‘Hidden’ Non-Vegan Ingredients

Many nutritional formulas contain ingredients that are animal-derived, and yet they claim they are both vegetarian and vegan. So what do you need to look out for when buying a multivitamin or greenfood supplement, amongst other nutritional supplements to ensure you’re not compromising your principles? Our quick guide to non-vegan animal-derived hidden nasties gives you the lowdown.

If you’re looking for dairy-derived ingredients and tips on avoiding dairy in foods then check here as the list is quite extensive and deserves a page all of its own!

Non-Vegan Foods and Ingredients You Might Want to Check for

Royal Jelly

This is the food of the Queen Bee and is made in the salivary glands of the other bees in order to keep the queen in tip-top condition. It has become very popular as a health food product in recent years and is often found in food supplement powders and general ‘tonics’, even when all the other ingredients are vegan. I find this highly irritating as it ruins a perfectly good superfood supplement and stops me using it!


This is a resinous material that bees obtain from the buds of poplar trees and cone-bearing trees. It is almost always taken from beehives and is, therefore, not considered vegan. Propolis has strong antibacterial properties and the bees use it to seal their hives against infection. Stealing the propolis effectively renders them defenseless and may contribute to colony-collapse syndrome that is decimating the worldwide bee population. Even if you’re not vegan, this is one to avoid if you value your ability to eat foodstuffs that rely on pollinators like bees…

beehive honeycomb beeswax propolis


A naturally-produced bee product that apis bees (honey bees) create from fatty acid esters and long-chain alcohols (for all you nutrition nuts). It is made by the (female) worker bees from glands under their sternum and is used to create a handy storage system (the honeycomb) in the hives. Often used to make candles, toiletries, lipbalms, and polishes/waxes. Read more about why bee products are not vegan.

Magnesium Stearate

Sometimes this can be vegan, so it’s always best to check the origin of the magnesium stearate with a supplier who should be able to offer certification if asked. I recently asked this of a company who asked me to promote them and they were quite forthcoming with certification (turns out some other ingredients weren’t vegan though so no dice!). Magnesium stearate is used in many tablets and capsules as a lubricant in the manufacturing process and to prevent the tablets sticking together. It is generally considered safe for human consumption up to 2500mg/day but is not of nutritional value and may create a time-delay effect on the release of nutrients in tablets and capsules containing it. Usually this is of animal sources, often cow-derived, although vegetable magnesium stearate is sometimes specified. As always, check check check. It is often in baby formulas, sweets, and also is a major cause of the classic bathtub-ring as it is found in many soaps.


There are plans afoot to make gelatin from humans, using genes that encode for this collagenous substance injected into yeast and grown in a laboratory. In the meantime, gelatin is derived from ground up animal tissues, such as the hooves of horses, cows, and sheep, along with other tendons, ligaments, and the ‘remnants’ of animals slaughtered for their flesh. It is a final indignity that is inflicted on animals and it sickens me that I ate such things as a child. Jelly (jello) wobbles in a hideous fashion once you know what it’s made from.

shellac nail varnish polish

Lac Resin/Shellac

mmm more bug juice. Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug, and is often used to coat fruit, sweets (think M&Ms), and in things like nail polish/varnish, wood finishes, and glazes. I once returned some fruit juice to Co-Op (in the UK) as it was made from fruit that had been waxed with shellac and, yes, the clerk looked at me quite askance.


This is Vitamin D, the animal version. If you want vegan vitamin D look for ergocalciferol which is grown on yeasts (just as many selenium supplements are, as well as other vitamins and minerals). Most cholecalciferol (also known as D3) is derived from sheep fat taken from their wool and exposed to sunlight and so many people will say that it can be suitable for vegetarians. However, squeezing lanolin and sheep fat from a sheep’s shorn fleece may not be the fun picnic it’s made out to be and this is still considered a cruelty product by many vegetarians. Other D3 might come from fish, making it definitely not vegetarian although some pescetarians might find it acceptable. Getting out in the sunshine is the best vitamin D source. No fleecing involved.

Vitamin A

When found in multivitamin supplements this is usually taken from fish or from animals’ livers, often cows or pigs, as this is where we (animals) store our vitamin A. Vitamin A can be toxic at high levels whereas its vegan-friendly counterpart, beta-carotene, is only converted to vitamin A in our bodies at the rate at which we need it. Of course, if you consume extreme levels of beta-carotene then you might find your sweat becomes quite orange and that your eyes and skin turn a lovely fake-tan colour so you might want to cut back at that point.

Vitamin K

Almost always non-vegan, unfortunately. This is thought to be the X-Factor so prized by the Weston A Price Foundation gang, a group who promote excessive consumption of animal products and question the cholesterol ‘myth’ to the point of fantasy. As with vitamin D, there is more than one version of vitamin K; K1 (phylloquinone) is plant-derived, K2 (menaquinone) is synthesised by bacteria and also animal-derived, and K3 (menadione) is a synthetic form. In some countries (and I think this is still standard in the UK) babies are given an injection of vitamin K in their first few hours of life to prevent the rare, but often fatal, late-onset haemorrhagic disease of the newborn. Vegan parents raising their child vegan should check with their hospital/birthing centre if they are concerned about this practice. Green leafy vegetables are the best sources of vegan vitamin K as this is produced by bacterial flora.

And finally… for now:

Omega 3

Everyone’s favourite superfood supplement of recent years, touted as the answer to almost every health condition and medical ailment, omega 3 is usually derived from fish, particularly cold-water deep sea fish such as herring, mackerel, and salmon. Other fish have a bit less omega 3 but also have vitamin A and D which make them popular as foodstuffs and as a source for animal oil supplements. The fish themselves get the omega 3 from algae that they eat as the algae forms omega 3 and is, therefore, a vegan source of the nutrient. Such supplements are often expensive however due to manufacturing issues and so a cheaper alternative is flaxseed oil, or salba (chia) seed oil. The conversion rate is much lower of omega 3 fatty acids from plant sources but most humans are quite capable of creating the long-chain fatty acids such as eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA) from these sources all without any animal exploitation or need for animal-derived ingredients.

What other weird and not-so-wonderful things have you found in your so-called vegan or vegetarian products? Let me know and I’ll add it in as I realise that this list is far from exhaustive due to the twisted imaginations of those responsible for fish in beer, pig hair in bread, and snail gel in anti-wrinkle face creams… all rather peculiar and undesirable non-vegan ‘hidden’ ingredients.

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Leave a Comment

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S Banks June 28, 2012 at 05:27

Thank you for this very helpful and insightful article. When will we stop harming fellow humans and other sentient beings to survive on Earth? Don’t we see the poor quality of life we are getting by our harmful practices?

hstryk July 12, 2012 at 14:47

What about the Omega3 supplement Ovega3? Their website claims, “…we’ve learned how to grow our patented DHA & EPA omega-3 producing algae in stainless steel fermentors within an FDA-inspected facility. The result is a completely sustainable and vegetarian source of DHA & EPA.”

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