Shellac is one of those ingredients that vegans can easily overlook. Therefore, asking “is shellac vegan” tends to be one of the later questions someone asks. However, whether shellac is vegan is not really the key issue here. It is an animal byproduct, and so shellac is not vegan, by definition. That said, I am going to explain why the issue of shellac is not as black and white as it seems and explore the moral status of some insects. Let’s get into it.
What is Shellac Also Called?
As an additive, shellac is known as E904. Additionally, you can tell a product has shellac in it if you see listed in the ingredients the phrase ‘confectioner’s glaze’, ‘candy glaze’, ‘confectioner’s resin’, ‘pure food glaze’, or just ‘natural glaze’.
One of the attractive properties of shellac is that it makes things shiny. Shellac was the go-to varnish for furniture and paintings until the turn of the 20th Century. A key feature of shellac is that it doesn’t darken as it ages, and is still popular with French Polishers today.
Until plastics were common-place, shellac was also used to produce molded goods like jewelry and dentures. This is due to it being flexible but firm at room temperature.
What is Shellac Used For in Food?
As well as wood varnish, shellac is also used in food production. Food producers use shellac as a glazing agent and as a protective coating for citrus fruits.
The classic shiny, waxy look of some fruit, like lemons and oranges, is due to this shellac glaze. The waxy coating helps the fruit retain moisture and gives it a longer shelf-life.
Confectioners use shellac to give an appealing shininess to their candy too. This also acts as a hard coating, and gives things a crunchy bite.
Lastly, the pharamceutical industry uses shellac as a way to slow down absorbtion of tablets in stomach acid.
What is Shellac Made Of?
Shellac is essentially a resin secreted by a bug called Kerrier Laca, commonly known as the lac bug, that is native to parts of India.
During certain times of the year, these little bugs swarm onto the branches of trees to breed. Once the females are fertilized, they begin to suck up some of the sap from the tree through the bark. They use this sap to then form a hard, protective barrier over themselves.
Within this resin-like cocoon, the female lac beetle safely lays her eggs. The eggs then hatch, juvenile lac beetles crawl out and the cycle begins anew.
How Is Shellac Made?
Shellac is produced firstly, by chopping off the branches covered in this shell, these sap covered branches are called “sticklac”.
Workers then proceed to scrape off this encrusted resin from the branches, fairly indiscriminately. It takes between 50,000 to 300,000 lac bugs to produce just 1 kilogram of shellac, with an estimated 20,000 tons produced globally.
Once collected, the resin is then sifted, heated, and refined https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lQcQ0yuekZ0 ready for commercial use.
Is Shellac Cruelty-Free?
During this process, it is inevitable that insects are killed and eggs destroyed.
The production of shellac is so destructive that producers have to artificially introduce lac bugs to the trees. This is because the removal of sticklack has been so complete that there are no female lac bugs left to produce another yield.
Shefexil, the shellac promotion council, estimates that 25% of shellac is made up of “insect debris”. This means shellac is comprised partly of insect legs, shells, wings and other body parts.
Given that shellac, almost necessarily, contains the parts of insects, it cannot be called vegan at all. Really, shellac is not vegetarian either.
Shellac Is Not Vegan, But Does it Matter?
We’ve established that the production of shellac, almost, necessarily involves the death of insects. Because we have no nutritional need for shellac, we can be confident in saying vegans should avoid shellac as much as possible.
However, it’s worth briefly exploring the question of whether the interests of the lac bug are being frustrated in this process.
If we are not frustrating the interests of a creature, then it could be argued shellac is, at least, not unethical. This will then allow us to establish if vegans can eat shellac or if they are morally bound to avoid it.
Peter Singer and Insect Suffering
Peter Singer, the author of the fantastic introductory book Practical Ethics, thinks it is questionable invertebrates, like the lac beetle, have the capacity to suffer.
Singer argued that it’s not clear, at all, that insects have the same capacity to suffer as vertebrates do. Singer, therefore, recommends we focus on the suffering and moral status of vertebrates, for now as this is more of a pressing issue.
And Singer does have a point. Vertebrates seem to demonstrate a very clear preference for self-preservation.
