide lack precision or specific company information.

In this Guide, 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 in this Guide.

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.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: A guide to food ingredients is a complicated research project. We thank the following interns who helped compile information: Sina Arnold, Melissa Boynum, Caroline Pyevich, Kathy Schmelter, and Mimi Sistrunk. We also thank the following staff members who provided help with clarity of expression: Eric Hatch, Tamara Richter, Charles Stahler, Darlene Veverka, and Debra Wasserman. Finally, we thank the following people who helped with technical accuracy: Stu Cantor, M.S. (food science and nutrition); Reed Mangels, Ph.D., R.D. (nutrition); Brad Wolff, M.S. (food science).

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

This Guide 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, the author hopes that the Guide 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 Guide as a source of information needed when making educated food choices.

New information and changes in commercial processes and sources will constantly appear. We will be producing updates. Please send questions and comments for future editions to The Vegetarian Resource Group, P.O. Box 1463, Baltimore, MD 21203. Fax: (410) 366-8804; E-mail address: vrg@vrg.org

Please note: A vegetarian does not eat meat, fish, or fowl. A vegan is a vegetarian who also does not use other animal products, such as dairy and eggs. At the time of this writing, under these definitions, about 3% of the U.S. population is vegetarian and about 1% is vegan. Eight percent say they never eat meat. There are other groups such as those that keep kosher or halal which have an interest in these ingredient issues.

How people follow a diet can vary according to personal beliefs, background, and knowledge. For example, generally vegetarians in the U.S. may eat eggs, while some religious groups do not consider eggs vegetarian. When estimating the number of vegetarians, we follow the general definitions above. However, when individuals decide what foods fit their beliefs, questions may arise because of the “hidden” ingredients in foods and the “processing aids” used in food production.

This guide can be used to help answer some of these questions. It is not meant to discourage people from being vegetarian, to say someone is or is not vegetarian, or to give food service staff and businesses a hard time. That would defeat the goal of vegetarians and vegans trying to create a kinder world. We live in an imperfect world, do the best we can, and strive to do better. We each make different decisions about what is appropriate for ourselves, where to draw lines, and what is practical for our situation.

However, this guide can be used as an aid in meeting your needs or the needs of your clients and customers. To label foods vegetarian, it’s best for full disclosure and to make sure all the ingredients are vegetarian. There are some ingredients, which technically may be vegetarian, that many vegetarians or others may not see as vegetarian or not want to use, such as artificial sweeteners or L-cysteine from duck feathers or human hair. These should also be disclosed and avoided when developing vegetarian products.

The contents of this handout and our other publications, including web information, are not intended to provide personal medical advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health professional. We often depend on company statements for product and ingredient information. It is impossible to be 100% sure about a statement, information can change, people have different views, and mistakes can be made. Please use your own best judgment about whether a product is suitable for you. To be sure, do further research on your own.