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Is Alcohol Vegan?

When initially going vegan, it’s all about eliminating meat, dairy, and eggs.  Then, as time goes on, you start to learn about other issues, like honey, wool, sugar, horse riding, medication and…alcohol.  Some new vegans completely overhaul their life and health and eliminate drinking entirely, but this is not the case for everyone, nor does it have to be.  Vegans comes in as many shapes and sizes as non-vegans- some are straight edge, some are alcoholics in recovery, some enjoy drinking, some simply don’t like it, and some abstain for health or religious reasons.

So, is alcohol vegan?  Well, short answer: It depends.  There are a number of animal or animal-derived ingredients used in the fining process of alcohol clarification and stabilization and some used as ingredients to the beverages themselves.  Fining agents aren’t intended to remain in the final product, but there’s no guarantee.  The broader definition of veganism would encompass the use of these animal byproducts in any aspect of the alcohol’s production as making the resulting product non-vegan. [tweet this]

This is similar to the process used to make processed sugar white by filtering it through bone char; only some of the elements used for alcohol are a little more direct in nature as they’re actual ingredients in rather than purifiers of the product.

For instance, many liquors contain dairy, and some drinks, like campari, are made with cochineal extract, or carmine, which is a red food coloration derived from the dried, crushed bodies of pregnant female Dactylopius coccus.  For more information on carmine and a load of other fun ingredients commonly found in food, check out this oldie-but-goodie video post.

So, what exactly is fining and what animal-derived agents does it use?

Fining is the process of clarifying wine or beer and finings are substances that are usually added at or near the completion of processing.  Fining’s remove organic compounds, such as sulfides, proteins, polyphenols, benzenoids, or copper ions, for the purpose of improving beverage clarity, or adjust the flavor and/or aroma.

In the fining process or as an ingredient, one or more of the following agents may be used:

  • Albumin, which is derived from eggs or dried blood
  • Casein, derived from milk
  • Charcoal, often derived from animal bone
  • Colorings like carmine, derived from insects
  • Glyceryl monostearate an anti-foaming agent that sometimes is an animal derivative from the breakdown of fats
  • Lactose and lactobacillus or lactic acid
  • Gelatin made from bones, skin, and tendons
  • Pepsin a heading agent sometimes derived from pigs
  • Sugar, which is often whitened using bone charcoal
  • Honey, derived from bees
  • Chitin, derived from the shells of crabs, lobsters, etc
  • And my personal favorite absurdity: isinglass, derived from the swim bladders of fish.

For those not familiar, a swim bladder, also known as gas bladder, fish maw or air bladder is an internal gas-filled organ that contributes to the ability of a fish to control its buoyancy, and thus to stay at its current water depth without having to waste energy.

Over the years, humans have used fish bladders for a wide array of uses from an Asian delicacy to a source of collagen for the food industry, to the production of isinglass for alcohol fining, to the creation of a strong, water-resistant glue, all the way to early condoms.  Yes, the first condoms were made from the swim bladders of fish and other items from the slaughterhouse, cause nothing sets the mood like stretching entrails over your naughty parts! [tweet this…if you dare]

So let’s quickly look at the application of these agents to the basic forms of alcohol.

First, we have beer.  The vegetarian society states that,

“real ale undergoes a secondary fermentation while it is being stored in the cask.  Cask-conditioned ales need fining to clear the material, such as the yeast suspended within the liquid.  This is typically done by adding isinglass, which is derived from the swim bladders of fish, to gather up the yeast and make it sink to the bottom of the cask.  Bottled naturally conditioned beers will not always have been treated with isinglass.  Keg beers and lagers are pasteurized and usually passed through chill filters, as are canned beers and some bottled beers.  However, a considerable number of breweries still use isinglass to clear their pasteurized beers.”

Second, there’s cider.  Some brands of cider are fined with the use of gelatin.

Third, we have wine. many of the previously listed animal derived ingredients are used in the processing of wines to improve appearance of the finished product.  The vegetarian society states that,

“Non animal alternatives do exist in the form of bentonite (impure clay), kieselguhr (sedimentary rock), kaolin (clay mineral) and silica gel. Also, methods such as centrifuging and filtering are becoming more popular.”

And lastly, there are spirits and liqueurs, most of which appear to be vegan-friendly.  However, it’s always best to be sure.

So how can you tell if any of this awesomeness is in your alcohol?  Well, looking at the ingredients label isn’t going to cut it.  Regulations for the labeling of alcoholic beverages vary widely by country.  For example, the European Commission regulations for alcoholic beverages only requires a complete list of ingredients for alcoholic beverages with strength by volume of 1.2% or less, meaning that only low or non-alcoholic beer, wines and ciders have to list all their ingredients.

You can find a list of labeling regulations by country, here or at the bottom of this post.

Luckily, there are many vegan-friendly options out there and a helpful website that is constantly cataloging them all: it’s called barnivore.com and is run by two vegans.  You can search for your particular drink and even contribute with information you have about others.  They do not, however, have information on what kind of glue is used for the bottle labels, as glue can be derived from connective tissue, bones, skin, or casein, so if you’re concerned, opt for a can.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a note about alcohol outside its potential animal content.  While drinking can be an enjoyable social lubricant and can be an entertaining addition to the evening when enjoyed responsibly, for alcoholics and addicts, it can be a completely life-destroying force.  I have seen people close to me have their lives fall down around them due to their drinking.  But I’ve also seen these very same people rise from that destruction through the help of treatment, a 12 step program, or other methods.  I will include some information in the resource section of this post.

