Are you sure your product is 100% vegan?
Ever wondered why apples are so shiny? Ever wondered what alcohol is filtered through? Ever thought about how they get refined sugar so white? Animal-derived products and ingredients have permeated every corner of our world. They are cheap, they are gruesome and often they are hidden – and it’s your duty to make sure they don’t get into your products.
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Before we start – I need to say that it’s really easy to get caught out by this. If you’re vegan yourself, which if you’re reading this then there’s a good chance that you are, you probably think you’ve got a pretty good handle on what is and isn’t vegan. Because you’re out there all the time buying vegan products, mixing in vegan Facebook groups, arguing with your non-vegan friends, and all that time pouring over the ingredients in the products you buy means you naturally become something of an expert on what is and isn’t vegan. But have you ever slipped up? Do you ever make a mistake, maybe you found out that the wine you’d been buying was refined using isinglass, more commonly known as fish bladder? For years after I went vegetarian I was still eating jelly babies because I never made the link between ‘jelly’ and gelatine (which is made from boiling up animal remains – try telling that to a kid before they eat one!).
I remember laughing when I saw a high-street coffee chain had started labelling its apples as vegan, until I learnt that the reason many apples are so shiny is because they are coated in beeswax or shellac – both insect derivatives. Animal-based products have permeated every corner of our world, not just our food, simply because of the 200 million animals which are killed to be eaten every day. And that’s just the land animals. Not only is that number an unbelievable tragedy, it also means that there is a huge and cheap supply of animal by-products as a result. Leather, wool and lanolin, gelatine, bone char, isinglass, even blood – all are seen as waste products so can be bought up cheaply and used in manufacturing processes.
As a vegan company, or someone who is providing a vegan product or service, it is obviously your duty to make sure that none of these get into your products. Because if you make a mistake about what you buy personally, then you are only impacting yourself and usually it’s a learning experience from which you become a better, more educated vegan. If your business accidentally sells a product that isn’t vegan, then you’re going to upset a lot of customers and potentially ruin your reputation. Bigger companies do it all the time. I actually collect labels that say a product is vegan but has an animal derivative listed in the ingredients; my favourite was a packet of chocolates (bought from a high-street retailer) that was labelled vegan because they were made with lactose-free milk. So, they still had milk in, but the lactose had been taken out so the manufacturer thought that made them vegan. Or the sofa manufacturer who had a ‘vegan collection’ that didn’t include leather, but did include wool. Or the plant-based burgers that are served with non-vegan mayo, and all the other examples that make it into the news. Most of the time it comes from companies simply not understanding what is and isn’t vegan.
If you are a vegan company, however, you will be held to a far higher standard than non-vegan companies. And if it was a genuine mistake that you had a product that turned out not to be vegan (so perhaps it was one of your suppliers who told you a product was vegan and it later turns out it wasn’t) then hopefully many of your customers would be sympathetic and continue to support you. But if you put out a product that makes a vegan claim but it isn’t, just because of your lack of care or knowledge, then there’s a real chance your company might not survive the fallout.
I love, live and breathe the vegan marketplace – both as a consultant and as the co-founder of Vegan Business Tribe – but I’m still learning myself, and always will be; even I still occasionally get caught out. So it’s important that you keep double-checking that everything you make, the process you use, the ingredients from your suppliers are 100% vegan. And you might think “actually, I don’t make a product so this doesn’t affect me!” It does. The vegan hospitality industry such as vegan B&Bs and cafés need to consider more than just the breakfast they’re offering. Vegan virtual assistants and accountants need to understand what their vegan customers expect from them. If your business is making money from selling a vegan service but then you are actively putting that money into products or industries that exploit animals, then you have a problem.
So let’s take a look at what actually makes a product vegan, what catches people out, and a few things you’ve probably not thought about. And even if you don’t really make a product, as a vegan you will probably still find this all really interesting – how much do you know about what’s in the food you buy? Is your refined sugar whitened with ground-up bones for example? Does that sound gross? Well, it’s fairly common practice in many parts of the world. Remember, there’s a lot of bones going to ‘waste’ so they make for a very cheap processing aid.
Animal-derived products and ingredients have permeated every corner of our world. They are cheap, they are gruesome and often they are hidden – and it’s your duty to make sure they don’t get into your products.
