Have you noticed the word ‘lactic acid’ on a product label?
If “lac” means milk, then lactic acid should be some sort of milk product or something similar to it, right? Well, while it has some logic to it, the popular etymology does not apply to it this time.
Still, the question stands, is lactic acid vegan? It is found in an astoundingly wide range of foods like ready meals, bakery products, and beverages, and if you are wondering what it really is, then you have to keep reading.
To set the record straight, lactic acid is NOT milk. It’s a naturally-occuring substance in the human body, and a product of carbohydrate fermentation.
So to answer the question, although lactic acid can be not vegan, in most cases it is vegan-friendly.
What Is Lactic Acid?
Lactic acid is one of the most common AHAs that has a wide variety of use. It was given its name (which means milk) after its first discovery in sour milk that had gone through fermentation.
This is also another reason to think that lactic acid is not vegan. However, while it can be a byproduct of milk, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all lactic acids are from milk. In fact, that’s far from the case.
Most lactic acids for industrial use are made by fermenting vegan-friendly food items.
Lactic acid is an organic compound, but it can also be synthesized from chemicals.
For lactic acid to form, specific gram-positive acidic bacteria must be present. This bacteria is the one responsible for the fermentation process that results in lactic acid formation in certain foods.
Other Names Of Lactic Acid
Most compounds and substances have more than one name, some of which are after their chemical structures.
As an example, some labels will list lactic acid in different names. Here are the other names you might see on labels. They are all lactic acid:
- Milk acid
- DL-lactic acid
- L-lactic acid
- 2-hydroxypropanoic acid
- 2-hydroxypropionic acid
Lactate vs Lactic Acid vs Lactose
Lactate is lactic acid minus one proton. While the chemical difference is really small, the confusion between these two is bigger than one might think.
For example, the substance that the body produces during exercise which causes muscle pain is commonly known as lactic acid. This substance is actually lactate and NOT lactic acid. Lactate is from lactic acid, and is the form that the body actually uses.
Contrary to popular belief, lactate causes sore muscles to prevent overuse and keep the muscle from failing. Think of it as your body’s way of sending out a warning to prevent muscle injury. More studies also continue to debunk the common myths about the presence of lactic acid in the muscles.
Lactic acid may pertain to two things: (1) the lactic acid bacteria that ferments the carbohydrates, and (2) the resulting acidic compound from that fermentation process by lactic acid bacteria.
In the food industry, additives that have lactate in it are products of lactic acid. Potassium lactate, sodium lactate, and calcium lactate are the most common examples. These salts are all vegan.
On the other hand, lactose is the carbohydrate found directly in milk. When left for fermentation, since it’s a carbohydrate, lactose is eventually broken down by lactic acid bacteria.
So, is lactic acid dairy?
In a gist, lactate and lactic acid are not dairy items in essence. While lactic acid can be found in dairy after fermentation, most lactic acids used as food additives are from grain sources. Lactose, on the contrary, is always from a dairy source, which is milk.
Lactic Acid From Lactose
Now that the differences are clearer, The next question you might have is, “is lactic acid from lactose vegan?”. Once lactose is broken down by lactic acid, will there still be significant amounts of lactose molecules present?
Lactic acid from lactose is not vegan.
To be more precise, even after lactose is broken down, individual molecules from it will still be present.
Depending on one’s level of sensitivity (lactose intolerance), it may still trigger reactions. However, one will have to be extremely and seriously sensitive to lactose for this to happen.
For us vegans, this means that we should avoid lactic acids from dairy sources. So if you’re a vegan or lactose intolerant, I suggest that you should be careful with lactic acid.
The challenge though is finding out if the lactic acid you’re looking at is from dairy or grain substrates.
Uses Of Lactic Acid In Food Processing
Here comes the important part. Were you wondering why many food products contain lactic acid as an additive? You might find it a surprise how this acid has a lot of uses just in the food industry alone.
Preservative – it can help to preserve the freshness of food longer, thereby also preserving natural flavors. Fruit and vegetable salads, for example, will stay fresher longer with the help from this acid. Since it can help to preserve the structure of food, it can also protect its natural color and texture.
Flavor/Acidulant – foods, but mostly drinks with citrus flavors usually have added lactic acid in it to sharpen the flavor.
pH regulator – if a food item needs to maintain its acidity either for flavor or preservation, lactic acid can also help.
Shelf life extender – lactic acid is a common additive in meats (not that we eat it of course) and similar products. It helps to keep fresh food items from going stale fast
Antimicrobial – it can also help to prevent excessive microbial growth in food by neutralizing microorganisms that attempt to invade food products.
Microbial stability for flavor – for foods that require acidic fermentation for its flavor, lactic acid is one of the most common additives of choice. A common example is pickles.
