by Jeanne Yacoubou, MS
VRG Research Director
In October 2011, The VRG received an email from a self-described "raw foods vegan" asking about our classification of riboflavin and niacin in The VRG's Guide to Food Ingredients as "typically vegan" rather than "vegan." She was puzzled because we had classified them as being commercially produced synthetically or microbially. Both of these production methods are described as "vegan" in the Introduction to our Guide, so the reader thought they should be labeled as "vegan." The reader had no success in getting answers about riboflavin and niacin from companies so asked us to look into it.
Recent investigation into these two B vitamins, often found in fortified foods as well as nutritional supplements, proved that they still are largely produced by synthetic methods and by microbial fermentation using all-vegetable growth media for the microbes. However, the VRG conservatively classified niacin and riboflavin as "typically vegan" because of the possibility that these vitamins, widely found in animal products such as milk, organ meats and eggs, could be derived from animal sources in rare cases.
This could be the case, for example, in "natural" products containing these vitamins. Because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not as of yet legally defined the term "natural," companies can and do interpret it broadly. Thus, even if in almost all cases, the commercial sources for niacin and riboflavin are "vegan" as we have defined the word in the Introduction to our Food Ingredients Guide (as mentioned above), we cautiously classify them as "typically vegan" to account for cases where animal products may be used.
The VRG asked several manufacturers of niacin and riboflavin in December 2011 about their starting materials. Lonza, the world's largest manufacturer of niacin, wrote that they start with liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and other non-animal chemicals. Smaller companies, such as Mason, said that their "natural" niacin was "synthetically derived," while Natural Factors said that their niacin was "a fermented, animal product-free vitamin." Wonder Labs emailed us that their niacin was "produced by microorganisms in the lab…and does not have any animal products in it. It is vegetarian/vegan." NOW Foods said that "niacin's been synthesized chemically for years…I don't think microbes are used at all."
PAT Vitamins carries riboflavin products made through "fermentation using corn starch as the growth medium." Jarrow told us that their riboflavin is "chemically synthesized." Nature's Way told The VRG that they use "a natural fermentation process starting with growth media that contain no animal products." A customer service representative at Nature's Way added that "…because there is not enough riboflavin in natural foods to extract it, it would be cost prohibitive [to source it that way]." She referred to the fermentation product as "‘synthetic' meaning ‘re-created.'" Furthermore, since additional processing is involved, Nature's Way calls its fermentation-produced riboflavin "synthetic."
However, not all companies manufacture riboflavin through chemical synthesis or microbial fermentation. The VRG spoke in January 2012 with Dee Cee Laboratories, who told us that their "natural" riboflavin was an extract of beef, specifically beef liver and kidney concentrate. The VRG called a second time to confirm that this was true and we received that confirmation.
The VRG encourages all readers to contact manufacturers when in doubt about food or supplement ingredients. Note that often, companies distribute products made by other companies so more than one call or email may be required. Double checking on a different day and asking someone else at the company may also be warranted if you receive questionable information. Remember that human beings aren’t perfect. A main goal of being vegan is to do the best you can, work towards a better world, and not be critical of others.
The contents of this article, our website, and our other publications, including The Vegetarian Journal, are not intended to provide personal medical advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health professional. We often depend on product and ingredient information from company employees or company statements.Information does change and mistakes are always possible. Please use your own best judgment about whether a product is suitable for you. Further research or confirmation may be warranted.
For more information on food ingredients and to purchase The VRG's Guide to Food Ingredients, visit http://www.vrg.org/ingredients/index.php
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