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Is Your Medicine Vegan? Probably Not

Heparin is an anticoagulant and the prescription version is made from pig, raising concerns for vegans.
Rob Kim
Heparin is an anticoagulant and the prescription version is made from pig, raising concerns for vegans.

Go looking for animal products, and apparently you will find them everywhere.

That's the takeaway from the book Veganissimo A to Z, recently translated into English for the first time. What's veganissimo? It's veganism of the highest order, according to the German authors Reuben Proctor and Lars Thomsen, who call themselves "professional vegans." (Is veganism a healthful way to eat? Sorry, we're not going there in this post.)

Proctor and Thomsen, who've been vegan since 2000 and 1990, respectively, are willing to avoid animal products on ethical grounds at nearly all costs. And a perusal of their guide to more than 2,500 substances is enough to give even a non-vegan a bout of vicarious anxiety — the byproducts of dead animals, it seems, are lurking in everything from diet supplements and medicine to sporting goods and electronics.

When it comes to pharmaceuticals, the authors say, there's a surprising amount of animal in many of those pills in your medicine cabinet. And that can present vegans with serious quandaries, pitting their health against their ideals.

"Medicine is one of the more difficult products for vegans to avoid, especially if something is life-threatening," Proctor tells Shots. "How far are you prepared to go for your own convictions?"

The most common animal derivative in the medicine cabinet is lactose, which is used as a carrier, stabilizer or to add bulk. And if you want to get technical about it (and Proctor's book certainly does), you'll learn that gelatin (derived from the skin and bone of cattle and pigs) shows up in many capsules, pills and tablets.

Your pills might also be bound with insect-based shellac or magnesium stearate, a substance based on fatty acids that can come from animals. And if pills have a pinkish or reddish tint, it could be from cochineal, or carmine, a red dye made from crushed insects. (Recall, if you will, that brouhaha over Starbucks' use of the dye to color its Strawberry and Crème Frappucinos.)

According to Proctor, vegans also have to worry about active ingredients in other drugs like insulin, anticoagulents like heparin, amino acid infusions, and hormone preparations.

"Finding vegan alternatives to such products can sometimes be very difficult, or even entirely unsuccessful," he writes.

But Proctor managed to be fairly resourceful when he had to go into surgery last year. When he learned that he would need heparin, an anticoagulant made from the intestinal mucous membranes of pigs, he asked whether he could use fondaparinux, a synthetic substitute, instead. Yes, his doctor told him, the substitution was technically possible — but it would also increase the risk of hemorrhage.

"So I had to make a compromise and use the animal anticoagulant for 24 hours," he says. "I did not like it all, but it was a question of life or death."

Though Proctor says there are many more vegan food and cosmetics products on the market these days, vegan medicine is a tougher sell to companies.

"I doubt the pharmaceutical industry is interested," he says. "They have a totally different paradigm ... They don't have qualms about using animals for testing or in products."

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Eliza Barclay
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