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Lactic acid sounds pretty similar to a no-go ingredient for vegans: lactose. But are they really the same thing? Turns out, no. In fact, lactic acid is related to lactose but is not the same compound, nor does lactic acid necessarily come from dairy products like milk and cheese.
But where does lactic acid come from, and is lactic acid vegan in general? Today, let’s answer both of these questions and more and explore what lactic acid is, what is used for, and where you can find it.
Lactic Acid Explained
Almost everyone has heard of lactic acid at some point, and that’s because it’s one of the most common acidic ingredients in our modern markets. But lactic acid is also a natural acid produced from animal products and other sources.
However, lactic acid isn’t always found in dairy products despite the root it shares with lactose, a natural dairy-based sugar. Additionally, lactic acid itself is not dairy or milk in any capacity. Instead, it’s an organic acid that forms when bacteria or other food compounds ferment.
Fermentation produces lactic acid, and synthetic lactic acid can also be produced in a laboratory environment. In the body, lactic acid builds up in your muscles when you exercise and is partially responsible for the burning effect you may experience as your muscles become fatigued or strained. Your body makes lactic acid in its red blood cells and muscle cells when carbohydrates are broken down to use their stored energy.
Where Can You Find Lactic Acid?
Lactic acid can be found in a variety of foods. Remember, the core process to make lactic acid is fermentation, not necessarily dairy or animal production processes.
For example, you can find lactic acid in:
- Pickled vegetables, like pickles, onions, and so on
- Sourdough bread, which uses fermented bacteria as a key part of the baking process
- Beer, wine, and other alcoholic products. When making alcohol, fermentation is a key part of the process
- Fermented soy foods such as miso or soy sauce
- Fermented vegetables and grains of any variety
- Fermented dairy products like yogurt and kefir
- Salami, which is a type of fermented meat
- Salad dressings and spreads
- Sauces like the jalapeno hot sauce
- Dairy products like milk and cheese, of course
In all of these examples and more, lactic acid helps to provide the tingly, tangy, or sour flavors you probably associate with these foods.
So, is Lactic Acid Vegan?
As you can see, lactic acid can be vegan, and you might even consider it to be always vegan since it’s not limited to dairy products. But there’s also no denying that lactic acid, or at least its source products, is not always vegan. For example, yogurt and milk are definitely not vegan by definition, so the lactic acid you get from those products isn’t vegan by extension.
That being said, any man-made lactic acid should be vegan, although this depends on the manufacturing or synthesizing processes. For many vegans, a food product or ingredient can only be vegan if no animals or animal products are used in any step of the production process.
So if lactic acid is synthesized from milk, for example, the resulting lactic acid will not be vegan. Lactic acid made from alternative methods could count as vegan, though.
Naturally, the lactic acid made in your body is vegan since it’s produced by many of your muscle and red blood cells as part of normal carbohydrate processing.
How is Lactic Acid Made?
It depends on the food product containing the lactic acid or the design principles of the manufacturer in question. These days, lots of lactic acid manufacturers use either beet sugar or cornstarch in order to make lactic acid.
Regardless, lactic acid is always made when bacteria break down carbohydrates for energy during the basic fermentation process. In this process, bacteria feed on the sugar or glucose, giving themselves energy. The bacteria then produce lactic acid as a byproduct.
These bacteria include enterococcus, lactococcus, lactobacillus, and more. In a laboratory environment, manufacturers may create lactic acid simply by giving bacterial colonies of these species some sugar and collecting the lactic acid they make as a result.
That being said, if you ever choose a skincare product or food product that contains lactic acid, do your own research to discover the manufacturing processes behind the lactic acid. Many companies are upfront about their manufacturing methods. Plus, companies that want to be seen as organic or vegan friendly will usually be quick to say how they make their lactic acid to alleviate any concerns.
How to Tell if Lactic Acid is Vegan or Not
Even with your own research, it can be tough to know whether lactic acid is vegan or not. Fortunately, there are multiple resources you can check out. These include the Vegetarian Resource Group, which also states that the majority of lactic acid comes from plant-based sources.
Remember, the FDA does not require any copies that use lactic acid to list their source or manufacturing methods by default. So it’s up to you to take your diet into your own hands and make sure you don’t consume lactic acid that comes from an animal product like milk or cheese.
Summary: Is Lactic Acid Safe for Vegans?
All in all, lactic acid should be safe for all vegans whether you eat the lactic acid in food or if you use a skincare product or supplement that contains lactic acid is one of its active ingredients. That’s because most lactic acid comes from plant-based sources rather than animal products like milk or cheese.
Still, lactic acid can be non-vegan depending on its original source and manufacturing methods. You may need to do some research about a product or skincare solution before using or consuming them if it has lactic acid just to be safe.
Want to know more about vegan ingredients or what foods are suitable for vegan diners? Check out our extensive collection of vegan answers and guides today!