Is Rye Bread Really Vegan?


Is rye bread vegan?

Rye is a very popular grain second only to wheat for its use in bread making—though, in the US,  it tends to be used to produce whiskey and rye crackers. I get asked quite a bit if it’s vegan, so what we’ll do here is cover whether it’s vegan and what, if any, ingredients can be potentially problematic.

Is it vegan? Yes, rye bread is vegan. Like anything, there may be variations of the traditional recipe that contain atypical (and potentially animal-derived) ingredients, but 99% of the rye bread you will encounter in stores is considered vegan.

In fact, even the rye bread made by a company called “Beefsteak” checks out as vegan.1

Bread, in general, is largely vegan. I think this question comes up due to the fact that it’s often a red flag any time a bread product has a unique texture. You have to wonder how the texture was achieved and if it involves any animal products (egg whites in sponge cake, etc.).

The natural composition of rye flour is a bit different than wheat which gives it unique properties. For example, rye has a bit less protein compared to wheat (though it still contains gluten). It also has a bit less starch, but more dietary fiber and free sugars.2

These factors all contribute to the smaller loaf volume of rye bread (about half that of wheat products). The grain also gives the bread a richer flavor and aroma, and even a longer shelf life.3

So, it is vegan. However, that’s not to say there aren’t any ingredients that could be potentially problematic for some vegans.

Potentially Animal-Derived Ingredients in Rye Bread

These ingredients, if present, do not render a food product non-vegan by most standards. I list them here because vegans vary quite a bit in their level of restriction when it comes to various ingredients that may or may not trace back to an animal at some point.

Mono- and Diglycerides

Mono- and diglycerides are like the triglycerides (TGs) stored in our adipose tissue, but just have one fatty and two fatty acids (respectively) bound to a glycerol backbone instead of three FAs like TGs.4

These compounds serve a number of functions in food production. They’re emulsifiers so they help stabilize ingredients keeping them nice and mixed. Emulsifiers are compounds that can attract both fat and water molecules, hence why they help ingredients stay evenly dispersed.

In baked food items, specifically, mono and diglycerides improve loaf volume and texture, and also function as anti-staling agents.5,6

They also help create a softer crumb especially in pastries and danishes.7

So, how are the potentially problematic?

Industrially, they tend to be produced by reacting TGs with glycerol.8

So, as for their vegan-friendliness, the question is how the TGs are sourced because the precursors used for the reaction can be found in both vegetable and animal fats. 

Some vegans choose to restrict their intake of these ingredients because there’s usually no way to know how the compounds were sourced short of asking the manufacturer.

They’re thought to be somewhat problematic due, in part, to the fact that mono and diglycerides are listed in PETA’s list of animal-derived ingredients.9

If you want to know for sure, you can ask the manufacturer on Twitter or just stick to labels that say “plant diglycerides” or what have you.

Lactic Acid

Lactic acid (LA) is another ingredient on PETA’s list of animal-derived ingredients.9

LA is an organic acid found abundantly in milk, muscles, and blood. For this reason, it can be derived from animals. However, it can also be sourced from galactose in plants like beets.

Industrially, lactic acid is typically produced via:10

  • Chemical synthesis using precursors in coal and crude oil.
  • Bacterial fermentation using simple sugars (glucose, sucrose, and galactose). Lactic acid bacteria convert these simple sugars to LA.

How might lactic acid be problematic for vegans? The vegan-friendliness of LA comes down to whether galactose was used (to feed LA bacteria) and how the galactose was sourced. It can be derived from dairy products but can also be acquired from beets.11

Because it’s so ambiguous, many vegans don’t scrutinize it too heavily. But, this is something to be aware of if you’re a particularly strict vegan.

Enzymes

Some enzymes are mentioned in PETA’s list, but “enzymes” as an ambiguous ingredient wasn’t listed.9

Enzymes are used in dough for a number of reasons:12

  • Flour supplementation
  • Dough conditioning
  • The synergistic effects of enzymes
  • Reduction of acrylamide content in food products

Some enzymes are completely vegan-friendly and others aren’t. Most of the time when enzymes are mentioned, the type of enzymes are not listed. For this reason, most vegans don’t actively try to avoid the ingredient.

Much of the enzymes used in baked goods are completely vegan. For example, enzymes like malt and fungal alpha-amylases are used quite a bit in the baking industry. This is mostly due to increasing consumer demand for “natural” ingredients.

For example, enzymes are often used to replace potassium bromate, a somewhat controversial additive (in terms of health) used to help doughs achieve a higher rise.

When the dough is made, yeast acts on fermentable sugars, producing alcohol and CO2, causing the dough rise.

Amylases (a popular enzyme in bread making) are able to degrade starch to produce small dextrins (smaller carbs) that are easier for the yeast to act upon.

