Chemical names in our food can be unsettling—especially as vegans. When I saw “sorbitan monostearate” listed as an ingredient recently and then struggled to find good information on it… I knew I had to do some research and write an article to help others out!
So, is sorbitan monostearate vegan? Sorbitan monostearate (E491) is a “gray area” ingredient for vegans. It’s derived from sorbitol, which is plant-derived, and stearic acid, which may be plant- or animal-derived. Since it’s a minor ingredient, most vegans are okay with consuming sorbitan monostearate. However, it may not always be plant-based.
Below, I’ll dive into exactly what sorbitan monostearate is and how it’s made. I’ll also address the question of whether it’s safe, as that’s something most of us also care about!
What Is Sorbitan Monostearate?
Sorbitan monostearate is a surfactant primarily used as an emulsifier—it helps keep waters and oils mixed together. It also has dispersing and wetting properties. (source)
Sorbitan monostearate is used in a wide variety of industries and products, including foods, cosmetics, synthetic fibers, metal machining fluid, pesticides, plastics, and more. (source)
Some of the common foods to include sorbitan monostearate are cake icing, pudding, imitation whipped cream, non-dairy creamers, yeast, and baked goods.
Sorbitan monostearate is sometimes referred to as Span 60, synthetic wax, or E491.
How Is Sorbitan Monostearate Made?
Sorbitan monostearate is made from sorbital and stearic acid. Specifically, sorbitol is dehydrated into a substance called sorbitan (source). Then stearic acid is added to create a mix of sorbitan esters, including sorbitan monostearate. (source)
So in order to determine if sorbitan monostearate is vegan, we need to look at the two ingredients that go into making it: sorbitol and stearic acid.
- Sorbitol: Vegan. Sorbitol is an alcohol that is often used as a sugar substitute. It’s typically taken from vegetables. One manufacturer, Archer Daniels Midland, has reported that its sorbitol is made from corn (source). It can also be taken from cherries, plums, pears, seaweed, and algae (source). No animals involved.
- Stearic acid: Probably vegan, but maybe not. Stearic acid can be sourced from plant- or animal-based fats. Some of the major manufacturers use soybean oil, but others use cow or hog fat (source). One survey of mint companies that use stearic acid revealed that only 8.8% of companies surveyed got their stearic acid from animal sources (source). So the odds may be balanced toward it being plant-based—but it’s hard to know for sure.
So… Is It Vegan?
Looking at this overall situation, I would say that sorbitan monostearate is likely to be vegan. And if it isn’t fully vegan, then still, the amount of animal-derived material in the product is likely to be quite low.
Is Sorbitan Monostearate Safe?
Sorbitan monostearate seems to be quite safe. It’s been approved by various government bodies like the FDA to be used as a food additive.
Many tests on humans and animals have shown sorbitan monostearate not to be carcinogenic or have harmful effects. The lethal dose is thought to be more than a quart (source)—meanwhile, the ingredient is typically used in small amounts.
Possible Side Effects
Sorbitan monostearate may cause skin irritation in certain contexts, and it may speed up the movement of food through your digestive system (source). Neither of these seem to be major, common concerns, however.
The Environmental Working Group has stated that sorbitan monostearate is of “lower concern in food.”
Is Sorbitan Tristearate Vegan?
Sorbitan tristearate is another sorbitan ester, so it’s quite similar to sorbitan monostearate. Is it vegan?
Sorbitan tristearate (E492) can be derived from plant or animal sources. So, unfortunately, we won’t know if it’s fully vegan unless we contact the manufacturer.
A name commonly used for the vegetable-derived version of sorbitan tristearate is Span 65v. So if you see “Span 65v,” you’ll know that is vegan.
Making Veganism More Accessible
Since it may make veganism much harder to avoid minor ingredients like sorbitan monostearate, many vegans (such as myself) believe it makes the most sense to just let these ingredients slide. This makes veganism more accessible to more people and may help animals the most in the long run.
Even in the case that sorbitan monostearate is derived from animal-based stearic acid, the amount of animal-derived material used is likely very low. This is because sorbitan monostearate is a surfactant typically used in small amounts.
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