Living a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle can be challenging to say the least. Although maintaining a plant-based diet is way more mainstream than it used to be, not all grocery stores and restaurants provide adequate options to make this a reality.

To make matters worse, some seemingly vegetarian or vegan foods have additives made from animal products lurking on the ingredients list. Take Parmesan cheese, which commonly includes rennet, an enzyme sourced from a cow or goat’s stomach. Another prime example? Wine. Read on to find out how this beloved beverage is typically not-so-vegan after all. 

First of All, What?

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Shelby Cohron

When you think of wine, the first thing that comes to mind is probably fermented grape juice (so no animal products, right?). But the fermentation process is a bit more complicated than that. In reality, naturally-occurring molecules such as tannins and proteins can make young wine hazy and bitter.

Winemakers typically use finishing agents to clarify the final product. These agents attract the troublesome molecules, clumping them together so they can be filtered out more easily.

Well, it turns out that the most popular finishing agents include isinglass (a derivative of fish bladders), albumin (egg whites), and gelatin (animal protein). They aren’t considered additives because these agents are filtered out along with the haze-inducing molecules, but trace amounts of them can still be absorbed into the wine or hang out at the bottom of the vat.

Here’s where it gets tricky for vegetarians and vegans. Wines made with albumin or casein (milk protein) can be considered vegetarian, since these products aren’t made of animal meat, but vegans don’t consume any kind of animal products. The biggest problem is that most of these additives aren’t well advertised on the bottle, so it’s difficult to know exactly what you’re consuming, especially since it isn't mandatory for companies to disclose these potentially troublesome ingredients. 

Change Could Be Coming

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Alex Frank

Industry leaders have begun to speak out and advocate for more transparency. Isabelle Legeron, the first French woman to receive her Master of Wine certification, has been especially vocal about the issue.

“In a way we’re still in the dark ages when it comes to the wine industry. People have dissociated wine from food,” she told Forbes in a recent interview. “As wine drinkers we need to start lobbying with our dollars. We need to not buy a wine if we don’t know how it’s made.”

Legeron has done her part by starting Raw Wine, a trade show that only features natural and organic wines and requires that they disclose any additives.

Alternatives to animal-based finishing agents do exist, including bentonite clay and activated charcoal. While organic wines currently only make up 7 percent of the market and natural ones a slim 1 percent, Raw Wine has ensured that this sector continues to grow. 

Whether or not you maintain a vegan or vegetarian diet, you should be thinking about what goes into the things you consume. Transparency is always a cause worth fighting for.