I personally do not drink.  I’ve never found it appealing in the least, but drinking itself is not evil.  If you are responsible and not harming yourself or others–including non-human animals–then more power to you.  As I said earlier on, we vegans are just people, and as people, we have countless variations among us.  And that is to be celebrated, not policed for uniformity. [tweet this]

So, for those of you who do drink, you know not to get a DUI (driving under the influence), but now you can be sure not to get a CUI–cruelty under the influence–by going for the animal-free vegan-approved beverages. [tweet this]

I hope you enjoyed this tall drink of a nugget.  I'd love to hear from you on this topic. Were you aware of the animals in alcohol?  If you’re vegan, did you change your habits around alcohol at all with your dietary change?  If you’re not vegan but thinking about it, is this a consideration you’ve made or was it way off your radar?  Let me know in the comments!

See ya next nugget!

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Featured Videos:

Is Honey Vegan?

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What’s Really In Your Food (Warning, graphic).

Struggling With Alcohol?  Here Are Some Resources:

Alcoholics Anonymous

Is AA For You? Self Questionnaire 

Narcotics Anonymous (includes alcohol)

Am I An Addict? Self Test

SMART Recovery

RESOURCES:

Labeling Requirement by Country

Barnivore- The Ultimate Beer, Wine, & Liquor Guide

Vegetarian Society On Alcohol

Materials authorized for the treatment of wine and juice by the U.S. Government Publishing Office

Mandatory label information by the U.S. Government Publishing Office

European Labeling Requirements

A Sip n’ A Puff by Vegan South Africa

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9 Comments

  1. sally anne hubbard on 04/15/15 at 4:38 pm

    Would you believe I only learned of animal products in liquor a few weeks ago, who knew.

    I am not a drinker, just the occasional glass of wine but ?

  2. Carol on 04/15/15 at 7:42 pm

    I’ve never been a big drinker though I always liked to have a bottle or two of beer on the weekend. I went vegan last October around the same time that I subscribed to BSV and one of the first things I did was check out which brands of beer are vegan. But I have since found that I have gradually lost the taste for alcohol. I don’t know why and I don’t care. I love being vegan and I wish everyone would try it.

  3. Jenny Wall on 04/16/15 at 5:34 pm

    Hi Emily,
    I’ve never been a big drinker at all but sometimes being the only non-drinker in the room can be as hard as being the only vegan in the room! People just don’t get it and want to know exactly why you’re not drinking and you have to give them a reason that they consider valid. Hard work.
    I sometimes used to drink a certain cider brand (that would last me all evening) but found on barnivore that it wasn’t vegan frendly. So veganism has given me a much better reason to give for not drinking rather than that I just don’t want any alcohol, people seem more accepting of that :)

    • Emily Moran Barwick (BiteSizeVegan) on 04/17/15 at 1:16 pm

      thanks for sharing Jenny- i’m right there with you- didn’t make a lot of friends in college because drinking is how they bonded! it’s true people will look at you like your puppy just died when you say you don’t drink!

  4. James on 04/17/15 at 1:30 am

    In reality this makes no sense. It’s like comparing apples with raisins and their effect on how much the subjects felt like eating a three cheese pizza afterwards. Yes, something like that was a real study conducted once (not quite the same as I have stated here). Pleeeaasse give me strength!!! The problem with alcohol is that it inhibits the flow of blood to the tiny capillaries and similar fine brain capillaries, as alcohol clumps the blood together inhibiting the oxygen getting to these fine areas. In the case of the brain it means brain cells die, in most cases never to be replaced. It matters little how much of how little alcohol you drink, the process will be slower or faster, that’s all. I don’t want to be dumbed down unnecessarily, and most of us wouldn’t.

    • Emily Moran Barwick (BiteSizeVegan) on 04/17/15 at 1:14 pm

      thanks for your input James- and yes alcohol can be very damaging indeed- especially in excess!

    • Katherine on 02/1/17 at 11:15 pm

      Alcohol actually doesn’t kill brain cells, it affects dendrites, and people who drink moderately are actually LESS likely to have dementia or alzheimers in old age. So what you are saying is the paranoid equivalent of an urban legend. The reason why severe alcoholics seem slow is a combination of factors, including repeated black outs (moderate drinkers and even functional alcoholics usually do NOT have black outs) and also that people who stay drunk all the time are less likely to keep their minds active with reading and learning new things, which is what keeps your brain alive. You could stay totally sober and do nothing but watch sitcoms all day for years and seem less intelligent than a moderate drinker who still reads, takes classes or otherwise learns new things.

  5. EconDemocracy on 04/17/15 at 2:55 am

    They want a reason for not drinking alcohol? How about this one, I’m quoting from “5 alcohol facts you’re better off not knowing” but I know this from independent sources:

    “Yeast poop. When you get right down to it, the happy juice that makes you such a fun [person].. is yeast poop. Yeast eat sugar and drop a big, steaming loads of [alcohol] wherever they go. And they fart a lot too. Ever wonder what gives your bubbly its sparkly magic? About a million little guys with Irritable Bowel Syndrome”

    Of course, to avoid, “hey, where’s everyone going?” at the party, it might be more polite to just turn around their question around from “why don’t you drink?” to “why DO you choose to drink?” Then again, if the social dynamics make truth (usually the best policy but I know easier said than done..) hard, I think your trick of “Oh, it’s because I’m trying to be strictly vegan” is a clever idea :-)

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