Funyuns are a popular onion-flavored corn snack from the Frito-Lay company, the company responsible for other popular snacks such as Fritos, Cheetos, Doritos, Tostitos, Lay’s, and Ruffles. Introduced back in 1969, Funyuns primarily consist of cornmeal and is characterized by its ring shape that is meant to represent fried onion rings. Although this snack is beloved by many, its ingredients must be assessed to determine whether the snack is vegan or not.
Unfortunately, Funyuns are not vegan. The original onion-flavored corn snack and the Flamin’ Hot flavor contain ingredients that are completely unsuitable for vegan diets such as buttermilk, cheddar cheese, whey, and skim milk. Furthermore, the ingredients lists include gray area ingredients such as sugar, natural flavors, and artificial color.
Based on the ingredients, Funyuns cannot be considered vegan as they contains a few ingredients that are directly derived from animal sources. These ingredients include buttermilk, cheddar cheese, whey, and skim milk.
Additionally, there are ingredients that are considered to be problematic for the vegan community for various reasons. Ingredients such as sugar and natural flavors are problematic because it is difficult to determine whether animal products were used in their production.
Artificial coloring agents are also problematic as the vegan community is divided on substances that undergo animal testing.
Due to the animal-derived and problematic ingredients, both the original-flavored Funyuns and the Flamin’ Hot variant are non-vegan.
The list of ingredients in Funyuns includes (1): enriched corn meal (corn meal, ferrous sulfate, niacin, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), vegetable oil (corn oil, and/or canola oil, and/or sunflower oil), salt, and less than 2% of the following: corn starch, sugar, corn flour, buttermilk, maltodextrin (made from corn), onion powder, monosodium glutamate, hydrolyzed corn protein, dextrose, garlic powder, natural flavors, gum arabic).
Other flavors have existed over time such as Wasabi, Steakhouse Onion, and Chile and Limon, but the Flamin’ Hot flavor is the only one currently available.
The list of ingredients in the Flamin’ Hot flavor includes: enriched corn meal (corn meal, ferrous sulfate, niacin, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), vegetable oil (corn oil, and/or canola oil, and/or sunflower oil), salt, and less than 2% of the following: corn starch, corn flour, buttermilk, sugar, monosodium glutamate, yeast extract, cheddar cheese (milk, cheese cultures, salt, enzymes), artificial color (Red 40 Lake, Yellow 6 Lake), citric acid, whey, onion powder, maltodextrin (made from corn), lactose, garlic powder, natural and artificial flavor, skim milk, sodium acetate, gum arabic, onion extracts.
While most ingredients listed are perfectly okay for vegans to add to their diets, there are some ingredients above that are either not vegan or problematic.
Traditionally, buttermilk referred to the byproduct of butter churning. Nowadays, buttermilk is typically cultured from pasteurized and homogenized milk and then inoculated with different lactic acid bacteria. Buttermilk is a common ingredient in many food products such as baked goods, cheese, ice cream, and such.
However, conventional buttermilk is not vegan as it is sourced from milk. Although vegan buttermilk can be produced using plant-sourced milk products, food manufacturers usually use cow’s milk unless otherwise stated.
Commonly known as cheddar, cheddar cheese is a sharp-tasting cheese that is specifically produced by kneading the curds with salt after heating. Produced all over the world, cheddar cheese is popularly used as a flavor additive and topping to many food products.
Since cheddar cheese is produced using milk, it cannot be considered vegan.
Whey is the byproduct of the cheese industry as it is the liquid that remains after the milk has been curdled and strained. Whey is used to produce a variety of cheeses and it is also popularly used as the source for protein supplements.
Like buttermilk and cheddar cheese, whey is also not vegan as it requires milk for its production.
One of the most essential sweeteners used in the food industry, sugar is a common ingredient that is often debated in the vegan community. While sugar is indeed obtained from plant sources (e.g., sugarcane, etc.), the manufacturing process can contaminate sugar with animal derivatives.
The typical issue associated with sugar is bone char – the charred skeletal remains of animals. To make the sugar more appealing to the market, sugar companies often further refine their sugar (2). Some companies use granulated carbon to filter their sugar, but some companies use bone char – a practice commonly done in the US. Using an animal product in its production, sugar refined with bone char can no longer be considered vegan.
The problem with bone char and sugar is that it is difficult to determine whether a sugar company uses bone char in its manufacturing process. Due to these circumstances, sugar is considered to be a gray area ingredient.
Natural flavors are a common food additive to give food products their distinct flavor. To protect the proprietary identity of the flavors of the food products, the FDA allows companies to generalize many substances under the umbrella term. However, the issue arises for vegans due to the ambiguity of the definition of the term (3). The FDA defines natural flavors as:
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 generalized use of the definition, consumers have no way to determine from the ingredients list if whether natural flavors are vegan or not since they can possibly contain substances derived from animal sources. Thus, natural flavors are considered to be a gray area ingredient in the vegan community.
Color is an integral part of the consumer experience and food manufacturers use various coloring agents to make their food products more appealing. Flamin’ Hot Funyuns specifically use Red 40 Lake and Yellow 6 Lake which are artificial coloring agents. While these substances do not use animal products or derivatives in their production, some vegans find issue with artificial coloring agents.
To get approval from various food safety authorities, artificial coloring agents have to undergo numerous safety studies. While safety is always important for substances developed for human consumption, the issue for vegans is that these tests employ the use of animal models.
Specifically, Red 40 and Yellow 6 have been studied using animals including mice, rats, guinea pigs, hamsters, dogs, rabbits, and pigs (4, 5).
While veganism is often concerned with keeping animal products from their diets, ethical veganism extends to products that use animals for production. Thus, while eating products with artificial coloring agents may be dietarily vegan, it cannot be ethically vegan.
Image Credit: Famartin shared under CC BY-SA 4.0