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Does your daily bread contain human hair?

Justin Rowlatt | 18:21 UK time, Saturday, 19 December 2009

I don't mean one of your stray locks that fell into the butter. What I want to know is whether amino acids produced from human hair were used to process the flour that went to make that piece of toast you wolfed down on the way to the bus stop.

It sounds unthinkable doesn't it? But when I became a temporarily became a vegan for Newsnight, I developed a keen interest in what goes into the food I eat and I discovered that a food additive which is sometimes produced from human hair can be used as an additive in some baked goods.

bbcturkeydinner.jpg

But first, the veganism. I did not do it out of high principle. The idea was to test the claim made by a number of people who e-mailed in to insist that becoming a vegan significantly reduces one's impact on the environment.

I was vegan for one month- January 2007. So this did not preclude me eating Ned the Newsnight turkey for Christmas 2006.

I am happy to report that Ned was as tasty as he was ethical. My family gnawed our way through his ample carcass over the course of a full week. We ate Ned roast on the big day, then sandwiched, curried, as a supreme and finally in a tasty soup. Then, as the last few slices of Ned grew an extravagant mould in the bottom of our fridge, the New Year turned and my diet became completely meat and dairy free.

It wasn't easy. I did not just cut meat and fish out of my diet. Vegans don't eat any animal products including milk, eggs and honey. So did cutting out all animal products reduce my carbon footprint?

I need a bit of persuading about the bees but cows certainly produce an impressive quantity of greenhouse gases - some 500 litres of methane a day per animal.

When my vegan experiment was just getting under way, the then environment minister David Miliband pointed out at a conference that "the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions than transport". Agriculture is reckoned to account for 7% of all greenhouse gas emissions, about the same as aviation.

And methane isn't the only issue. It is claimed that one acre of arable crops can produce enough food for up to 20 people. Turn that field over to beef production and it will feed just one person.

Not only that, raising animals is a lot more carbon intensive than growing vegetables. David Pimentel, an ecologist from Cornell University, has calculated that animal protein production requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than plant protein yet yields proteins only 1.4 times as nutritious for humans.

That's the average. When you look at individual sectors the figures are even more startling. Take beef, for example. Using US Department of Agriculture figures he found that beef production requires an energy input to protein output of 54:1 (as well as 100,000 litres of water per kilogram of meat).

Vegetarians shouldn't feel too smug, though. Milk protein has a ratio of 17:1. In fact, rather depressingly the most efficient form of animal production - perhaps not surprisingly - is battery chickens. Pimentel finds that broiler chickens have a ratio of energy input to protein output of just 4:1.
My problem has been eradicating all these inefficient animal proteins from my diet. Take my very first day of vegan living, New Year's Day.

I hadn't prepared very well and hadn't got any margarine in. The local corner shop, a Londis, was open and they stock a good range so I wasn't too worried. But as I worked my way through the eight or so different varieties of margarine I was amazed to find that every single one contained milk or dairy products in some form.

It makes you realise just how common the use of animal products in food is. Before I became a vegan I would eat animal products in every single meal. Indeed the Vegan Society points out that some vegans consider tap water unacceptable because it contains chemicals that have been tested on animals.

I am not going that far but I have certainly developed a mania for reading food labels and there are all sorts of unexpected animal additives.

Most people know that gelatine is produced from animal skin and bones and that the rennet used in some cheeses comes from calves' stomachs. But did you know that bone char (from cow bones) is still occasionally used to whiten some sugars or that some wines and many beers (particularly real ales) include isinglass - a substance obtained from the swim bladders of fish?

Which brings me back to the possibility that human hair may be used in bread. A vegetarian friend alerted me to the existence of an animal-based flour additive called L-Cysteine. It is an amino acid which is used as a flour improver. It is known as E920 and is permitted for use in all biscuits, breads and cakes except those that claim to be wholemeal.

The problem for a would-be vegan is that traditionally L-Cysteine is produced from feathers, pig bristles and sometimes even human hair. These days L-Cysteine can also be produced synthetically but apparently human hair remains one of the richest sources of this amino acid - it makes up about 14% of your hair - and there is a small industry in China making the additive from hair clippings.

There's even a paper on the web written by a Rabbi about whether L-Cysteine from human hair is kosher. Apparently it is - so long as the hair in question was not harvested from dead bodies.

So how commonly is L-Cysteine used? My vegetarian friend claims that the problem with E920 is that - even when it is used - it doesn't have to be listed in the ingredients. She says that's because it is broken down in the baking process so the manufacturers argue that doesn't constitute an ingredient.

