What Do You Mean I’m Eating Duck Feathers?!

But I suppose it’s better than eating human hair. Confused? Let me back track.

Sometimes being a vegetarian is difficult. And I’m not just talking about the temptation of eating meat. At times, I don’t even know I’m consuming animal products. Chances are you don’t either. I recently came across this claim that I (as a consumer) may be eating a large, albeit unknown, quantity of duck feathers – in the form of L-cysteine hydrochloride (also known as additive number E920).

Cysteine is an amino acid used in foods mainly as a processing aid in baking, it stabilizes the structure of leavened bread. It is also used in the production of artificial flavours – specifically meat flavour (yes, I realize the irony). The majority of commercially used L-cysteine is derived via the hydrolysis of duck feathers, mostly from suppliers in China. The other major sources of cysteine for use in commercial food products are human hair and hog bristles.

Fun fact: The European Union allows the addition of E920 to baked breads only from synthetic sources.

Quesadilla foie gras anyone?

An Oklahoma duck. Probably not in your tortilla.

Actually, some sources* still claim that human hair is the main source for L-cysteine used in baked goods because it’s very rich in protein and very cheap to get. Most cysteine ends up in breaded foods such as bagels and tortillas. As taking pictures of product ingredients is frowned upon in grocery stores (apparently) I was forced to turn to internet research. Luckily, most brand names now provide their ingredient list online.

Cannibalism is NOT COOL people. Don't try it at home.

Human additives….nom nom nom nom……

A few brands that don’t use L-cysteine-a include Dempster’s, Country Harvest, and Old Mill (bagels and flat breads). Where you might find duck related ingredients: President’s Choice brand, Einstein Bros. and Dunkin Donuts. Weather or not there’s human hair involved is (APPARENTLY) an open question.

Animal ingredients might be included foods and products where you don’t expect them and they’re hard to spot because they don’t use common names like “crushed fly wings” or “sheep stomach enzyme.” They may also be plant based or synthetic – manufacturers usually don’t have to label ingredient sources. Here is a short list of some commonly animal derived ingredients that you may be using or eating:

  • Adrenaline-  hormone extracted from pigs, cows and sheep
  • Allantoin-  uric acid from cows, found in cosmetics
  • Amino acids –  proteins may be animal or plant derived
  • Ambergris (AKA porpoise hork)-  from whale intestine, can be found in perfumes
  • Anchovy-  small fish, used on pizza’s
  • Arachidonic Acid-  found in the livers and brains of animals
  • Aspic-  a jelly made from gelatin(e)
  • Bone, Bone charcoal, Bonemeal-  derived from boiled animal bone
  • Bristles-  derived from animal hair normally pigs, sometimes used in toothbrushes
  • Caviar(e)-  fish eggs, may also come from belluga’s and other marine mammals
  • Cochineal/carmine/carminic acid-  made from the red pigmentation of the cochineal insect  (approximately 70,000 insects used to produce one pound of red pigment)
  • Cetyl Alcohol-  derived from spermacetti in whales
  • Chitin-  found in outer shells of insects and crustaceans
  • Collagen-  derived from animal tissue
  • Elastin-  found in the muscle fibres of animal.
  • Fatty acid derivatives-  used in cosmetics
  • Gelatin(e)-  derived from boiled animal bones and cow/sheep collagen
  • Glycerol-  normally animal derived found in soaps and cosmetics
  • Isinglass-  a type of gelatin(e) derived from fish
  • Keratin-  formed from ground animal hooves and hair, found in shampoo and conditioner
  • Lactic Acid-  found in animal tissue, used as a preservative (can also be produced by bacteria)
  • Lecithin-  fatty acid found in blood and animal tissue.
  • Lipoids-  found in animals as well as plants.
  • L-cysteine hydrochloride-  made from animal hair and chicken feathers
  • Marine Oil-  derives from seals, whales, porpoises and fish
  • Mono and Di-glycerides of fatty acids-  can be derived from animals
  • Musk-  derived from deer
  • Oleic acid/oleoic oil-  obtained from animal fats, may be obtained from vegetable fat
  • Oleostearin-  made from beef fat
  • Pepsin-  found in pigs stomachs, Pepsi’s eponymous enzyme
  • Proteins (e.g. elastin, keratin, reticulin)-  from animal proteins
  • Progesterone-  used in anti-ageing creams
  • Rennet (animal rennet)-  enzymes found in calve stomachs
  • Sable-  fur or hair from a weasel found in paint brushes and cosmetic brushes
  • Squalene/squalane-  found in shark liver
  • Suet-  fat from the kidneys of sheep and cattle
  • Stearates, Stearic acid-  found typically in cows and sheep and used in cosmetics
  • Tallow/ tallow acid-  made from beef fat and found in cosmetics, crayons and wax
  • Urea-  from animal excretion (urine)
  • Roe-  ovaries and eggs from fish
  • Seal Oil-  derived from seals generally from Canada and Namibia.
  • Spermaceti-  a wax found in the head cavities of sperm whales.
  • Vitamin A/ Vitamin B-12/ Vitamin H-  can be animal derived
  • Volaise-  ostrich meat

I realize that in today’s market world it’s practically impossible to avoid all products that have somehow harmed animals. Commercial milk and egg farming practices are sometimes ethically questionable; vaccines are made using chick embryos; some dyes have beetle parts in them; my ground coffee probably contains a cockroach or two. But I try. Don’t get me wrong, if animals are going to be used I completely support the use of the entire animal, I’d just prefer it if where the animal bits end up was a little clearer.

*Most of the sources I could find that discussed the use of L-cysteine in foods either did not provide references or just kept citing each other. While there is a fair amount of peer-reviewed work concerning cysteine, little of it discusses commercial sources of the amino acid. Therefore, this entire post might need to be taken with a grain (perhaps a lick?) of salt due to the difficulty in substantiating these claims with trusted sources. It also makes me question why finding out where food additives come from is so damn difficult.
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2 Responses to What Do You Mean I’m Eating Duck Feathers?!

  1. Guillaume D. says:

    Overall I found your post very interesting, only there are several problems with your statements that take away from the whole message:
    – I know plenty of vegetarians who eat eggs, cheese and yogurt. In your list of ingredients anchovies are meat, others you point out like caviar are eggs, not meat, and the others are all by-products, often not of meat. What you’re talking about is veganism.
    – Caviar never comes from mammals; it is sturgeon roe, fish eggs and beluga in the case of caviar is a species of sturgeon, the beluga or European sturgeon (Huso huso).
    – Ambergris is a digestive by-product from sperm whales. No sperm whales are harmed in making or collecting it.
    – Since the decline in whaling, thankfully, cetyl alcohol is produced by hydrogenation of vegetable oils.


    • Hi Guillaume!

      Thanks so much for your comments. As a lacto-ovo vegetarian myself I also eat dairy and eggs but I do try to avoid by-products that come from killing an animal. The list I posted are ingredients that might be animal derived – not just those from mammals. The blog is more to the point of how difficult it is for anyone to recognize where all the ingredients in their food comes from, especially since some might be synthetic or plant based but companies don’t have to provide that information. And thanks for pointing out that there are different types of vegetarianism, not to mention possible religious/cultural dietary restrictions or just personal choice! You make a great point about the whale by-products though. Hopefully fewer such ingredients will make their way into our food and products. Thanks for reading!

      – Genevieve


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