When used in food and confections, shellac has the food additive number E904, and is described on food labels as ‘confectioner’s glaze’, ‘confectioner’s resin’, ‘resinous glaze’, ‘candy glaze’, ‘pure food glaze’ and ‘natural glaze’.
The main uses of shellac in confectionery are to do with coating chocolate goods, such as candy-covered nuts and raisins, and similar products. But what many people may not realize is that it’s also used as a coating on some nutritional supplements, medicines, fruit, and even coffee beans.
Laccifer lacca is a small insect about the size and color of an apple seed, which swarms on certain trees in India and Thailand. During the larval stage of its life-cycle, the lac insect creates a hard, waterproof, communal protective shell as a cocoon in which to mature and then mate.
The encrusted resin that forms this shell is scraped off the branches where the insects nest. This raw material, known as ‘sticklac’, as well as being the basis for shellac, is also used for the production of ‘lac dye’, a red pigment from the crushed bodies of the insects, much like cochineal or carmine. If lac dye is the primary product being made, the lac resin is harvested before the males have emerged from their cocoons, and the sticklac is dried in the sun to kill the beetles.
As well as being a traditional cosmetic in India, lac dye is primarily used to dye leather, silk and wool. However, it is also used as a coloring in some foods and soft drinks. According to one manufacturer’s website, “Lac dye can be used in juice drinks, carbonated drinks, wine, candy, jam and sauce.”
Some sources say that approximately 300,000 lac insects are killed to produce 1kg of lac, and that annual production is estimated at 20,000 tons globally. The main importers of lac products are Egypt, Germany, Indonesia, Italy and the United States.
Shellac is also used as a pharmaceutical glaze, and serves as a coating material for tablets and capsules, particularly in time-released or delayed-action pills, since it stops the pill from breaking down in the stomach.
Also known as ‘gum lac’, shellac also finds its way into household products such as sealing wax, adhesives, polish and varnish; in cosmetics such as hairsprays, mascara, nail polish, perfume and lipstick (and yes, there are vegan alternatives for all of these); as a binding agent in printing inks and paints; and in agriculture – coating urea to produce a slow releasing fertilizer.
Is there a vegan alternative to shellac? Of course! Zein, a corn protein, is a competitive non-animal-based product. Pure zein is clear, odorless, tasteless, hard, water-insoluble, and edible. It is already used as a coating for candy, nuts, fruit, pills, and other encapsulated foods and drugs. In the United States, it may also be labeled as ‘confectioner’s glaze’. NOTE: As well as sometimes being made from shellac, confectioner’s glaze can also contain beeswax.
So, what do you do if you want to know whether that shine on your candy comes from an animal or a plant? Call the company, of course! Not only does making that call give you a definitive answer as to the origin of the ingredient, but it also lets the company know that there is an increasing demand for vegan alternatives to shellac and other animal-based ingredients that are, frankly, archaic.