Common Food Products That Use Lactic Acid As An Additive
These are the food items that usually have added lactic acid in them, as their labels would tell you. Some labels would indicate the lactic acid source although most of them won’t give you any clue.
- Flavored beverages
- Fruit and vegetable salads
For the not obvious vegan items on the list, it will often be nearly impossible to find out the lactic acid source.
Usually, the only way to find out is by asking the manufacturers. However, this may take ages as they will likely have to trace it first if the information is not readily available.
If trace amounts of lactose (if ever) do not bother you, then you don’t need to worry. The good news is, if you’re in the U.S., lactic acid additives are most likely vegan.
Non-Food Uses Of Lactic Acid
Beyond the food industry, lactic acid continues to be quite useful. Here are some of the many non-food items that also get a helping hand from good ol’ lactic acid:
- Biodegradable plastics
- Biomaterials and medical devices
- Cleaning products
- Cosmetic products
- Dishwashing products
- Electrical products
- Furniture care products
- Healthcare products
- Laundry products
- Leather and textile production
- Paint and coating additives
- Pharmaceutical products
- Skincare products
Vegans also apply the same principle in food choices when it comes to non-food products. I’m talking about cosmetics, toiletries, medicines, and even clothing (how the fabric is made).
For most of these items you can check the packaging label to see if lactic acid is on the ingredient list, except for fabrics or clothing of course. But then again, I will say that this will only be a matter of sensitivity, figuratively and literally.
BONUS: To learn more about how lactic acid is vegan friendly, check out the video below!
Functions Of Lactic Acid In The Human Body
Lactic acid occurs naturally in the human body. It is a product of cellular metabolism in the muscles, particularly from glycogen, which is a carbohydrate. Simply put, lactic acid is a product of carbohydrate breakdown in the body, similar to what happens in food fermentation .
Excessive acid (acidosis) in the body is of course not good, just like everything else. However, our body requires it in moderate amounts to perform the following functions:
- Muscle recovery
- Source of energy
- Maintenance of blood-sugar levels
- Prevents excessive fat formation
Sources And Production Of Lactic Acid For Industrial Use
For its long list of industrial uses, lactic acid can be made in two ways: naturally and artificially. Being a popular food additive, the demand for this acid usually calls for more production. To meet those demands, here are the ways to create them.
1. Natural Lactic Acid
For use in food additives, lactic acid is commonly obtained from grains and starchy plant products through microbial fermentation. Here are the most popular substrates for lactic acid fermentation:
- Sugar Cane
Non-Vegan Sources (Rare)
2. Artificial Lactic Acid
Producing lactic acid in laboratories is also common. To do this, acetaldehyde and sulfuric acid (among others) are added to the chemical medium.
In place of fermentation, distillation and hydrolyzation complete the process to eventually synthesize lactic acid. Some of the most common sources for artificial lactic acid are:
- Petroleum products
- Natural gas
Natural lactic acid is cheaper and consumes lesser energy. Because of this, natural production is more common and preferred by most manufacturers.
Lactic Acid From Food Fermentation
So how does lactic acid grow in food? There are many types of lactic acid bacteria that are responsible in food fermentation. These bacteria also vary in the temperatures they need to initiate a fermentation process.
To be more specific, it is the sugar in carbohydrates that turns into lactic acid. These sugar can either be in mono- (simple sugar) or disaccharide (double sugar) forms. The fermentation process also varies depending on the type of lactic acid bacteria present.
For lactic acid bacteria, the fermentation process is like an adaptation and survival method. When there is no oxygen, fermentation is their way to produce energy and survive. This will of course require ideal environmental conditions.
When lactic acid starts to develop, flavor molecules also begin to form. These flavor molecules are what gives lactic acid a tangy taste.
In the food industry, natural lactic acid is often manufactured from beets, corns, and potatoes. The end product is then sold for many uses, including as a food additive.
In the U.S., lactic acid production is mainly from plant products, and rarely from dairy products.
Foods With Natural Lactic Acid
These are the food items that naturally produce their own lactic acid.
- Pickled fruits and vegetables
- Sour Cream
- Sourdough bread
- Soy Sauce
- Yogurt (vegan and non-vegan)
In short, all fermented food items are high in lactic acid, for reasons stated. As long as they’re vegan, you can surely have them.
Lactic acid is mostly vegan. While dairy can be a source of lactic acid, it is very rare.
Most labels won’t indicate its source, which can be a problem. However, if you’re in the U.S., the added lactic acid on your food is probably from a vegan source. This is of course if the food you’re looking at is made in the U.S.
If you have doubts about a food product with lactic acid as an additive, you can always ask the manufacturing company about its source.
How do you feel about having lactic acid added to your food? Do you have a favorite food item that contains lactic acid? Let me know on the comment section below. And don’t forget to share this article in your favorite social media platform.