As consumer interest in vegan products continues to rise, Lucy Britner investigates why some drinks aren’t vegan and others remain uncertified
Whether a product is vegan or not seems like it should be straightforward. But there is no legal definition of vegan – and labelling is voluntary.
There’s also the question of where the assessment of vegan ends – are we just looking at the liquid or should packaging, labels, ink and glue be taken into consideration? And what if a producer uses a third party for packing? Or ages a product in a barrel that has previously contained something else?
Canned wine producer Vinca shouts about being vegan in its marketing material. And co-founder Jack Green says the question it gets the most from consumers is: “Why isn’t wine vegan already?”
He says: “The most visited blog post on our website is the one where we explain what vegan wine is.”
At the moment, Vinca is certified by Vegan OK and carries the message “suitable for vegans” on its cans, and Green says the company is working on becoming certified by The Vegan Society, which will allow Vinca to use the trademark. He believes these measures are important for consumers.
CERTIFIED OR NOT?
Amelia Wallage, trademark account manager at The Vegan Society, confirms that vegan/vegetarian labelling is voluntary and terms such as “suitable for vegans” can be added by a company without a third-party audit.
“If the labelling is misleading, the consumer can complain to Trading Standards, who would usually take the definitions of The Vegetarian Society and The Vegan Society and look to see if it meets those standards,” she adds.
At Kingsland Drinks, Jo Taylorson, head of marketing and product management, says producers complete a specification which lists all the ingredients, so the company can determine whether or not any animal products have been used. “Generally, when companies state vegan, they mean the product and not the packaging,” she says.
“There are vegan papers, but the issue we have had in the past is traceability of whether glue and/or ink is vegan-friendly.”
Taylorson says more wineries are concentrating on producing wines that are suitable for vegans now than they were a few years back, however the big difference over the last few years is the labelling aspect.
“Many wines will have been suitable for vegans for years, but just haven’t been labelled as such, as veganism wasn’t as prevalent,” she explains.
“More wines are labelled as ‘suitable for vegans’ rather than certified. If you look at key retailer own-label wines, this is what they choose to use,” she adds.
That’s not to say the number of certified products hasn’t increased. The Vegan Society’s Vegan trademark has 419 certified alcoholic drinks from UK-based companies, up from 169 two years ago.
“More than 90% of vegans and vegetarians look for vegan verification on products before purchasing, and 85% believe third party certification is important,” says Wallage. “The Vegan Trademark makes it clear to a customer that a product is completely free of animal products. This can be particularly advantageous in the alcohol industry, as alcohol does not always list raw materials, which can make it difficult as a consumer to check that it’s vegan.”
This certainly resonates with James Halliday from South Downs Cellars, who has seen more interest in vegan products – and makes a point of asking producers if their drinks are vegan-friendly. “I believe a lot of producers don’t know what they can legally state. Some, I think, just can’t be bothered, and some probably don’t realise how many people are actually wanting vegan products,” he says.
“When we reach out to wineries across the world, they come back with just yes or no; occasionally we get a reply saying they are looking into becoming vegan. I do think a lot of the time they are a little surprised we are asking.”
Of course, there is a cost attached to gaining The Vegan Society’s certification, though Wallage says the pricing structure for the Vegan Trademark takes into account a variety of factors, including annual turnover. “We do have a sliding scale of fees, so smaller companies pay less,” she adds.
At Vinca, Green says becoming certified will clear up any grey areas for drinkers.
“I believe we have the same issue with the vegan definition as we do with sustainability,” says Green. “The great thing about vegan is it is much more black and white: you either use products derived from animals or you don’t.
“The only way you can police it is to sign up for one of the vegan certified bodies that carry out audits. This also gives consumer confidence in the product.” And as provenance remains important to consumers, confidence in the product is key.
WHY ISN’T ALL BEER VEGAN?
The main non-vegan component in wine and beer comes in at the fining stage, where products such as isinglass can be used in the process. And while some producers use vegan-friendly alternatives, there are often practical reasons why others don’t.
Fergus Fitzgerald, production director at Adnams Brewery, explains how isinglass works. “We add isinglass as it helps the yeast to bond together, and so drop out of the beer quicker, leaving the beer bright,” he says, adding that it’s still the only finings agent that works for Adnams.
“There are other non-animal finings agents available,” he says, “but they don’t work as well over the seven or eight cycles that we need, each cycle being when the beer is moved. The bonds between the finings and the yeast are broken and then it’s left to settle again and the charge in the finings attracts the yeast again.”
Every time the beer is settled then moved is a “cycle”, and the effectiveness of the charge seems to lessen with each cycle, Fitzgerald explains, with isinglass maintaining that charge over the most cycles.
“It is possible to use vegan finings as long as we condition the beer in tank for a week longer, and if we know customers will accept a light haze on that beer. But for the majority of our cask beer we don’t have the tank capacity to do that, and we know for many of our customers clarity is still seen as a sign of quality,” he adds.
For beer packaged into keg or mini-keg on site, the brewer doesn’t use isinglass as the yeast is removed by centrifuge. And while Fitzgerald says there’s no isinglass used for its main bottled or canned beers, “whether it’s vegan or not will then depend on the packager, as we don’t pack it here.”