I happened across Benecol Spread and Benecol Light Spread in a grocery store recently, and wondered if it was vegan. On the one hand, the ingredients appeared to be vegan at first glance. On the other, I’d never heard it mentioned on vegan cooking forums.
It took several emails with McNeil Nutritionals LLC, the makers of Benecol, to establish any clarity on the issue. I’m posting what I learned here, in case others have the same question.
Benecol Spread and Benecol Light Spread are butter replacement products. They are aimed at the health market, rather than vegans, and are not labeled as vegan.
Why bother finding out?
Why take the trouble to determine if a non-vegan-labeled product is vegan, when vegan-labeled alternatives are available (eg. Earth Balance)?
Two reasons — first, it’s good to have more than one butter replacement, in case a company goes under or has supply chain problems (see: the great soy yogurt debacle of 2013).
Second, unlike other vegan butter substitutes, Benecol does not contain palm oil. Palm oil production is a cause of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia, including the forest habitat of critically endangered orangutan species. I always feel a little conflicted about vegan ice creams, icings and cakes, because they are typically made with palm oil.
Earth Balance says they source palm oil from sustainable sources. However one could argue that it still contributes to overall global demand for palm oil, and this aggregate global demand is what drives deforestation. (Peter Singer and Jim Mason make a similar argument for beef in The Ethics of What We Eat, as buying even domestically produced beef contributes to the overall demand for beef, which is driving deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.) For more on the ethics of palm oil, check out The Vegan Option’s podcast episode on the topic.
The container does not mention being “vegan”, “vegetarian”, or “dairy free”, at least in the US. (I’m told that in the UK some Benecol products have a “vegetarian” label.)
The ingredients from Benecol Light Spread are listed as:
Liquid canola oil, liquid soybean oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, plant stanol esters, emulsifiers (vegetable mono- and diclycerides, soy lecithin, polyglycerol esters of fatty acids), potassium sorbate, citric acid and calcium disodium EDTA, artificial flavor, dl-alpha, tocopheryl acetate, vitamin a palmitate, beta carotene.
Nothing jumped out at me as being non-vegan.
The Benecol US site has a FAQ about their spread products:
Do BENECOL Spreads contain dairy or dairy by-products?
While none of the ingredients in BENECOL® Spreads are dairy-based, we cannot state with certainty that they do not contain any dairy by-products.
This is hopelessly vague. So I emailed them.
The first response I got from Benecol / McNeil was as follows:
The reason we say none of the ingredients in BENECOL® Spreads are dairy-based, however, we cannot state with certainty that they do not contain any dairy by-products, is because we receive some ingredients from different manufacturers that change from time to time and we cannot guarantee that cross contamination did not occur at the outside plants. However, we can guarantee that vegans and vegetarians can use BENECOL® Spreads.
This clarification is still quite vague. It sounds like they can’t guarantee that there isn’t cross contamination, so it would not be appropriate with those with dairy allergies. However most vegans are subject to cross contamination whenever we eat out, so for me personally this would not be a concern.
I wanted to (a) communicate that their cagy FAQ is losing them vegan business, and (b) make super sure that they’re not using doublespeak and that there are not meat or dairy ingredients in the product.
I replied as follows:
It sounds like none of the ingredients contain dairy or dairy by-products, but it may not be suitable for people with dairy allergies because of possible cross-contamination.
I think that expanding the one-sentence answer in the FAQ online could give a lot of clarity here.
A google search for “benecol vegan” reveals quite a lot of confusion on this issue. The first few results:
The user concludes “no if you are vegan , you can not use … most vegans I know use earths balance style or soy garden ..both delicious and both vegan”.
This appears to be an official Benecol response telling consumers that “The only products in the Benecol® food range that may be suitable for a vegan diet are the Dairy Free Drinks”.
Here, users are explaining that Benecol seems to contain a non-vegetarian animal-fat ingredient:
“Benecol has Polyglycerol as an ingredient in both the regular and the light spreads. This is not a vegan ingredient. It is by-product of soap manufactureres which normally uses animal fat. It also contains Palmitate. Here’s what PETA’s list says about Palmitic Acid: which is from fats, oils. Mixed with stearic acid [not vegan]. Found in many animal fats and plant oils. In shampoos, shaving soaps, creams. Derivatives: Palmitate, Palmitamine, Palmitamide. Alternatives: palm oil, vegetable sources.”
A user searching for “vegan Benecol-type products”. The thread is inconclusive.
The FAQ answer seems cagy and is making people do a lot of guesswork, and I think this is hurting the Benecol brand.
Can you confirm if the Polyglycerol in Benecol is animal-derived?
They replied two days later:
In addition, your question about the source of polyglycerol requires further research. We are sorry for this delay and will be in touch with you as soon as the information you have requested is available.
And then again four days after that:
The polyglycerol esters of fatty acids in BENECOL Spread are not animal derived.
It seems that the product is vegan after all.
However, Benecol (and McNeil Nutritionals LLC) have not made obvious public commitments that the product is vegan, which means that they could reasonably reformulate it to be inappropriate for vegans without reneging on their commitments.
Furthermore, the apparent confusion and uncertainty about the vegetarian status of the product may reasonably give cautious vegans pause. When asked about the polyglycerol, they required nearly a week to determine if the product is vegetarian, after initially telling me that it was appropriate for vegans.
It seems clear that Benecol does not have vegans in mind in the same way that Earth Balance does — the product is not clearly labeled, the website and even email responses leave a fair amount to the interpretation, and they have to do research when asked questions that any product aimed at vegans should immediately have answers to.
Personally, I’m pretty committed to reducing my palm oil footprint, so I will try it. If it turned out that Benecol was reformulated to contain some ancillary dairy byproduct, I won’t feel terrible or be haunted for weeks afterward (although I’ll be quite upset at the company). I feel that I’ve done due diligence, and I’ve communicated to the company that vegan labeling and website information is important to me, and that my willingness to buy Benecol is predicated on it having no meat or dairy ingredients.
However I understand completely that some will feel that the Benecol brand is not taking vegan concerns seriously, and has not made a firm statement that the product is vegan (in the form of a label), and that they would prefer to avoid it when clearly-labeled vegan alternatives are available.
Postscript: Emily used Benecol Light Spread in some cookie dough, and said that it had a funny “peach-like” taste. I might try the non-light version next time.