Animal fat: by any other name it would still be the same vile substance. Tallow, suet and lard are all well-known forms of this awful ingredient, but what about glycerin and glycerides, and what does it mean when a label lists ‘stearic acid’ or ‘palmitic acid’?
The short answer is, if you have any concerns about ingesting or using substances derived from someone else’s body fat, then it would be wise to do a little further investigation before making use of something containing any of the aforementioned ingredients.
Stearic Acid, Lauric Acid, Myristic Acid, Oleic Acid and Palmitic Acid are all names for fatty acids – produced from natural fats and oils – that are added to soaps, cosmetics, personal care products, and some foods including margarine, shortening and other baking ingredients.
While each of these substances can be derived from plants, they are frequently obtained from a slaughterhouse by-product known as tallow or animal fat.
Tallow is a euphemism for body fat from cows, sheep and pigs. According to one website:
“Typically, tallow starts with the extraction of suet from a carcass. Suet is hard fat found in the neighborhood of the kidneys and around some other organs… Beef, pig, and mutton tallow are all fairly common. Tallow is also rendered from animals like horses.“
Next: Where do animal fats hide?
The main components in rendered animal fats are oleic, palmitic, stearic, palmitoleic, linoleic and myristic acid. In other words, if you see any of these terms in an ingredients list, you may be looking at a substance sourced from animal tallow (or another animal-based source), and would be wise to contact the company to find out the ingredient’s origin.
As well as in the food industry, tallow and other animal fats are used for pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, personal care products, inks, paints, coatings, adhesives, lubricant and soaps. Tallow is also used in industrial animal feed and in bird food, believe it or not.
Historically, tallow was used to make candles, producing a cheaper alternative to wax candles. It is used as a lubricant for machinery and for ammunition. Tallow is also the primary ingredient in some leather conditioners. In Germany, deer tallow is commonly used as a base ingredient in salves.
Stearic acid – one of the most common fatty acids, especially in soaps – is a wax-like fatty acid, frequently sourced from tallow, with smaller amounts obtained from herrings and sardines.
While plant oils such as cotton, coconut, palm, castor beans, rapeseed, soy, and sunflowers are also natural sources of stearic acid, most of the plant-based sources are more commonly used in third-world countries. Almost all stearic acid in the US is made from tallow and coconut oil, with smaller amounts coming from palm oil.
In addition to soap making, stearic acid is used to form stable creams, lotions and ointments. It is also frequently used in products such as deodorants and antiperspirants, foundation creams, hand lotions, hair straightening products, and shaving creams.
Stearic acid is also used as a softener in chewing gum base and for suppositories. It may be further refined to form stearyl alcohol, which is used in a variety of industrial and cosmetic products as a thickener and lubricant. It can also be used in candles to modify the melting point of the wax.
Other fatty acids are used in a variety of cosmetic creams, cakes, soaps and pastes. Myristic Acid can be produced from nutmeg, palm kernel oil and coconut oil, but is also often sourced from butter fat and is a minor component of many other animal fats. It is also found in spermaceti, which is created in the spermaceti organ inside the head of a sperm whale.
Oleic acid is a mono-unsaturated omega-9 fatty acid found in various animal and vegetable sources. Palmitic acid is one of the most common saturated fatty acids found in animals and plants. It is a major component of the oil from palm trees (palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil). However, palmitic acid can also be found in butter, cheese, milk and animal flesh.
Lauric acid is the main acid in coconut oil and in palm oil, but is also found in human milk, cow’s milk, and goat’s milk. While you don’t need to be concerned that human-based fatty acids might show up in your food or cosmetics, it’s a sad fact that one can’t be so sure about the other animal-based sources.
Glycerin(e) or Glycerol (labeled E422 in food) is a byproduct of soap manufacturing, and can be either synthetic, or derived from plants (usually soybeans) or animals (usually tallow). It can also be a blend of both animal and vegetable oils. Glycerides (mono/di/and tri) tend to be derived from animal fats, and are used frequently by the food industry.
A 2010 report from The Vegetarian Resource Group found that glycerin is usually derived from plant materials when used in food. However, especially in the case of cosmetics and in bath and body products, this is not a guarantee, so unless the label lists the ingredient as ‘vegetable glycerin’ it is advisable to contact the company.
In the food industry, glycerin is used as a humectant, solvent and sweetener. It is also used as a filler in commercially prepared low-fat foods (like cookies), and as a thickening agent in liqueurs. Polyglycerol (a derivative) can be found in some shortening and margarine.
As well as being present in many processed foods, glycerin is used in soaps, toothpastes, mouthwashes, chewing gum, ointments, pharmaceutical formulations, cough syrups, elixirs and expectorants. It is also used extensively in cosmetics, including in perfumes and lotions, skin care products, shaving cream, hair care products, and water-based personal lubricants. It even makes its way into inks, glues and plastics, lubricants, anti-freeze, and brake fluid.
So, once again, the concerned consumer might ask herself the question: “Is it possible to avoid the use of all animal products?”
But to many of us, the more important question is this: “If I cannot avoid the use of all animal products, does that mean that I shouldn’t try to avoid them wherever possible?”
The answer, of course, is that while it’s not possible to be 100% vegan in a world that uses the body parts of animals for everything under the sun, there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t do our absolute best to avoid these ingredients whenever we can.
When a person is committed to avoiding animal ingredients, it doesn’t mean going without any of the products mentioned above, as there are now vegan alternatives for virtually everything a person could need.
Certainly, there are times when we might experience a ‘slip’ due to the fact that we’re not aware of a hidden ingredient, but the more we can do to inform ourselves about what these ingredients are and how to identify them, the more empowered we will be to make choices that are in alignment with our values.
with M. Butterflies Katz