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Additives and E Numbers unsuitable for Vegetarians and Vegans

When it comes to food product ingredients, additives aren’t usually the first thing that comes to mind, and yet for many foods they are still very much in the mix.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has a list of approved additives and E numbers that have been tested to prove they are safe for their intended use. This approved list can be seen here.

Now, with more people than ever choosing to go vegan or vegetarian, the demand for products to declare whether their ingredients are suitable for those diets is significant.

And since not all additives - commonly known by their E number - are suitable for consumers following vegetarian or vegan diets, it’s important to know which is which.

So we’ve put together a short guide to help you…

What are food additives?

Food additives are types of ingredients that can be added to food and drink products to carry out particular functions. They are grouped by the function they carry, and the common additive groups are:

  • Colours
  • Preservatives
  • Antioxidants
  • Sweeteners
  • Emulsifiers
  • Stabilisers
  • Thickeners

What are E numbers?

E (Europe) numbers are codes for substances used as food additives for use within the European Union (EU) and European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Each additive has a unique E number to make it easy to spot which ones have been used in a product.

Some E numbers, such as vitamin C, are naturally in many foods.

Do additives need to be included in an ingredients declaration?

Yes, any information about additives used must be displayed in the ingredients declaration. It will usually show what each additive does, followed by its name or E number.

Which E numbers are unsuitable for vegetarians and vegans?

These are the E numbers that are unsuitable for those following a vegan or vegetarian diet.

Carmine - E120

Also known as Cochineal, Carminic acid, Carmines E120 is most commonly found as a red food colouring in drinks, biscuits, sweets, desserts and sauces. It is unsuitable for vegetarians and vegans, as it is derived from the cochineal insect.

Edible bone phosphate - E542

E542 is often found in cosmetic products, toothpaste and nutritional supplements. However it can also be used as an anti-caking agent in dry foods. It is unsuitable for vegetarians and vegans, as it comes from the animal bones of cattle or pigs.

Shellac - E904

Shellac is often used as a glazing agent in confectionery, chocolate, chewing gum, coffee beans, and also to reduce moisture loss in fruit.

It is also commonly found in the pharmaceutical industry to create the coating used for capsules and tablets. It is unsuitable for vegans, as it is derived from a resin secreted by the female lac beetle.

Until recently, shellac wasn’t seen as being unsuitable for vegetarians. However, new guidance was published in 2021 excluding shellac as a permitted material in vegetarian or vegan products (ISO 23662: Definitions and technical criteria for foods and food ingredients suitable for vegetarians or vegans and for labelling and claims). Due to this update, as of January 2022 the Vegetarian Society of the UK no longer certifies any new products containing shellac with the Vegetarian Society Approved vegetarian trademark. Products previously certified have until 31st December 2023 to reformulate to remove the presence of shellac, or phase out any existing packaging to remove the vegetarian approved logo.

Previously the Vegetarian Society Approved vegetarian trademark was available to be displayed on shellac products that were able to demonstrate the quality of their lac beetle husbandry. Whilst the process of producing shellac has not changed, the guidance specifically on foods suitable for vegetarians has.

These are the E numbers which are unsuitable for vegans but are suitable for vegetarians:

Beeswax - E901

Beeswax is often used as a glazing agent in candles, chewing gum and cosmetic products. It is purified from naturally produced honeycomb produced by the worker honeybee.

Lanolin - E913

E913 is a naturally-occuring wax derived from sheep’s wool. It is often used in cosmetic products and chewing gum.

Lactitol - E966

Lactitol is produced from lactose, which is the sugar in cow’s milk. It is often used as a low-calorie sweetener in chewing gum and reduced calorie confectionery.

Lysozyme - E1105

Lysozyme is an enzyme found in egg white. It is often used as a preservative in food products, as it helps to inhibit the growth of many spoilage organisms, which helps to increase shelf life.

What are the E numbers sometimes suitable for vegans and/or vegetarians?

There are a number of additives and E numbers that are sometimes suitable for vegetarians and vegans.

It’s important to note that the ingredients won’t necessarily specify whether the additive is derived from animal origin, and in such a case we have listed the E numbers that are ones to watch out for below:

  • E101 Riboflavin
  • E160a(i) mixed carotenes
  • E160a(ii) beta-carotene
  • E270 Lactic acid
  • E304 Ascorbyl palmitate
  • E322 Lecithin
  • E325 Sodium lactate, sodium salt of lactic acid (also known as E270)
  • E326 Potassium lactate
  • E327 Calcium lactate
  • E422 Glycerol/Glycerine
  • E430 to E436
  • E442 Ammonium phosphatide
  • E470 Fatty acid salts
  • E471 Mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids, produced from glycerol (see E422) and natural fatty acids
  • E472 Esters of mono- and diglycerides, esters of synthetic fats, produced from glycerol, natural fatty acids and other organic acid (acetic, lactic, tartaric, citric)
  • E473 Sugar esters of fatty acid, produced from glycerol and natural fatty acid
  • E474 Sugarglycerides, esters of sugar and fats, produced from sugar and natural fats
  • E475 Polyglycerol esters of fatty acids
  • E477 Propane 1, 2 diol esters of fatty acids
  • E479 Thermally oxidised soyabean oil interacted with mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids
  • E481 Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate
  • E482 Calcium stearoyl-2-lactylate
  • E483 Stearyl tartrate
  • E491 to E495 Sorbitans
  • E570 Fatty acids
  • E631 Disodium inosinate
  • E635 Disodium 5’ribonucleotides
  • E920 L-cysteine

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