Learning Vegan 101 – Part Seven (mysterious, mostly vegan food additives)


My general rule of thumb when I’m out grocery shopping for my family is: The shorter a product’s list of ingredients, the better!

However, unless you strictly abide by a raw or whole food diet (which is the way  I’m personally beginning to lean), it’s next to impossible to know what every single ingredient is. Seriously, what’s xantham gum? What are tocopherols? And furthermore, what are these suspicious-sounding things doing in my food?

I’ve been wanting to compile a food-additive catalog of sorts for a while, and finally I have. By no means is this the full list of ingredients you may come across at the supermarket, but it’s a good start, and I hope you find it helpful!

*NOTE: Unless otherwise stated, these are vegan ingredients, commonly found in vegan-certified foods. For more information on common “sneaky” ingredients that are NEVER vegan, click here.

Potassium Benzoate, the potassium salt of benzoic acid, is a preservative that inhibits the growth of mold, yeast, and some bacteria.

Calcium Citrate, the calcium salt of citric acid, is a preservative, however it’s sometimes used as a flavor additive.

Sodium Citrate is commonly known as sour salt and is mainly used as a flavoring additive but can also be considered a preservative (and is sometimes added into food as an antioxidant).

Calcium Sorbate is a polyunsaturated fatty acid salt commonly used as a food preservative.

Sodium Benzoate is a white crystalline salt commonly used as a food preservative.

Calcium carbonate, which naturally occurs in marble, limestone, and coral, is used for a variety of reasons in baking (ie. for leavening, as a yeast nutrient, a PH regulator, or to increase a food’s calcium content). In non-vegan-certified foods, calcium carbonate may be derived from egg or oyster shells.

Locust Bean Gum, also known as Carob Bean Gum, comes from the seeds of the carob tree and is used to add texture to a food.

Gellan Gum is a naturally occurring carbohydrate (made from bacteria) and is used as a stabilizer; for adding texture; and for suspending key nutrients, minerals, and other ingredients in liquid products.

Xantham Gum is fermented by bacteria and is used as a thickener or stabilizer in a wide variety of foods, especially salad dressings, sauces, soups, and baked goods (especially those that are gluten-free because xanthan gum performs similarly to gluten).

Guar Gum is a natural food thickener, similar to locust bean gum. It has significantly more thickening ability than cornstarch.

Gum Acacia, also known as Acacia Gum, is an emulsifier and a stabilizer made from the branches of Acacia Senegal trees. It’s most commonly used in soft drinks because it binds sugar to liquid.

Agar-Agar is a gelling and thickening agent made from seaweed and is very commonly used as a substitute for gelatin.

Soy Lecithin – a derivative of the soybean – is used as an emulsifier and stabilizer. Lecithin is commonly used in foods to help make dissimilar substances (like oil and water) blend.

Sunflower Lecithin, derived from sunflower seeds, is an emulsifier and is often used in soy-free foods.

Carrageenan – made from seaweed – is used for gelling, thickening, and stabilizing and is widely found on ingredient lists of  organic or “natural” foods. However, many companies are working toward removing carrageenan from their products because the ingredient (which has no nutritional value) has come under major scrutiny for its inability to be digested.

Titanium Dioxide is a common additive in many foods and is used as both a whitener and an anti-caking agent (to prevent a product from clumping).

Carnuba Wax is a vegetable wax that comes from the Carnauba Tree. It can withstand high melting temperatures and therefore is used as a food-grade polish; coating; and/or hardening, gelling and anti-caking agent.

Maltodextrin is a modified food starch made from corn, rice, potato, or wheat and is used as a thickener, filler, or preservative in many processed foods.

Thiamine Hydrochloride is typically a synthetic Vitamin B1 added to foods containing seeds, legumes, and rice and is most often found added to processed breakfast cereals.

Dextrose is a vegetable-sourced simple sugar which is 3/4 as sweet as cane or beet sugar. It’s possible that some dextrose has been processed through a bone char filter (click here for a link to my post regarding vegan sugar).

Corn Syrup Solids (not to be confused with High Fructose Corn Syrup) are a dextrose sugar put through a process that removes 97% of the water from its liquid form.

Cultured Dextrose, a preservative, is a cultured or fermented food product made by combining dextrose with the bacteria Propionibacterium Freudenreichii. There is much debate regarding whether or not this is a vegan ingredient because very often the culture is derived from dairy that’s been “purified” to remove milk proteins. Your best bet is to either avoid cultured dextrose altogether OR to call a product’s manufacturer with sourcing questions.

Lactic Acid is a sour food additive which is typically derived from beet sugar or cornstarch, however – in non-vegan-certified foods – it can be derived from whey (a dairy by-product).

Tocopherols are a family of vitamin E compounds added as antioxidants.

Glycerin (in its vegan form) is typically soybean-derived and used as a fat emulsifier. Be aware that unless glycerin is marked specifically as “vegetable glycerin” or is included on the list of ingredients of a vegan/vegetarian product, it can be animal-derived.

Olestra is a fat substitute containing no fat, calories, or cholesterol and is therefore used in many snacks (such as potato chips) in order to lower or eliminate the product’s fat content. The Food and Drug Administration approved Olestra in the 1990’s, however it’s since lost popularity due to side effects stemming from its lack of digestibility.

Dextrins are a group of low-molecular-weight carbohydrates produced by the hydrolysis of starch.

Natural Flavors is officially defined as: “The essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.” Essentially, you can know that a “natural flavor” is vegan only if you are buying a vegan-certified product.

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  1. // Reply

    That is quite a list. I do have a question about carrageenan though. If it is non-digestible and derived from seaweed, why would it be considered bad? It seems like it would add to texture at no cost to animals and would therefore be helpful to use in vegan products?

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