Most people know that prepared cake tends to come with its fair share of animal products like milk and eggs. But, what about cake mix? And if cake mixes can be vegan, which ones tend to be the most vegan-friendly? After all, there are countless varieties of cake mixes on the market.
These are the questions that will be addressed in this article. I scanned the labels of countless cake mixes—from generic to Duncan Hines to Betty Crocker—and took note of the most common ingredients which I’ll be analyzing in this article.
In short, are cake mixes vegan? The good news is that most cake mixes you’ll encounter in grocery stores and online are vegan. While prepared cake is traditionally non-vegan, the animal products are present in the wet ingredients. Since cake mixes compose the dry ingredients, they tend to be vegan.
Keep in mind that this is not always the case. For example, milk and egg also come in dry powder form and thus can be added to cake mix. More on that below.
Then there are ingredients that especially strict vegans may want to avoid but are considered suitable for vegan consumption by most standards.
What we’ll do here is go over the most common vegan and non-vegan ingredients present in cake mix, so you’ll know what to look out for.
Vegan Ingredients in Cake Mix
Flour and Sugar
Cake flour is the main source of starch in cake mixes.1
Sugar is the main source of simple (e.g. fructose). Some vegans like to avoid sugar due to the use of bone char, a substance used to remove impurities when producing white sugar.
However, while a lot of vegans avoid purchasing white sugar in bulk, most don’t go out of their way to avoid food products containing sugar. And PETA does not consider products containing white sugar to be off-limits for vegans.2
If you’re an especially strict vegan who wants to avoid processed sugar, you may want to make your own cake mix from scratch using organic sugar.
I say this because it’s nigh impossible to find commercial cake mixes without sugar. Sugar is needed to make cake and the whole purpose of producing a boxed cake mix is to make things easy on the consumer.
Therefore, sugar is invariably used since it’s a dry ingredient and can easily be added to the flour mixture.
Sugar has several functions in cake mix.
For a long time, the amount of sugar in cake mixtures couldn’t exceed that of the flour, because the excess sugar would interfere with hydration of the proteins and gelatinization of the starch which would cause the cake to collapse.3
Nowadays, cake mixes can be made with higher sugar-to-flour ratios (as high as 1.25:1 to 1.40:1) due to improvements in cake shortenings and flour technology.3
The extra sugar helps improve the moisture of the cake and prolong shelf life.3
Certain substances are often used to produce an extra white cake mix. Chlorine gas is a common bleaching agent that’s been used to bleach flour as far back as 1912 and is still used to bleach cake mix and all-purpose flour.4
Benzoyl peroxide and calcium peroxide are also used from time to time. The former is slower acting, and the latter is not thought to be as effective.5
So they’re a bit less common.
Salt and Flavorings
Like any good flour mixture, cake mix contains salt. Salt is an important ingredient, additive, and flavor enhancer. It also binds water so it helps extend shelf life.
Other flavorings commonly incorporated into flour mixtures include vanilla, spices, chocolate (cocoa powder, chocolate chips or chunks, etc.), fruits, and nuts.6
Of course, chocolate can be non-vegan. More on that below.
Fat Source: Plant Oils
For example, Duncan Hines Signature Strawberry Supreme mix contains emulsified palm shortening, which is a combination of palm oil and various emulsifiers.7
Butter can be used, but cake mixes are ultra-processed so they tend to contain hydrogenated plant oils as partially and fully hydrogenated oils have a longer shelf life compared to butter—i.e. they don’t go rancid as easily.
Fats like shortening also contribute volume, tenderness, moisture, and flavor.3
A Quick Distinction
The above is referring to oils added in very small amounts to the cake mix.
While the mix does contain trace amounts of oils, the directions on the box will usually call for some vegetable oil to be added—usually about a 1/3 of a cup.8
Oils coat the flour proteins, which helps prevent them from adhering to water, reducing gluten formation and improving moisture in the batter.3
Interestingly, most instructions don’t ask you to add a saturated fat source. This is good news for vegans because butter is a common source of saturated fat.
I say interesting because professional cake makers use shortening (hydrogenated oils) or butter. Desirable attributes in a cake (like volume and tenderness) are best achieved with saturated or hydrogenated fat as opposed to vegetable oil.3
The purpose of creaming (the process by which tiny air bubbles are beaten into fat) requires a fat source that can entrap air bubbles instead of engulfing/eliminating them completely—a process that results in less volume and a harsher crumb.3,9
This brings us to the next category of ingredients.
Oil shortened cakes, like those made with commercial cake mixes, make use of leaveners to create bubbles—as opposed to air that’s been mechanically whipped into a saturated or hydrogenated fat source.
Hence, oil-shortened cakes rely on chemical leaveners.3
Common leaveners include sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), dicalcium phosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate, and monocalcium phosphate. These are all vegan-friendly.
