Originally introduced in the US in 1965 as Apple O’s, Apple Jacks are a popular cereal brand characterized by their apple and cinnamon flavor profile and ring-shaped green and orange cereal pieces (1). The cereal brand is a product of Kellogg’s – the same company that produces other household names such as Frosted Flakes, Froot Loops, Rice Krispies, and Pop-Tarts. In a survey of over a thousand people (2), Apple Jacks found itself listed in the top 10 favorite cereal.
Like other vitamin-fortified breakfast cereals, it is difficult to claim that Apple Jacks are vegan because of the presence of vitamin D3. Although the vitamin can be synthesized and produced through vegan means, it is currently understood that the majority of commercial vitamin D involves an animal product – sheep’s wool, to be precise. Aside from vitamin D3, Apple Jacks also contain problematic ingredients that some vegans accept while others do not. These ingredients include sugar, natural flavors, and artificial coloring agents.
Upon first glance, the ingredients of Apple Jacks seem to be perfectly suitable for vegans as the list of ingredients does not contain any ingredient that is outright non-vegan. Despite Apple Jacks being mostly made of grain and sweeteners, the cereal brand is fortified with vitamins. This is where the problem arises.
Many vegans believe that anything fortified with any form of vitamin cannot be considered vegan as the vitamin is predominantly produced using an animal product. Although the vitamin can be produced through alternative methods that do not include animal products, it is difficult to avoid the fact that using sheep’s wool is the current standard for commercial vitamin D production.
Despite the presence of vitamin D3, Kellogg’s New Zealand lists Apple Jacks among their vegan cereals (3). Other cereals declared to be vegan include Coco Pops, Corn Flakes, Rice Bubbles, and All-Bran.
Additionally, there are some ingredients that are also difficult to declare vegan or not; These ingredients are called gray area ingredients. In fact, Apple Jacks have three of these gray area ingredients: sugar, natural flavors, and artificial coloring agents.
The list of ingredients of Apple Jacks includes (4): corn flour blend (whole grain yellow corn flour, degerminated yellow corn flour), sugar, wheat flour, whole grain oat flour, modified food starch, contains 2% or less of vegetable oil (hydrogenated coconut, soybean and/or cottonseed), oat fiber, salt, soluble corn fiber, degerminated yellow corn flour, dried apples, apple juice concentrate, cornstarch, cinnamon, natural flavor, modified corn starch, yellow 6, wheat starch, baking soda, yellow 5, red 40, blue 1, BHT for freshness.
Vitamins and minerals: reduced iron, niacinamide, vitamin B6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B1 (thiamin hydrochloride), folic acid, vitamin D3, vitamin B12.
There is also a variety of Apple Jacks called Apple Jacks Caramel, but it seems like the two Apple Jacks varieties have very similar lists of ingredients (5).
The body requires a wide variety of nutrients to perform properly. Unlike macronutrients (i.e., carbohydrates, fats, and lipids) that have to be consumed in large quantities, vitamins are micronutrients that the body only requires in minuscule amounts. While all vitamins are necessary for good health, there is one vitamin that vegans look out for: vitamin D.
Unlike most vitamins, vitamin D can be synthesized in the human body. Using the energy from the UV radiation coming from the sun, a chemical cascade occurs which converts a cholesterol in the skin into vitamin D. Despite the photobiology of vitamin D, it can also be acquired through the diet like other vitamins.
The problem with vitamin D and veganism is that the vitamin has long been documented to require the use of animal products in its production. Historically, vitamin D has been obtained from animal brains, spinal cords, and livers. These days, the economical source for vitamin D is sheep’s wool. Industries extract a certain cholesterol from the wool that is then further processed into active forms of vitamin D (6).
There have been advancements in vitamin D production that do not require animal involvement. For example, some companies are investigating synthetic production. On the other hand, there have been reports of biotechnological means of vitamin D production using lichen.
Despite these efforts, it cannot be neglected that it is estimated that the majority of commercial vitamin D produced is through the use of sheep’s wool. Thus, products that are fortified with vitamin D such as Apple Jacks are highly unlikely to be truly vegan.
A common sweetener used in the food industry, it is not surprising to find sugar in a breakfast cereal such as Apple Jacks. Sugar has been traditionally obtained from plant sources such as sugarcane and sugar beets. However, despite being plant-derived, sugar can become non-vegan depending on how it was produced.
After the sugar has been extracted from its plant sources, it is already fit for the market. However, many sugar companies further refine the sugar to make it more appealing to consumers. These additional refinement processes make the sugar whiter and finer. One such refinement processed used is filtration.
Different sugar companies utilize different filtration methods. However, there is one process that is problematic for vegans. Some sugar companies filter sugar using bone char – the charred skeletal remains of different animals (7). Essentially ground carbon, bone char serves as an effective filter.
Unfortunately, sugar produced using bone char can no longer be considered vegan since bone char is an animal product. The problem is further complicated as it is difficult to determine if the sugar used in food products like Apple Jacks is produced with bone char. Large companies like Kellogg’s can have multiple sources for base ingredients like sugar which makes it difficult to trace the relevant information.
Natural flavors are a common ingredient that can be found in many food products. As defined by the FDA, natural flavors consist of various natural substances that primarily aim to impart flavor, essentially serve as flavoring agents. It is imperative that natural flavors consist of substances derived from natural sources as this distinguishes natural flavors from artificial flavors.
Although the ingredient comes from natural sources, the problem with natural flavors begins with its vague FDA definition. Specifically, the FDA defines natural flavors as (8):
“The essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”FDA.gov
Due to the umbrella definition provided by the FDA, it is difficult to ascertain whether a product that contains natural flavors is indeed vegan or not since the definition states that natural flavors can encompass both plant- and animal-derived substances. This is why natural flavors are considered to be a gray area ingredient because, unless stated otherwise in the packaging, there really is no way to know if a product with this ingredient is truly vegan.
Color is a significant part of the food and beverage experience which is why manufacturers make sure the color of their products is appealing to their target market. While many food products exhibit colors due to their natural ingredients, some food products are actively manipulated with the aid of food coloring agents for safety purposes.
There are many different kinds of food coloring agents but the ones that are problematic for vegans are artificial coloring agents. These are completely synthetic food dyes that are produced from non-animal products such as petroleum and other substances. Although these artificial coloring agents are indeed devoid of animal products, many vegans avoid products with artificial coloring agents due to an ethical issue.
To be able to be certified by various food safety authorities, artificial coloring agents have to undergo extensive safety tests. Among these tests, artificial coloring agents have been documented to be used on animal models. This is where the issue arises.
The use of animal models for safety tests has been deemed to be highly unethical. It has been documented that animal tests have been traditionally considered unethical due to the inhumane treatment of the animals. Most, if not all, animals used for these studies end up dying due to the processes involved (or are slaughtered post-testing)
While the use of animal models may have been required before, alternatives have been developed through scientific advancements. In particular, effective safety evaluations can be done through the use of cell models and in silico studies (i.e., the use of computer models and algorithms).
Specifically, Apple Jacks contain yellow 6, yellow 5, red 40, and blue 1. These artificial coloring agents have been tested on various animals such as mice, rats, dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs, and more (9, 10, 11, 12).