Let’s start with the obvious stuff. You may or may not know that Lisa and I are also the UK agents for The Vegan Society’s vegan trademark scheme, so we have supported a lot of companies applying for the trademark, which includes going through The Vegan Society’s auditing process. And if we use The Vegan Society’s framework then there are four main criteria to a product being vegan. First is the ingredients – obviously, you can’t have ANY animal derivatives in your products and we’ll go into more detail about that in a moment. The second is animal testing – and this is really important: the development and manufacture of a product must not have involved testing of any sort on animals. So even if the product isn’t tested on animals now, if it was tested in the past or during its research and development process, then it doesn’t match The Vegan Society’s definition of being a vegan product. The third is cross-contamination – you need to make sure that any potential cross-contamination with animal ingredients is managed and prevented as far as possible. And finally, the fourth is if your product contains any genetically-modified organisms (and vegan products CAN contain GMOs) then those genetically-modified organisms must not include animal genes or animal-derived substances.
That’s The Vegan Society’s framework of what they need to see for a product to be eligible for their Vegan Trademark (which we should take as the global gold standard), but let’s look at some of those criteria in a bit more detail, especially ingredients. Because whenever we use the word ‘animal’ that refers to the entire Animal Kingdom – not just land animals, but fish, insects, vertebrates, invertebrates and pretty much anything that lives and breathes. And that means, especially if you sell a food product, you really need to do some digging into your ingredients. Just accepting a note from a supplier that their ingredient is vegan means you are relying on them understanding what vegan actually means and that they’ve done their own audit. Just because a product doesn’t have meat, eggs or dairy, it doesn’t mean it’s suitable for vegans. So let’s take a look at some of the things that might catch you out:
I mentioned sugar earlier, and you might think, “how can such an obvious plant-based ingredient not be vegan?” And this is where I’m going to introduce you to the nonsensical-sounding concept of unlisted ingredients and processing aids. An ingredient can be filtered through, or processed with, a second ingredient without that ingredient having to be listed on the packaging. So for instance, sugar can be filtered or whitened using bone char, which comes mainly from cows, without that process having to be disclosed anywhere. And there’s only one way to find out, and that’s to ask the people who make the sugar. Here in the UK (where I am) the use of bone char in sugar processing is relatively low – but in other parts of the world, especially the US, it’s fairly standard practice. So, if you’re making those amazing vegan cupcakes but you haven’t asked your sugar supplier to confirm that they don’t use bone char, then you might be accidentally selling cake that is using cow bones in its production.
And while we’re talking about vegan cake, which I may add is one of my favourite topics, what if you are using citrus as an ingredient? Obviously, this goes beyond cooking; you might be using citrus in your vegan soap, or in your vegan tea production. But most citrus fruits are waxed just like the shiny apples I mentioned earlier, and again the common wax used is shellac which comes from insect secretions. So those lemon rinds you’re using in your zesty vegan shampoo, unless you know for certain they come from unwaxed lemons you are probably adding animal ingredients into your product. And it can be that other people’s products that you resell are simply not vegan too. Perhaps you are selling fizzy drinks in your vegan cafe, and if so did you know that Fanta, Lilt and Diet Pepsi all state they are not suitable for vegans? Lilt contains fish gelatine; the dyes that Fanta uses for their drinks are tested on animals, and Diet Pepsi – well, all we know are that they contain a non-vegan element which Pepsi don’t wish to disclose!
I hope – and suspect – that these will change over time. As pressure mounts on food manufacturers from consumers to find cruelty-free alternatives they will change their recipes and production processers. Take Guinness: they removed isinglass (which comes from fish bladders) from their brewing process in 2016 to make their stout inclusive for all. Unfortunately, some companies also go the other way: Flora started adding buttermilk into one of its plant-based spreads to absolute uproar from vegans around the world – so it’s always worth periodically checking that nothing has changed in the ingredients you use.
And some ingredients can be really tricky, even if they are listed on the label, because they can be from an animal source, a plant source or a chemical source. Vitamin D for instance. Lots of foods are fortified with Vitamin D, especially cereals, but one of the biggest places that manufacturers harvest this from is the lanolin in sheep wool. You can also get Vitamin D from vegan sources, such as lichen, but most manufacturers don’t state its source on the labelling. So again, those vegan cornflake buns you are making, if those cornflakes were made by some of the biggest cereal manufacturers there’s a good chance your buns have lanolin from sheep wool in them meaning they are not vegan. Dextrose is also one to watch out for, since normal dextrose is vegan but ‘cultured’ dextrose is not – and usually, you’ll have to ask the manufacturer to find out which it is.
