Insect secretions on fruit–what should vegans do?

Yesterday I posted a photo of my favourite brand of fruit smoothies, Innocent, on Instagram because I was pleasantly surprised to find them for sale at Starbucks. I had a coffee date with a friend and ordered these instead since I’ve quit coffee and caffeine.

Someone on Instagram questioned the vegan status of these smoothies, as she thought Innocent smoothies used shellac.

Is shellac vegan?

Shellac is not vegan as it is a resinous secretion produced by tiny lac insects. Innocent smoothies sometimes use freshly squeezed lemon and lime juice so there is a very small chance that a tiny amount of shellac could be present in some of their smoothies or juice. That is why Innocent doesn’t guarantee that their drinks are shellac-free, and why they don’t label them as suitable for vegans.

Industrial uses of shellac.

Shellac is primarily used as a wood sealer and finisher. It is used in floor polishes, inks, wheels, and electrical insulations, in addition to violas, guitars, pianos, and woodwind instruments (in the pads). Handlebar tape for bicycles typically contain shellac, as well as the tires. Shellac is non-toxic and is even Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved for use on baby and children’s furniture. It’s everywhere!

You’ve probably eaten it before.

Shellac is also used to glaze pharmaceutical pills and hard candies to give them a shiny finish. This is why Jelly Belly jelly beans are so shiny! It is commonly labeled as confectioner’s glaze. You may not realise this unless you are a baking extraordinaire, but vegan sprinkles are very difficult to find. Sadly, lots of sprinkles used for cakes and cookies contain confectioner’s glaze. Also, watch out for smooth hard shiny candies, like chocolate coated peanuts or raisins because they are usually coated with confectioner’s glaze as well! (Shellac has the food additive E number E904.)

Waxed fruits and veggies.

Some fruits and veggies are waxed to prevent moisture loss and prolong their shelf life. Carnauba wax (from the carnauba palm tree), beeswax, shellac, and synthetic petroleum-based waxes can all be used on produce.

Commonly waxed fruits and veggies include:

  • Cucumbers
  • Bell peppers
  • Eggplant
  • Potatoes
  • Apples
  • Lemons and Limes
  • Oranges

Some people have recommended that I only purchase organic produce to avoid shellac, but there’s no guarantee that organic produce is free from it! Organically grown fruits and vegetables are not coated in synthetic wax but shellac and carnauba wax are still allowed on certified organic produce.

The production process.

Shellac is produced by tiny red insects known as lac bugs. These insects are parasitic on lac trees in India and Thailand.

According to How Products Are Made:

Swarms of the insects feed on certain Shellac trees, primarily in India and Thailand, known informally as lac trees. The lac bugs’ life cycle is only six months, in which time they eat, propagate, and secrete the resin they’ve taken in from the tree to produce shellac.

In certain seasons of the year, these insects swarm in huge numbers on the trees, settle on branches, and project protrusions into the tree to penetrate the bark. They suck up the sap and absorb it until they feed themselves to death (called the feast of death amongst the indigenous peoples). At this same time, propagation continues, with each female lac bug laying about 1,000 eggs before dying.

The sap is chemically altered in the lac bug’s body and is then exuded onto the tree branch. On contact with the air, the excretion forms a hard shell-like covering over the entire swarm. This covering forms a crust over the twig and insects. As the female lac bug is exuding the ingested sap she is preparing to die and is providing a fluid in which her eggs will mature under protection. The males’ role is to fertilize the female, and it is after fertilization that the females’ lac output is vastly increased. The adult males and females become inactive, and the young start to break through the crust and swarm out.

Only then are branches of these trees removed and transported to refineries for further processing.

Is shellac production cruel?

Based on my research today, I would say that shellac production is most likely not cruel. However, I still don’t have enough information to make a judgement either way. I’m interested to find out if these lac bugs are maintained specifically for shellac production or if these bugs swarm these trees naturally and we simply happen to take advantage of this by-product of their life cycle.

What should vegans do?

Even if shellac production isn’t cruel, vegans can still make the argument that we should avoid any products relying on shellac production because it uses other animals as resources.

But sometimes vegans benefit directly from insects and we can’t avoid it. Crops are pollinated by commercially managed bee colonies. Insect pests on crops are controlled by other insects in lieu of chemical pesticides. In these situations, insects live and die just to pollinate or protect our food. Does this mean we shouldn’t eat any crops where insects are used as a resource?

Ideally, we should avoid shellac as much as possible since it isn’t vegan by definition. If you want to avoid shellac at all costs, by all means go ahead. You might be able to find unwaxed lemons and limes, but I don’t think it is practical to avoid entire groups of fruits or veggies, like all fresh citrus fruit, fresh and processed juices or smoothies, and anything citrus-flavoured because of the minute possibility of shellac cross-contamination.

To me, being vegan means avoiding animal products and situations where animals are used as resources as much as I can. Trying to pursue veganism perfectly is impossible. The grim reality is that we can never be 100% certain that we are completely avoiding cruelty to animals, as every aspect of our life is tainted by animal testing and animal products (rather obscure ones, too). Not only are we faced with the collateral damage of animals killed in crop production, the very existence of a thriving human population negatively affects the lives of animals and the environment (an overwhelming understatement if there ever was one!).

That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to avoid cruelty when we can, but there are situations where vegans may need to use substances (like medicine, for example), that have been tested on animals. It would be ludicrous to say these people shouldn’t take their medication or that they are no longer vegan if they do so.

As vegans, we should always try to do the best we can. Focus on the practicality of avoiding harm rather than the absolute theory of veganism. I will avoid any products containing shellac, but will still continue to eat citrus fruits and drink Innocent smoothies.

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7 thoughts on “Insect secretions on fruit–what should vegans do?

    1. Thanks! You’re right. Vegans have a lot to consider because animal products are so prevalent in every aspect of our lives. I try not to get overwhelmed though. Just take it one day at a time and do the best you can. Good luck and I hope you continue to explore veganism! 🙂

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