But this drive to survive and protect one’s own life doesn’t seem to be universal in the insect world. For example, C. explodens, an ant found in Borneo, will literally explode when confronted with a threat, covering said threat in toxic goo in order to protect its colony.
This self-sacrificial behavior can also seen in female honey-bees that will disembowel themselves upon stinging.
Such behavior demonstrates a clear lack of concern for the individual life and more of an interest in the life of the species, or at least, their immediate colony/hive. This disposability of one’s own life is simply not a feature of vertebrate species.
Do Lac Beetles Matter Morally?
Female lac beetles are essentially performing the same, self-sacrificial behavior. They embed themselves within the resin and die during the breeding process. They don’t appear to have an interest in their own individual life once they have released their eggs.
So, where’s the harm? Should vegans care about creatures that don’t seem to care about their own lives?
Well, one issue is the welfare of the lac beetle offspring. While the female lac beetles may, or may not, matter morally, the interests of the offspring might. The juvenile lac beetles have not completed their breeding cycle and their drive for self-preservation may indeed be strong. What the interests of newly hatched lac beetles are, we simply can’t tell.
Given that it is impossible to know if the resin on a branch contains live offspring or not it is, therefore, not possible to say the collection of this resin doesn’t frustrate the self-preservation interests of some creatures.
So, Can Vegans Eat Shellac?
We can say with certainty, then, that producing shellac involves the unnecessary death of animals. Whatsmore, shellac is also an excretion, and therefore an animal product.
From this, we can safely say that, no, shellac is not vegan and, as far as practically possible, vegans should avoid shellac due to the destructive processes involved and the potential for animal suffering.
Muddying the Moral Waters
However, a thorny question looms. Is concern for the welfare of insects, that may not have self-preservation interests, simply muddying the moral waters?
While it is indeed possible to have concern for all animals, it could be argued that it is detrimental to bog a new vegan down with the issues and ambiguity regarding the moral interests of invertebrates.
A lot of vegans will not consider this simply worrying about moral minutiae at all, however. And I agree that it is irresponsible to classify insect life as simply collateral damage in making veganism easier to adopt.
There is a fairly slippery slope from vegans accepting shellac use to tolerating food coloring made from insect shells. From there you have essentially opened pandora’s moral box.
Shellac Labor Conditions
Something else to consider here is that a lot of shellac is made by Indian cottage-industries. The workers of these unregulated factories are unrepresented, low paid and the working conditions are unsanitary https://www.cabdirect.org/cabdirect/abstract/19472701087.
In consuming shellac, a consumer is unintentionally supporting these practices.
In the unregulated factories there is no control of working hours. Factories are in an unsanitary state. Illegal deductions from wages are quite common-the Payment of Wages Act is ignored. Employers assert that the Workmen’s Compensation Act works satisfactorily, but no cases of accidents are reported. No maternity benefit is ever paid. Quite young children are employed for long hours, and when an inspector visits the factory the children are sent out by the back door as the inspector enters at the front. Wages are low.Cab Direct on Shellac Factory Conditionshttps://www.cabdirect.org/cabdirect/abstract/19472701087
Vegan foods are not immune to this sort of thing though. The harvesting of cashew nuts, for example, typically subjects laborers to caustic acid, long hours and little, to no, legal regulation on working conditions  … Continue reading.
A lot of vegans are particularly picky over the source of their cashew nuts because of this. However, this serves as an example that a kind of food simply being vegan doesn’t immediately mean it is ethical. We have to look out for humans too.
There is an argument to be made that the vegan community at large should tolerate things like shellac consumption by new vegans on their way to full moral consistency. However, I am a little nervous that this is simply toleration of cruelty. We have no need for shellac, after all. Turning a blind eye to things like shellac as someone becomes vegan is, potentially, a slippery slope.
That said, everyone takes to veganism differently. We should avoid judging the path others are taking, so long as it leads to the same destination. Some new vegans dive straight in and fully commit to veganism in every aspect of their life with no problem. Others need to, firstly, dip their toe in and slowly work their way up to full vegan consistency. There’s no right or wrong way to go vegan, after all.
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