And you should ask the manufacturer – even if you already know the product isn’t vegan, let them know there’s demand for it to be. The more we all question where the ingredients come from, the more they will feel the pressure to move to non-animal alternatives. Because where the ingredient comes from makes no difference to the ingredient itself. It’s like protein – it doesn’t matter if it comes from plant or animal, it’s all the same to your body. If Vitamin D comes from lichen or from sheep wool, it’s still vitamin D. So make sure your ingredients are indeed vegan. Ask what’s in the mysterious ‘natural flavourings’ because there could always be honey or other ‘natural’ but animal-based ingredients. Put some pressure on your suppliers to let them know people care about what’s in your product, and that they need to be more transparent with their labelling and letting people know that their products don’t contain animal.
If you’re in Europe, then you will have seen e-numbers listed on some product labelling instead of listing an actual ingredient. And if you’re making something using an ingredient with an E number in or a similar international numbering system, you need to find out what’s actually in it! E542 has bone phosphate for example, E469 is milk-derived, and lots of other ingredients can be animal but they have been given a different name: Keratin, Gelatine, Tallow, Aspic – all made from, again, the parts of animals that would otherwise be thrown away after it has been killed.
Resources for checking ingredients:
Of course, you can just ‘Google’ an ingredient to find out what’s in it, but PETA published two great lists of animal-based ingredients here:
Vegan Easy also have a great resource listing the European E-numbers that may not be vegan here:
It can be a real minefield, so spend time doing your research. Find out what’s in your product – and if you don’t know what something is, don’t rest until you do. And of course, if you want that ultimate certainty, then do go engage with The Vegan Society. If you want to apply for their Vegan Trademark they will help you audit your ingredients and also help you to swap out an ingredient if you find something that you can’t be sure is vegan.
Where the ingredient comes from makes no difference to the ingredient itself. It’s like protein – it doesn’t matter if it comes from plant or animal, it’s all the same to your body. If Vitamin D comes from lichen or from sheep wool, it’s still vitamin D.
We said that there are four different criteria that your product has to meet to be vegan – and we’ve only covered the first in any detail: what your product is made from. Admittedly it is the biggest, but the other areas are important too, especially cross-contamination. If you are selling a vegan product, you HAVE to make sure that you are doing everything you can to avoid it coming into contact with non-vegan products. Most larger companies actually handle this quite well because they already have procedures set up to minimise cross-contamination of different allergens, but if you’re a smaller company then you have to do the same. Hopefully, you’re a vegan company only making vegan products, but if your products are being made in an environment that also handles animal or dairy, you have to make sure you are managing the danger of cross-contamination. Not just for vegans, but also because people who are lactose intolerant or have problems with certain allergens turn to vegan products. If someone else is making your products then are you insisting that the equipment is cleaned down between making non-vegan products and vegan ones? How are your ingredients stored? Does your distributor keep your products separate from the animal-based ones? Are the people serving-up your products trained on vegan and know to use different gloves and utensils? Where are they keeping your product in their shop, are your plant-based sausages rubbing up next to the pig ones on the deli-counter?
Animal testing (or ensuring the lack of it) is also very important. Most people are now familiar with the idea of cruelty-free cosmetics and when people think of animal testing they think of the horrendous testing to see if a product irritates eyes using small mammals like rabbits. But lots of other products can also be tested on animals, even food, and I ensure you that the testing process never turns out well for the animal.
If you have control over your product, you need to make sure it’s not tested on animals in any way – including during the development. So if a company tested five different versions of a product formula, and then took the one recipe that didn’t burn the animal’s skin in testing, they cannot claim that’s a vegan or cruelty-free product. Animal testing was used in the product’s development. And also, the law in some regions, especially China, require some products to undergo animal testing before they can be sold in that country. Now, this is changing (mainly due to pressure from companies who have taken a cruelty-free stance) but you need to be aware that if you have put your product through animal testing to meet a country’s product laws – then no matter if your product would never cause any harm to an animal it was tested on, you can’t claim that your product is vegan if you’ve sanctioned animal testing. It can still be plant-based, but you can’t claim it’s cruelty-free.
