A couple weeks ago, I was tossing and turning and trying to fall back asleep around 4AM when my phone started to buzz with an alert that I had 2 blog comments awaiting my moderation. Wow, blog traffic must really be picking up, I thought to myself.
To my disappointment, the notes were not compliments and accolades for my clever cauliflower etouffee recipe (a girl can dream, right?) but instead notes from a reader who had called Campbell’s and learned that my beloved Campbell’s Tomato Soup, as well as V8 juice (which I also love), is not even vegetarian, let alone vegan, due to undisclosed animal-based ingredients listed under “flavorings.”
I have to confess that my first reaction to his message was a mixture between ‘Yeah, right!’ and ‘So what?’. I was thisclose to quickly replying with something along the lines of, Look, dude, let’s not feed into food paranoia. The ingredient list sounds vegan, lots of reputable sources list it as vegan (see here and here) , let’s just relax and forget what you think you found out. After all, my site is called (Just About) Vegan. I’m not even trying to be a purist here.
The truth is that even if there are trace amounts of animal products in Campbell’s soup, it couldn’t amount to more than a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the total ingredients, not to mention that the “flavoring” is almost definitely not coming from animals specifically killed to make this product, but rather from the leftovers of meat production that would otherwise be waste.
But in the weeks since the initial shock of this news, this information has haunted me. I can rationalize things all I want, but the bottom line is that I’m totally, utterly grossed out by the thought that Campbell’s is apparently hiding some mysterious dead animal substance in food when its labeling implies that it’s vegan.
I haven’t been able to get ahold of the company yet myself to confirm the details [see update below], but information about which of their products is vegetarian seems conspicuously missing from this section of their website’s FAQs. The fact that none of their seemingly vegan products are kosher is also a bit mysterious and seems to be further evidence that there is something fishy about their ingredient lists. The commenter, Sean, suspects one of the culprits to be castoreum, which is a substance secreted from the glands behind beavers’ hind legs. Seemed too ridiculous to be possible, but a quick google search revealed it to be a relatively common ingredient. Ew. Ew. Ew.
[UPDATE: Campbell’s has confirmed that only their Vegetarian Vegetable soup is vegetarian and that none of their soups is vegan. See HERE for more info.]
I’ve essentially gone through the different stages of grief. First denial, then shock, now anger. My whole “platform,” if you can call it that, is built on the idea that you can follow an essentially plant-based diet without having to obsess and feel guilt about everything you put in your mouth. I’m supposed to be able to let this slide. But now that I know, I can’t unknow.
Sure, I’ve always been on board with checking ingredient lists when possible for gelatin, whey, and casein. But where does one draw the line? If “flavoring” can mean beaver genital excretion, how can I not worry that every vague term on an ingredient listing is really a euphemism for something that no one, let alone a vegan, would knowingly eat? Should consumers be doomed to remain in a constant state of anxiety and mistrust about what their food is really made of?
If the amount of animal product in additives is so negligible, I cannot imagine why it could possibly be so important for the company to include it in their products. Why not err on the side of keeping foods pure and cruelty-free?
The real issue here is not so much the hidden animal products in food, but the fact that Campbell’s and probably many if not most of its counterparts are not being fully honest with us about what we’re consuming. This is an issue that affects vegans, sure, but also any consumer who simply wants to know what’s in the food she’s eating and serving to the people she cares about.
The question becomes, then, where do we go from here? Should flexible vegans like me turn a blind eye to sneaky companies like Campbell’s? Should we switch over to (more expensive, harder to find) natural brands that offer higher quality, truly vegan products, albeit without the same sentimental appeal? Or do we try to mobilize to lobby companies like Campbell’s to at least be more transparent if not compassionate about their ingredient choices?