That is something the Food Standards Agency flatly denies. It says that L-Cysteine must always be labelled. Indeed, the industry says the reason you so rarely see E920 on labels is that these days it is very rarely used (apparently it was much more common fifteen years ago). The industry also says that the only L-Cysteine their members would use is the synthetic variety.

That is a little odd because according to the Food Standards Agency the European regulation specifies that only L-Cysteine produced from duck and chicken feathers or from pig bristles can be used. That means that, so long as your daily bread was baked in Europe, it almost certainly does not include human hair.

But it's a little confusing. If British bakers are using synthetic L-Cysteine are they breaking EU guidelines? It is hard to get a straight answer. Biscuit makers told me it would be added when the flour is milled - and the millers say it's something the bakers would add.

So if anyone can put this hairy issue to bed once and for all I'd be very grateful. And while I am on the subject, if anyone knows of any other animal-based (or human-based) food ingredients a vegan needs to steer clear of, please do tell me.

NB - Look familiar? This blog is made from 100% recycled material from Justin's 2007 Ethical Man series - keeping it ethical.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    It is all well and good looking at land, energy and water use involved in food production, but the fact is that while ever human population continues to grow unabated, we will eventually run out of resources.

    ... then you can have a similar article telling us what Soylent Green ration wafer contain!

  • Comment number 2.

    Although #1 above is true, we do need to limit our population or our efforts to protect our environment will be fruitless, need for population action, does not mean that we can continue to pollute.

    In fact, we should plan for a growing world population, because no available options will produce a different result.

    If a draconian one child rule, can produce a generation of lonely men, and population growth from one billion, to 1.2 billion, no reasonable actions can possibly be expected to reduce world population.

    Since something like the richest 20% of humanity, is responsible for 90% of our emissions, clearly how much each rich person pollutes is more important, than how many humans exist.

    I just don't get vegans. I think they should worry more about people, and less about bugs.

    I also wish we would impose the same standards on our transportation systems, (in terms of yearly deaths and injuries) as we have for all other consumer products and food.

  • Comment number 3.

    I did not spend the last 4.5 billion years evolving to end up eating vegetables

  • Comment number 4.

    Thanks for the link to the Kosher article. It was fascinating in many parts (although impenetrable in others).

    So Amino-Acids are named after an 8th century Egyptian camel-dung burning location. Hats off to Arabian Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan !

    Can you tell us what other common foods have strange animal-based ingredients in ? Or use strange ingredients to process the food ?

    For example, I was told apple juice would be undrinkable if I knew how it was processed, but never told what the secret was.

  • Comment number 5.

    You say that agriculture accounts for 7% of all green house gasses. However, two reports indicate that it is quite likely to be much much higher. The FAO report of 2006, "Livestock's Long Shadow" said that "The livestock sector is a major player, responsible for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions measured in CO2 equivalent" (http://www.fao.org/docrep/010/a0701e/a0701e00.HTM).
    More recent research published by the Worldwatch Institute this year provides figures of 51% of greenhouse gases attributable to livestock. This research was undertaken by two writers who work or worked for the World Bank. (http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6294).
    Either way these figures are startling, and provide compelling reasons to be vegetarian (at least).

  • Comment number 6.

    Firstly love the cheek of recycling the material. On that note I would like to remind you about your pervious video on the topic and the health impacts of going vegan that were demonstrated in that video. Although your body fat dropped and your cholesterol was reduced with the new diet, shockingly you had a reduced Hb (Haemoglobin). This demonstrated how difficult it is to get a fully balanced diet as a vegan and that there is more to health than just cholesterol and fat! Your bloods as I'm sure you are aware after the consultation you had were suggestive of malnutrition especially in the form of B vitamins and iron (which are linked). Any restrictive diet has the same risks of similar problems developing and thus has significant dangers associated with it. I don't think I have a single college in the medical profession who has not encountered a child that is malnourished and sick because of the vegan diet their parents have imposed on it.

    As a result of this I do feel that your video was unethical in the way it implied a net health benefit from the diet change without sufficient gravity being given to the serious signs of malnourishment and thus the dangers your one month exercise demonstrated. If you take into account the developmental implications of malnutrition in children it is my belief that any treatment of the topic should give significant emphasis the potential dangers and of the diet, especially to children. What I am alluding to here is not that a healthy balanced vegan diet is a theoretical impossibility but instead it is for most people a practical impossibility. This combined with the dangers of malnutrition in the developing body (conception – approximately 21 years of age) means that a vegan diet should be approached with extreme caution and treated with the utmost diligence.