And then just a last reminder to check that any GMOs (genetically modified organisms) that are in your product are not animal-derived. Many vegans don’t like the idea of genetically modified ingredients, but using a GMO doesn’t make your product any less vegan as long as those modifications haven’t used animal genes.
So we’ve been talking mostly about making sure that your products (eg, things you make) are vegan. But what if you’re offering a vegan service or if you’re a retailer or working in hospitality? You might not make something, but how can you still be certain that what you’re offering is actually vegan?
What about the cleaning products you use in your offices, or the hand-wash in your washrooms? Is your office furniture vegan, or have you just signed off on a new batch of new office chairs without considering what they are made of? You really have the opportunity to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, when you’re a vegan company. You have the opportunity to go through your supply chain and find where you can swap out vegan suppliers for non-vegan ones – including the services your company buys itself. Did you know in the UK we have a vegan electricity supplier? Ecotricity. Did you even know that energy generation can include animal products, such as slaughterhouse waste, fish parts, and animal slurry? I didn’t – until I heard about Dale Vince (pictured) and his mission to clean up energy supplies. This is how you can really set yourself apart as a vegan company.
What about the inks used in printing your leaflets? Have you checked they are not animal-based? The glues, the shiny lamination on your marketing materials, can all be animal-derived. And if you buy-in services yourself, can you actually support other vegan businesses? Can you make sure your money is staying in the veg-economy?
Can you buy from businesses that you know are not contributing to animal slaughter and exploitation, who are also on your mission to build a vegan world? Can you find a vegan web designer, video producer, or even a vegan accountant – and if you’re struggling to find one then we have all of those as members of Vegan Business Tribe that we can introduce you to!
And finally – how else can you prove to your customers that not only is your product vegan, but that you are on the same mission as they are. And this is a real missed opportunity for a lot of vegan businesses; it’s easy to think that JUST being a vegan company is enough without really embracing the vegan cause. Can you spare a percentage of your profits to help fund your local animal sanctuary, or if you’re not making any profits yet can you donate your and your team’s time? Why not take the last Friday of every month to head out onto the streets with your team to do some animal advocacy and talk to people about veganism. If you work on your own, link up with other local businesses in your area and go out together. Can your business launch a vegan education campaign as your side-hustle? Not only are you doing a really good thing, but you’re also proving YOUR vegan credentials over non-vegan companies.
Remember why you launched a vegan business. Not just to sell a product or a service, but to make a difference to the world. Ask yourself, have you still got sight of that?
A bullet-point round up of what we've just covered:
- Remember that you never stop learning as a vegan, and you should never stop learning as a vegan business. Animal by-products get into everything, they are cheap and gruesome, and it’s your duty to make sure they are not in your products.
- If you are a vegan company then you will be held to a far higher standard than a non-vegan company. Highstreet brands might get away with making mistakes – you won’t. Which is why you really need to dig into your ingredients and put pressure on your suppliers for certainty.
- When we talk about animal products and ingredients that refers to the whole animal kingdom. Not just the creatures you may like, but insects, bugs and everything else.
- A lot of animal ingredients are hidden. Manufacturers don’t shout about using ground-up bones or fish bladders to refine their products for example. So put pressure on your suppliers to prove their products are vegan. Check everything. Even simple things like sugar.
- If you want ultimate confidence, apply for The Vegan Society’s Vegan Trademark – it will cost you some money, but they will help you audit your product and you can also then use the trademark on your packaging and website to prove to your customers your product is vegan.
- It’s not just your product that you have to ensure is vegan, it’s the processes around it. How you guard against cross-contamination, how your product is made, how it’s stored and sold.
- You also need to make sure that no animal testing has taken place (including in the development of your product) and that you haven’t submitted your product for animal testing by someone else so that you can sell into a certain country or region.
- Think about how else can you can embrace that you are a vegan company, especially if you sell a service rather than a product. Can you keep your money in the veg-economy and use other vegan suppliers and products in your own business?
- Just being a vegan company isn’t enough. Can you put some of your time and money back into campaigning? Can you link up with other vegan businesses in your area to create a local movement or a vegan event? Ask how your company is furthering the vegan cause.
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