If you’ve been living that #VeganLife for a while, you know sifting through ingredient lists comes with the territory. Most of the time, the “is this vegan?” question has a clear-cut answer. But lactic acid gets a bit tricky.

First off, the prefix “lac” literally means milk in Latin 🐮. While that’s usually a warning sign, lactic acid can be plant- or animal-derived. Here’s how you can tell the difference.

Is lactic acid vegan?

The short answer: It depends.

Lactic acid is a product of the fermentation process. Whether it’s vegan or not will depend on what was fermented to create it. Most lactic acid is plant-based, but that isn’t always the case. If you want to be sure, you’ll have to contact the manufacturer directly to find out.

FYI: Lactic acid can also be found in fermented meat and dairy products. (These products aren’t vegan.)

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Lactic acid (aka lactate) is a naturally occurring substance. It’s created when bacteria breaks down carbs for energy during the fermentation process. Some great sources of lactic acid are beer, wine, bread, cheese, dairy, and pickled foods.

Lactic acid can also be produced artificially. It’s a popular preservative and flavoring agent in packaged foods.

Common bacteria used to create lactic acid include:

  • Lactococcus
  • Lactobacillus
  • Enterococcus
  • Streptococcus
  • Bifidobacterium

Lactic acid can be vegan, but that’s not always the case. Some types of lactic acid have animal origins.

For example, lactic acid is commonly made with lactose (a sugar that’s found in dairy). But here’s where it gets a bit complicated: By the time the lactic acid is fully formed, it will have no chemical remnants of the original lactose used to create it.

So, technically, it won’t have any animal compounds in it. But it would still count as a food that was made from animals. That makes it a no-go if you’re following a strict vegan diet. If you want to play it safe, stick to plant-based sources of lactic acid. Lots of food companies use beet sugar or cornstarch in lieu of lactose.

Vegans, rejoice! You can find lots of plant-based lactic acid foods in your local grocery store. Some top choices include:

How to know *for sure* if lactic acid is vegan

If a product contains lactic acid and it seems otherwise vegan-friendly, it probably is. That lactic acid is most likely only coming from the vegetables and the bacteria used to ferment them. Even added lactic acid tends to be made from vegan sources, like beets or cornstarch.

But the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t require companies to disclose the source of their lactic acid. So technically there’s a tiny possibility that nonvegan lactic acid was added. You can always contact the manufacturer directly to make sure your food is vegan from start to finish.

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If you don’t want to chase down an answer on where your food’s lactic acid came from, you’re still in luck. You can ferment your own foods at home!

Start with a veggie of your choice. Some fab choices include:

Fermented meats contain natural levels of lactic acid. These aren’t vegan (obvi). These include products like:

  • cured ham
  • salami
  • sausages

There are also lots of lactic acid sources that are vegetarian but not vegan. This means the lactic acid is derived from an animal byproduct (like milk) but not the actual animal.

Some examples include:

Lactic acid is a substance that’s naturally found in fermented foods. It can also be manufactured using different types of bacteria cultures.

While the lactic acid used in most commercial products is plant-based, there’s a chance it has animal origins. The FDA doesn’t require companies to give you the derivative deets. So you may need to contact the manufacturer directly to make sure your food is 100 percent vegan.

You can also create your own lactic acid-rich foods at home by pickling you own veggies. That way you know for sure that you’re in the vegan safe zone.