The enzymes xylanases, hemicellulases, oxidases, and lipases can improve the quality of the bread product by strengthening the gluten network allowing for a higher rise.

There’s also a certain type of amylase that’s able to modify starch during the baking process in a way that imparts an anti-staling effect.

So, a lot of these enzymes can achieve functions of synthetic food additives so their use helps manufacturers classify foods as all natural—for marketing and food labeling purposes.

Having said all of that, there’s always the chance that enzymes used in bread making may be animal-derived. For this reason, many vegans like to avoid products when “enzymes” are listed with no additional information.

Some products do list the ingredient as “plant-based enzymes” or “enzymes (plant-based).”

For example, Great Grains Bakery has a product with the following ingredients:13

  • Enriched unbleached flour (wheat flour, malt barley flour, niacin, ferrous sulfate, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, and folic acid)
  • Water
  • Dark rye flour
  • Rye meal
  • Sugar cane fiber
  • Non-GMO canola and/or non-GMO soybean oil
  • Cane sugar
  • Caraway seeds
  • Salt
  • Wheat gluten
  • Enzymes (plant-based)
  • Vinegar
  • Cultured wheat flour
  • Non-GMO cornmeal
  • Calcium sulfate
  • Ascorbic acid

A Note on Caramel Color

I’ve noticed that many rye breads contain caramel color. This just helps the rye bread achieve the desired darker color characteristic of this type of bread.

A lot of vegans encounter this ingredient on various products and want to know if it’s vegan. It’s seen as kind of a red flag due to the non-vegan status of caramel (the actual food product).

This is a good question because it’s not immediately obvious that the color wouldn’t be derived directly from caramel (a popular candy with milk products).

However, caramel color is, in fact, 100% vegan as it isn’t acquired from caramel itself.

It is produced in a manner similar to caramel—i.e. a browning reaction using sugars. But, the sugars used to produce it tend to be other simple sugars besides lactose.

Specifically, caramel color is made by heating up simple carbohydrates (often in the presence of salts, acids or alkalis) using:14

  • Fructose
  • Dextrose
  • Invert sugar
  • Sucrose
  • Malt syrup
  • Molasses
  • Starch hydrolysates

So, caramel color is perfectly suitable for vegans.

So, that’s it for rye bread. Thanks for reading.

You may also want to check out the following articles:

References

  1. Beefsteak Soft Rye Bread. https://www.walmart.com/ip/Beefsteak-Soft-Rye-Bread-18-oz/116796470
  2. Aman P, M Nilsson, and R Andersson. Positive health effects of rye. Cereal Foods World 42(8): 684–688, 1997.
  3. Weipert D. Processing performance of rye as compared to wheat. Cereal Foods World 42(8):706–712, 1997.
  4. IUPAC, Compendium of Chemical Terminology, 2nd ed. (the “Gold Book”) (1997). Online corrected version: (2006–) “glycerides”
  5. Y. H. Hui (15 February 2008). Bakery Products: Science and Technology. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 350–. ISBN 978-0-470-27632-7.
  6. Gerard L. Hasenhuettl; Richard W. Hartel (1 January 1997). Food Emulsifiers and Their Applications. Springer. ISBN 978-0-412-07621-3.
  7. Ebeler, S.E., L.M. Breyer, and C.E. Walker. “White Layer Cake Batter Emulsion Characteristics: Effects of Sucrose Ester Emulsifiers.” Journal of Food Science 51.5 (1986).
  8. Sonntag, Norman O. V. (1982). “Glycerolysis of fats and methyl esters — Status, review, and critique”. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society. 59 (10): 795A–802A.
  9. Animal-derived Ingredients Resource | Living. https://www.peta.org/living/food/animal-ingredients-list/
  10. H. Benninga (1990): “A History of Lactic Acid Making: A Chapter in the History of Biotechnology”. Volume 11 of Chemists and Chemistry. Springer, ISBN 0792306252, 9780792306252
  11. Galactose. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galactose#Sources
  12. Enzyme Applications in Baking http://www.biokemi.org/biozoom/issues/516/articles/2309
  13. Great Grains Bakery, NEW YORK RYE, Premium Wide Pan Bread. https://www.walmart.com/ip/Great-Grains-Bakery-NEW-YORK-RYE-Premium-Wide-Pan-Bread-24-oz/192109305
  14. Caramel Color. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caramel_color#Production

Drew Davis

Hi! I'm Drew and this is the place where I nerd out about vegan and plant-based diets. I have a BS in Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Alabama and have taken dozens of classes in areas like organic and biochemistry, food science, medical nutrition therapy, nutritional genomics, and vegetarian diets. I'm still learning every day, and on this blog, I'll be sharing everything I discover about vegan diets as I go.

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