With the recognizable pitcher mascot and its catchphrase (“Oh, yeah!”), Kool-Aid is a popular brand of flavored drink mix produced by the Kraft Heinz Company – the merger of Kraft Foods and Heinz. Introduced as early as 1927, Kool-Aid began being sold as a liquid concentrate before it was eventually sold as a powder to reduce shipping costs. Being a product sold all over the world, vegans might wonder whether the flavored drink is suitable for their specific diet and lifestyle.
Technically, Kool-Aid can be considered vegan since its ingredients list does not contain obvious animal products. However, having dozens of flavors available, Kool-Aid does contain some ingredients that some vegans might find some problem with.
From the standpoint that Kool-Aid is not made from any obvious products derived from animals, Kool-Aid is considered to be vegan. However, this strictly refers to their flavored drink mixes because Kool-Aid also offers other product lines that are not vegan such as Kool-Aid Ice Cream Bars (contains dairy).
Since Kool-Aid comes in a wide variety of flavors, the ingredients lists slightly vary from one flavor to another. For brevity, here are the ingredients of the six original Kool-Aid flavors: cherry, grape, lemon-lime, orange, raspberry, and strawberry (1).
Kool-Aid Cherry: Sugar, fructose, citric acid, contains less than 2% of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), artificial flavor, calcium phosphate, artificial color, red 40, BHT (preserves freshness).
Kool-Aid Grape: Sugar, fructose, citric acid, contains less than 2% of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), artificial flavor, calcium phosphate, red 40, blue 1.
Kool-Aid Lemon-Lime: Citric acid, calcium phosphate, salt, contains less than 2% of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), natural and artificial flavor, yellow 5, blue 1, BHA (preservative).
Kool-Aid Orange: Sugar, fructose, citric acid, contains less than 2% of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), natural and artificial flavor, calcium phosphate, sodium citrate, artificial color, yellow 6, yellow 6 lake, red 40 lake, BHA (preserves freshness).
Kool-Aid Raspberry: Sugar, fructose, citric acid, contains less than 2% of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), natural and artificial flavor, magnesium oxide, calcium silicate, salt, artificial color, blue 1, BHA (preserves freshness).
Kool-Aid Strawberry: Sugar, fructose, citric acid, contains less than 2% of ascorbic acid (vitamin C), natural and artificial flavor, calcium phosphate, red 40.
While these six are the original flavors, Kool-Aid has other flavors such as black cherry, tropical punch, lemonade, pink lemonade, watermelon, summer punch, mango, and many more.
All the ingredients listed above can be considered vegan at first glance. However, there are three particular ingredients listed that some vegans find problematic. These substances are gray areas because they are conditionally vegan depending on how they were produced or what type of veganism someone practices.
Most of the flavors of Kool-Aid include sugar which many vegans find problematic. While sugar is entirely derived from plants like sugarcanes, sugar can be non-vegan depending on how it was processed by the sugar manufacturer.
To make sugar more appealing to consumers, the powder is refined and processed to make it finely granulated and white. To do so, sugar has to undergo refinement which includes being filtered. Many companies use vegan approaches to refine sugar such as the use of granulated carbon, but there are some companies that use bone char – the ground and charred skeletal remains of animals.
When sugar is processed using bone char, it is no longer vegan as its production includes the use of animal products.
Sugar is a problematic ingredient because it is difficult to determine whether manufacturers source their sugar from companies that use bone char or other refinement methods. However, vegans in the US should be more cautious as the use of bone char in sugar production is more prevalent in the US than it is in other countries.
While avoiding sugar might lead consumers to purchase Kool-Aid’s unsweetened beverage mixes, these drinks can also be potentially problematic. While these products do not contain sugar, they contain alternative artificial sweeteners such as sucralose. A synthetic product, sucralose does not contain any animal products. However, sucralose has been documented to undergo animal testing studies which means it cannot be considered to be ethically vegan (2).
Natural flavor is a common ingredient found in many Kool-Aid flavors. The root of the problem when it comes to this ingredient is its vague definition. 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 (3).”
This means that natural flavors can either be vegan or not, and the only way to determine whether it is indeed vegan is to ask the company.
Comparatively, artificial flavor is completely vegan because of its definition:
“The term artificial flavor or artificial flavoring means any substance, the function of which is to impart flavor, which is not derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof (4).”
As an easy marker for the different Kool-Aid flavors, the beverage uses different food coloring agents in different ratios to get different shades of color that correspond to their flavors.
While all the food coloring agents listed in Kool-Aid products are synthetic food dyes that do not use any animal product or derivative, they are still considered to be gray area ingredients because these dyes have to undergo animal testing to be approved by the food safety authorities (5).
Listed above, the synthetic food dyes Red 40, Blue 1, and Yellow 6 have all been subjected to various animal models such as mice, rats, dogs, cats, rabbits, and pigs.
These animal testing studies are considered to be unethical, especially because methods that do not require the use of animal models are available for use. These methods include in vitro assays (i.e., the use of cell models instead of animal models) and in silico studies (i.e., the use of computer models and algorithms).