The Vegetarian Resource Group's Ingredient Classification Scheme/Evolution of Ingredients

By Jeanne Yacoubou, MS, VRG Research Director

When The Vegetarian Resource Group's Food Ingredients Guide was first published in 1997, animal sources of stearate compounds used in foods were common. Ingredient suppliers told us so at that time. However, over the past few years, several food ingredients suppliers and manufacturers have told The VRG that a general trend regarding ingredient sources is that whenever possible, non-animal sources are preferred. A major reason for this preference is lack of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) or avian influenza threats that many consumers associate with animal ingredients.

In 1997, because of stearates, The VRG Food Ingredient Guide initially gave anti-caking agents the "May Be Non-Vegetarian" classification. In light of current information about stearates, The VRG is now changing the classification for anti-caking agents to "Vegan*." The asterisk alerts consumers that the theoretical possibility exists that anti-caking agents calcium or magnesium stearate could be derived from animal sources, but practically speaking, on a commercial scale in 2015 in the United States, we have not found this to be the case. With the possible exception of stearate compounds, all other major anti-caking agents used today are non-animal-derived. Most are derived from petrochemicals and/or minerals.

The VRG has noticed that these days, many food companies and fast food chains indicate their sources of ingredients in parentheses after the ingredient on a label, especially for ingredients which could have multiple sources. A notable example is "natural flavors." Increasing consumer awareness, along with greater numbers of people asking food companies more questions about their ingredients, contribute to greater corporate transparency. This higher degree of labeling precision was not evident 20 or more years ago.

For the first time, we recently found a label that specifies that the calcium stearate is vegetable-based:

Smarties® candy has a vegan statement on its website regarding its source of calcium stearate:

Subway® Canada (but not Subway U.S.) lists calcium stearate in its Honey Oat Bread. Consumer service representatives told us by phone and email that their source is "plant-derived."

More information on ingredients can be found at

The contents of this article, our website and our other publications, including 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 statements. It is impossible to be 100% sure about a statement, info can change, people have different views, and mistakes can be made. Please use your best judgement about whether a product is suitable for you. To be sure, do further research.