What’s That Glaze on Your Vitamins?

Many people may not be aware that the glaze that covers some of their favorite products – including vitamins, pharmaceuticals, candy and even some fruit – may actually be made from shellac; a resin made from the secretions of the female lac insect.

When used in food and confections, shellac has the food additive number E904, and is described on food labels as ‘confectioner’s glaze’, ‘confectioner’s resin’, ‘resinous glaze’, ‘candy glaze’, ‘pure food glaze’ and ‘natural glaze’.

The main uses of shellac in confectionery are to do with coating chocolate goods, such as candy-covered nuts and raisins, and similar products. But what many people may not realize is that it’s also used as a coating on some nutritional supplements, medicines, fruit, and even coffee beans.

Image: Carlos Porto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Laccifer lacca is a small insect about the size and color of an apple seed, which swarms on certain trees in India and Thailand. During the larval stage of its life-cycle, the lac insect creates a hard, waterproof, communal protective shell as a cocoon in which to mature and then mate.

The encrusted resin that forms this shell is scraped off the branches where the insects nest. This raw material, known as ‘sticklac’, as well as being the basis for shellac, is also used for the production of ‘lac dye’, a red pigment from the crushed bodies of the insects, much like cochineal or carmine. If lac dye is the primary product being made, the lac resin is harvested before the males have emerged from their cocoons, and the sticklac is dried in the sun to kill the beetles.

As well as being a traditional cosmetic in India, lac dye is primarily used to dye leather, silk and wool. However, it is also used as a coloring in some foods and soft drinks. According to one manufacturer’s website, “Lac dye can be used in juice drinks, carbonated drinks, wine, candy, jam and sauce.”

Some sources say that approximately 300,000 lac insects are killed to produce 1kg of lac, and that annual production is estimated at 20,000 tons globally. The main importers of lac products are Egypt, Germany, Indonesia, Italy and the United States.

Image: thanunkorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Shellac is also used as a pharmaceutical glaze, and serves as a coating material for tablets and capsules, particularly in time-released or delayed-action pills, since it stops the pill from breaking down in the stomach.

Also known as ‘gum lac’, shellac also finds its way into household products such as sealing wax, adhesives, polish and varnish; in cosmetics such as hairsprays, mascara, nail polish, perfume and lipstick (and yes, there are vegan alternatives for all of these); as a binding agent in printing inks and paints; and in agriculture – coating urea to produce a slow releasing fertilizer.

Is there a vegan alternative to shellac? Of course! Zein, a corn protein, is a competitive non-animal-based product. Pure zein is clear, odorless, tasteless, hard, water-insoluble, and edible. It is already used as a coating for candy, nuts, fruit, pills, and other encapsulated foods and drugs. In the United States, it may also be labeled as ‘confectioner’s glaze’. NOTE: As well as sometimes being made from shellac, confectioner’s glaze can also contain beeswax.

So, what do you do if you want to know whether that shine on your candy comes from an animal or a plant? Call the company, of course! Not only does making that call give you a definitive answer as to the origin of the ingredient, but it also lets the company know that there is an increasing demand for vegan alternatives to shellac and other animal-based ingredients that are, frankly, archaic.

Gentle World is a vegan intentional community and non-profit organization, whose core purpose is to help build a more peaceful society, by educating the public about the reasons for being vegan, the benefits of vegan living, and how to go about making such a transition. For more information, visit the Gentle World website and subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

Related Stories:
The Gross Truth about Natural Colors
The Gross Truth About Natural Flavors
Are Animal Fats Hiding In Your Favorite Products?

Image: thanunkorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Ganaisha Calvin
Ganaisha Calvin2 years ago

thanks for sharing

Tamara Austin
Tamara Austin4 years ago

Interesting and informative, should I mourn the insect?

Zazgyva A.
Zazgyva A.4 years ago

very nice

Marie Therese H.
Marie Therese H.4 years ago

That was enlightening!

Darla G.
Darla G.4 years ago


Pego R.
Pego R.4 years ago

Thanks Lynda

I should have posted that. I laughed myself silly when when I 1st read it. The farmers in India are brilliant.

colleen p.
colleen p.4 years ago

it is good some people "care" about insects. to me, it seems animal rights people only care for cute mammals.

Lu Ann P.
Past Member 4 years ago

I am speechless. Still trying to ... digest... the info.

Can you pls list the sources, where you find all this info?


Bridget M.
Past Member 4 years ago

It isn't any worse than what's in most of the packaged food on the store shelves: hair, feathers, wood pulp, more bugs, all by another name. But, uh, yum. And I agree with Sue Horwood. Corn and its derivatives...what a horror. It's in everything and it's not fun if you can't tolerate it.

Lynda H.
Lynda H.4 years ago

Sharon, there is no need to be alarmed. Despite the emotion-manipulative wording in this article, the insects are NOT killed. The “bug parts” are from lac bugs that have died of natural causes or from other insects who have entered the sticklac tunnel, and they are filtered out, along with bark fibres, through natural cotton fabric. The lac bug is NOT crushed up for dye: many trees that it feeds on have highly-coloured sap. It is in the best interests of the people of India and Thailand to keep the insects alive, as a dead insect will produce no income.

For anyone interested in the facts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shellac