Reading Time: 4 minutes The beverage giant is behind big names such as Dr Pepper and Fanta but they're not all vegan Credit: Adobe. Do not use without permission.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Could it be that the world’s most iconic fizzy drink is off-limits for vegans? The title is held by Coca-Cola of course, with its iconic red trucks and unforgettable taste known all over the globe. The beverage giant is also behind favorites such as Fanta, Dr Pepper, Lilt, and Powerade. But some of its most renowned sodas contain animal-derived ingredients. But the most important question of all is, of course: is Coke vegan friendly?

And, what is it inside sodas that makes them not suitable for vegans?

Coca-Cola history

This magical brown liquid was born way back in 1886 in Atlanta, Georgia. Pharmacist Dr John Stith Pemberton crafted the syrup, serving it inside a jug down the streets outside Jacob’s Pharmacy. Here, its main ingredients were cocaine and caffeine: which inspired the name.

Since then, there have been many iterations, such as Diet Coke, Coca Cola Zero Sugar, and flavors from cherry, vanilla, and even coffee.

Now, the company offers 200 brands worldwide across a wealth of countries.

In the US alone, there are 800 different drinks available. And over 2020, the company boasted revenue of a staggering $33 billion.

But whilst many vegans may have thought their beloved fizz was free from the reigns of the animal agriculture industry, sadly that is not the case…

Coke ingredients explained

Each can of Coca Cola Classic contains more than 30 grams of sugar Credit: Adobe Do not use without permission.

Coca-Cola Classic contains six ingredients, though the drink is around 90 percent carbonated water. It also includes sugar, caramel color, phosphoric acid, caffeine, and a blend of secret natural flavors. On the surface, it would imply that these are vegan ingredients.

After all, the company protests: “Coca-Cola does not contain any ingredients derived from animal sources and can be included in a vegetarian or vegan diet.”

However, animal-derived ingredients can be found in products despite not being labeled as such.

For example, to make wine, it’s common to use ingredients such as isinglass to casein as a filter. This is a similar case in the soda industry too, in order to produce certain colors and flavors: and Coca-Cola is no different.

Is sugar vegan?

A key ingredient in fizzy favorites is sugar, of course. Each can of Coca-Cola, for instance, contains 39 grams of the stuff. It is widely considered that most sugars are vegan. But shockingly, many are made using animal bones.

Bone char, as it’s often known, is added to achieve a white color: but it’s unlikely you’ll find it listed on the box of your favorite brand. The char, also called ‘natural carbon’, comes from the bones of slaughtered cows.

Despite brown sugar not needing such color, companies which produce this type may be likely to use bone char too.

The types of sugar found in Coca-Cola vary from country to country. It’s either high fructose corn syrup or sugar, the company states. Via its website, Coca-Cola says it uses aspartame in ‘some’ of its products to offer less sugar and fewer calories.

In the UK, Ireland, and Australia at least, aspartame is a common artificial sweetener. It’s made from amino acids, and whilst it’s not sourced from animals, it has been ‘extensively’ tested on animals.

Products that contain it include Coke Zero Sugar, Diet Coke, Fanta Zero, and Sprite Zero. So in terms of the risk of bone char, the brand classic Coke is vegan, right?

Fish gelatin

Some of Coca-Cola’s products contain fish gelatin Credit: Adobe Do not use without permission.

According to Coca-Cola, its non-vegan products contain ‘small traces’ of fish gelatin. The product is extracted from the collagen in fish scales before it’s soaked in hot water.

Largely, it is used as a stabilizer in the food industry – but it’s also used as a gelling agent and thickener. Whilst gelatin is often harvested from pigs, fish gelatin has become more common because it overcomes religious concerns: as Jewish and Muslim faiths avoid pork consumption.

For Coca-Cola, the gelatin is used to create the beta-carotene color in some of its products.

Whilst the orange color may be made using fish gelatin, beta-carotene is actually a common component of plants, such as carrots. Moreover, it can be extracted from algae. But in the food industry, it is often recreated, replicated, and synthesized.

Other Coca-Cola drinks

Some of Coca-Cola’s most well-known drink brands include Lilt and Schweppes. However, both are neither suitable for vegans nor vegetarians because they contain fish gelatin.

The brand’s full list of products containing animal products are:

  • Lilt/Lilt Zero
  • Kia-Orange Orange Squash No Added Sugar
  • Scweppes Indian Tonic Water/Orange Squash
  • Honest Lemon and Honey
  • Glaceua Vitaminwater Zero Sunshine and Multi V
  • Costa Coffee Ready-to-Drink Latte/Caramel Latte/Americano

Animal testing

Back in 2007, Coca-Cola revealed it would stop conducting and funding animal products. In a letter, PETA announced, the company stated: “The Coca-Cola Company does not conduct animal tests and does not directly fund animal tests on beverages.”

Moreover, it said it would send letters to partners and research organizations insisting they use alternative methods.

In the past, the company is reported to have been involved in controversial practices such as force-feeding rats its ‘caramel color’.

Vegan options

Coca-Cola affirms most of its drinks are vegan-friendly. They include:

  • Coca-Cola Classic/Zero Sugar/Energy
  • Diet Coke
  • Glaceau Smartwater/Vitaminwater
  • Dr Pepper
  • Sprite
  • Fanta
  • Oasis
  • Powerade
  • Rose’s
  • Schweppes
  • Fuzetea

However, it is unclear whether any of its drinks may contain non-vegan sugar. So, what’s the answer? Some may avoid the risk of bone char by avoiding sugar or artificial sweeteners altogether.

As PETA proclaims, eating vegan ‘isn’t about perfection’. And, you shouldn’t ‘stress too hard’ about sugar if unsure exactly how it was produced.

Emily is a News and Features Writer for Plant Based News. She has previously worked as a journalist in Devon, UK, reporting on local issues from politics to the environment.