Amounts vary per the amount of flour used. High-ratio cakes typically used 1 tsp. of baking powder or ¼ tsp. of baking soda per cup of flour.6,10
Non-Vegan Ingredients Potentially Present in Cake Mix
Dry Milk and Dairy Derivatives
Water hydrates the dry ingredients, dissolves the salt and sugar, allows for baking soda to react, and provides steam for leavening.6
For this reason, the box instructions will usually have you add about 1 cup of water.8
Bakeries tend to use milk as the primary liquid ingredient in cake preparation. The water content of the milk performs the above functions while the milk proteins help emulsify the ingredients, retain moisture, and provide a nice smooth mouthfeel.11,12
Milk tends to be less common in commercial cake mixes.
Obviously, if instructions on your cake box call for milk, it’s no problem—simply use water.
But, because other components of milk (besides the water) perform useful functions, it stands to reason that some cake mix manufacturers will add milk derivatives to the dry mixture.
This is not that common in my experience—I’ve read countless labels, and very rarely have I run across any milk products.
One exception might be chocolate chips, but they tend to be included in breakfast cake products like muffins, waffle mix, etc. – not traditional dessert cake.
Dry Egg (E.g. Angel Food Cake Mix)
Egg is another potential, but highly irregular ingredient in commercial cake mix.
Eggs can be used to strengthen the structure of cakes, as well as for leavening, emulsification of ingredients, flavor, and color.6
Earlier it was mentioned that oil shortened cake needs help with leavening. Eggs are a good physical leavener, as they can easily be whipped up into a foam.3
When cooked, air trapped in the whipped eggs expands helping the cake achieve a higher rise.
Angel food cake is about the only category of commercial cake mix I’ve come across with dry eggs in the mix.
Surfactants in Cake Batters: a Grey Area for Some Vegans
While cakes made from scratch don’t contain much in the way of additives (aside from maybe chemical leaveners), cake mixes often have more odd sounding ingredients than you can shake a stick at.
Surfactants and emulsifiers are among the most common in commercial cake mixes and are usually included in the shortenings.6
- Improve flavor and texture
- Emulsify ingredients
- Incorporate air into the batter to increase volume
Examples of surfactants/emulsifiers include:6
- Monoglycerides, diglycerides
- Polysorbate 60
- Sorbitol–fatty acid esters
- Glycerol–lactic acid esters
- Propylene glycol–fatty acid esters
Some such compounds are derived from plants. For example, olive oil contains natural emulsifiers which is why the oil has been known to be used in cakes shortened with solid fats to make them more moist and tender.13
However, some can be sourced from both animals and plants.
In their list of animal-derived ingredients, PETA lists glycerin and stearic acid as potentially sourced from animals.14
Mono- and diglycerides, two common emulsifiers/surfactants, are made by reacting glycerol (another name for glycerin) with triglycerides (TGs). Glycerol and TG’s can be sourced both from animal fat and certain plant foods.
Because they’re usually plant-derived, such compounds are not considered unsuitable for vegan consumption—at least, by most standards.
Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate (SSL) is a stearic acid derivative and common surfactant in commercial cake mixes.
For example, the Duncan Hines cake mentioned above (under Fat Sources), contains the stuff.7
It’s used to improve the volume and mix tolerance of processed foods.15
While it is more common in animal fat, it’s found abundantly in plant sources like shea butter, coconut, and vegetable fats.14
Like many ingredients, most vegans don’t actively avoid stearic acid and mono/diglycerides, but if you’re an especially prudent vegan, you may want to avoid the stuff.
That’s it for the vegan status of cake mixes. Thanks for reading.
You may also want to check out the following related articles:
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 392). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011. ISBN-10: 0-538-73498-1
- Is Sugar Vegan? https://www.peta.org/living/food/is-sugar-vegan/
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 482). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011. ISBN-10: 0-538-73498-1
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 374). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011. ISBN-10: 0-538-73498-1
- Flour Bleaching: Baking Processes. https://bakerpedia.com/processes/flour-bleaching/
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 483). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011. ISBN-10: 0-538-73498-1
- (2 Pack) Duncan Hines SIGNATURE LAYER CAKE MIX Strawberry Supreme 15.25 Oz. https://www.walmart.com/ip/2-Pack-Duncan-Hines-SIGNATURE-LAYER-CAKE-MIX-Strawberry-Supreme-15-25-Oz/332808731
- Classic Yellow Cake Mix. https://www.duncanhines.com/products/classic-yellow-cake-mix/
- Corriher SO. Mixing matters. when to cream, cut in, whisk, fold, or stir. Fine Cooking 61:18, 2004.
- Corriher S. For great cakes, get the ratios right. Fine Cooking 42:78, 2001.
- Smith DM, and AJ Rose. Gel properties of whey protein concentrates as influenced by ionized calcium. Journal of Food Science 59(5):1115–1118, 1994.
- Francis LL, et al. Serving temperature effects on milk flavor, milk aftertaste, and volatile compound quantification in nonfat and whole milk. Journal of Food Science 70(7):S413–S418, 2005.
- Revsin L. Old-fashioned cakes with a subtle twist. Fine Cooking 43:59–63, 2001.
- Animal-derived Ingredients Resource: Living. https://www.peta.org/living/food/animal-ingredients-list/
- Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sodium_stearoyl_lactylate