Pectin is one of the main ingredients in most jellies and jams these days, and you’ll also encounter it in processed foods, especially fruit-flavored snacks. It’s pretty ubiquitous in food labels, so vegans run across it from time to time and want to know if it’s suitable for 100% plant-based eaters.
Is it vegan or vegetarian? Yes, pectin is 100% vegan. It’s a type of fiber extracted from fruits for use in various processed foods. It’s one of several pectic substances found within the cell walls of fruits and vegetables. Animal cells don’t contain cell walls, therefore pectin is never animal-derived.1
What we’ll do here is go over the various reasons why pectin is always considered 100% vegan-friendly.
The Vegan Status of Pectin
Pectin Is Found in Fruits and Vegetables
Pectin is a pectic substance along with protopectin and pectic acid.1 These substances are found within and between the cell walls of fruit vegetables.
Pectin’s main component is a compound called galacturonic acid, which is a sugar acid derived from galactose.
Galactose gets a bad rap because the compound is part of lactose, which is the simple sugar found in milk—lactose (a disaccharide) is molecule composed of one galactose bound to one glucose (two monosaccharides).
Galactose is rarely found free in nature. It’s usually bound to glucose in milk or present as part of pectin in fruits and vegetables.2
So, if you hear that pectin contains galactose, don’t let it scare you.
Pectin Is a Plant-Based Gelling Agent
That’s right. Not only is pectin vegan, but it’s commonly used as a plant-based alternative to the infamous gelatin, which is a protein found in various animal tissues such as the epidermis of the skin.
Dried gelatin and dried pectin both gel up when exposed to water, so they’re both used in confections and other processed foods to provide a nice gelatinous texture.
Anytime a food product has a gelatinous texture, you can consider it a red flag for sure, at least until you figure out what’s giving the food a jelly consistency.
Understandably, when most folks think of the word “gelatinous” they think of gelatin. That’s because the words sound similar, but also because gelatin has a confusing definition.
According to several dictionaries, definition #1 is a semi-transparent, mildly yellow, odorless, and tasteless glutinous substance produced by boiling animal tissues (skin, bones, ligaments, etc.) in water.3
Whereas secondary definitions usually include something like, “a preparation or product wherein vegetable or animal substances are the main constituent.”3
Merrian Webster defines it, secondarily, as any of various substances (including plant-based substances like agar) resembling gelatin.4,5
So, gelatin doesn’t have a monopoly on gelatinous substances. Several soluble and semi-fermentable vegetable gums gel up when exposed to water, which is why they’re often used in place of gelatin.
In fact, the term gelatinization is strictly used to refer to a process that involves heating plant matter in the presence of water.6
The heating of the liquid causes the weakening of the hydrogen bonds that hold the starch together, which allows water to break through the starch molecules. This process causes the starch molecules to swell up until their peak thickness is reached.7
This swelling causes the starchy substance to take on a gelatinous texture—think spaghetti noodles. When the starch granules swell, their size increases many times over.
The resulting volume increase radically changes the texture of foods giving them a gummy consistency. For example, pasta, oats, rice, scalloped potatoes, and most soups, sauces, and puddings take on a very different texture after cooking.8
A Note on Amylopectin
Yes, pectin is in the name. But, are they the same? And if not, is amylopectin vegan?
You may have heard of amylopectin, which is a type of starch. Above it was mentioned that pectin is one of several pectic substances, and I’d imagine that many of you are wondering whether amylopectin is also a pectic substance.
It’s a common ingredient in processed foods, so a lot of folks see it on food panels and want to know if it’s vegan. Amylopectin is vegan, but it’s not a derivative of pectin, despite having pectin in its name. It’s a complex (highly branched) starch molecule, made up of glucose units—whereas pectin contains galactose.9
Pectin is largely undigestible, as it’s a type of fiber. Whereas, amylopectin is a highly branched, yet digestible form of starch.
Plants use photosynthesis to create glucose that’s then arranged in the form of starch.
When a plant matures, the starch provides energy for its immediate use but also stores extra energy for future needs in the form of starch granules.
Microscopic starch granules are found in foods like tapioca, rice, potato, and wheat. One small cubic inch of starch-containing food can contain up to a million starch molecules.10
Amylopectin and amylose are the two main forms of starch in these granules. Both are made up of glucose units joined together by digestible glycosidic bonds, but they’re just arranged differently.11
The main difference between amylopectin and pectin is that the body can digest the former. Our bodies have the enzymes necessary to bread down amylose and amylopectin into individual glucose units for absorption in the small intestine.12
Whereas, only our gut bacteria have the enzymes necessary to break down fermentable and semi-fermentable plant fibers like pectin.13
So, while different from pectin, amylopectin is considered vegan. The storage form of carbohydrates in animals is glycogen, not starch. Thus, amylopectin is always considered 100% plant-based.
That’s it for the vegan status of pectin. Thanks for reading.
You may also want to check out the following related articles:
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 43). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011. ISBN-10: 0-538-73498-1 https://books.google.com/books?id=ppMzyDFyHUwC&q=pectic+substances#v=snippet&q=pectic%20substances&f=false
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 40). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011. ISBN-10: 0-538-73498-1
- Gelatin. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/gelatin
- Gelatin. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gelatin
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 545). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011. ISBN-10: 0-538-73498-1
- Aguilera JM, and E Rojas. Rheological, thermal and microstructural properties in whey protein cassava starch gels. Journal of Food Science 61(5):963–966, 1996.
- Hoover R, and T Vasanthan. Effect of heat-moisture treatment on the structure and physiochemical properties of cereal, legume and tuber starches. Carbohydrate Research 252:133–153, 1994.
- Galvez FCF, AVA Resurreccion, and GO Ware. Process variables, gelatinized starch and moisture effects on physical properties of mungbean noodles. Journal of Food Science 59(2):378–381, 1994.
- Amylopectin. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amylopectin
- Whitney EN, CB Cataldo, and SR Rolfes. Understanding Normal and Clinical Nutrition. Wadsworth/ West Publishing, 2009.
- Understanding Food: Principles and Preparation (Page 41). Amy Brown – Wadsworth Cengage Learning – 2011. ISBN-10: 0-538-73498-1
- Wheeler ML, and X Pi-Sunyer. Carbohydrate issues: Type and amount. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 108:S34–S39, 2008.
- How Bacteria Turn Fiber into Food. Mason Inman. PLoS Biol. 2011 Dec; 9(12): e1001227. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3243711/