    If you question the importance of optimal nutrition in infancy and development a good example I would suggest looking at is the data on the average IQ of children breast fed compared to those that were nipple fed.

  • Comment number 7.

    NB - Look familiar? This blog is made from 100% recycled material from Justin's 2007 Ethical Man series - keeping it ethical

    Interesting concept. Hence now considering consequences of 'unique funding' and ethical licence fee paying to save money should I be called upon to make further sacrifices.

    Hope Capita will appreciate the precedent.

  • Comment number 8.

    The above comment #6 jumps on one single detail in a previous post and do you use that to justify ignoring the positive environmental impact of eating less meat that this post covers?

    "I don't think I have a single college in the medical profession who has not encountered a child that is malnourished and sick because of the vegan diet their parents have imposed on it."

    Well this would be where you would find referred cases of malnutrition... no? Rather than in the majority of vegan households.

    So, is the answer to enforce vegan parents to feed their children dead animals processed and flavoured so they don't look like animals any more? Is the answer to contribute more methane to the atmosphere and increase resources to feed fewer of the rich West, rather than be more ethical simply because we have a slightly lower level of haemoglobin that could be fixed by eating a little more spinach?

    And yet... I think obesity amongst meat eaters may be a much bigger dietary issue.. (Patrick Holford (MD) from the Institute of Optimal Nutrition (USA)):
    "Recent figures have revealed that almost one in four boys and more than one in five girls is overweight or obese by the time they start school. And by the time children finish primary school, these numbers increase to one in three."

    The above post does make a good case for giving more of their hard-earned money to feed Africa, however. Where parents don't have the luxury of 'diligence' and 'extreme caution' .. let alone clean water.

    One man's haemoglobin results after one *first* month of being vegan is not cause (definitely not scientific cause) for concerns of malnutrition. I have been vegan for 15 years and am as healthy as the next person... if not slightly healthier... if I had children they would have a balanced diet.

    The answer is better food education.

  • Comment number 9.

    @Ciapryna The reason so many suffer with malnutrition is that the parents are not following the diet correctly. Often it is the case that the child is not getting sufficient vit D or certain B vitamins. The Vegan society gives excellent advice on this and should be any parents first port of call and thorough research done to ensure any child gets all they need from a vegan diet. Many children can suffer ill health on a meat diet so it really comes down to the efforts of the parent to ensure they are giving their child the right balance. One tiny example, there are more natural omegas in linseed than in any oily fish. Many more benefits can be gained from non-meat/dairy sources. There is no need not to have a good balanced diet as a vegan.

    The other thing to remember in all this, is that as a human you are not designed to consume dairy beyond 18 months-4 years of age as you no longer produce the enzyme needed to digest it and the pasteurizing process of milk destroys the natural enzyme within the milk even in whole milk. So, what doesn't get flushed away sits in your gut rotting and growing bacteria, prime conditions for cancer and many other conditions.

    During my fathers second bout of cancer we looked at diet as a possible contributor and there was a recommended book for cancer patients that states, no dairy and no meat in order to lesson the risks of cancer and other potential diseases.

    I have been a vegan for a little over a year now (a vegetarian on and off most of my adult life) and I am still learning daily and, still trying to find a good balance. My first port of call was the Vegan society who give superb advice on ensuring you get the balance right and avoid other potential risks.

    The positives of a vegan life far out weigh any risks of that of an omnivore, the key is good research and information. I prepared in advanced and eased myself into it.

  • Comment number 10.

    I think something that needs to be pointed out, is that the difficulty in maintaining a healthy vegan diet does not stem form a lack of possible foods. It instead stems from an incredible lack of diversity at the average supermarket, and many new vegans not changing the taste of cuisine to match their now animal fat free diet.

    This mostly concerns vegans in Europe and North America, where the dominant cuisines rely heavily on animal products for flavouring. There are many cuisines in the world that are mostly vegan, Temple Food in Japan, Gujarat cooking in India, where the taste does not come from animal fat, and therefore are much easier to eat in a strict vegan diet, no veganaise needed. For example, the use of fermented and pickled foods in a Japanese Temple Food supplies many of the nutrients that other wise would be missing.

    I have to question whether there is this inherent risk of malnutrition in vegans, or if it is only true when your stuck buying food based on a cuisine that eats meat, and therefore does not normally have many nutrients in its "vegan" food.

  • Comment number 11.

    "I am happy to report that Ned was as tasty as he was ethical."

    Oh, you mean not at all then. I can't say I'm sorry you had to eat such an awful tasting bird.

    This was moronic- You can find all of the information on environmentalism and veganism without being vegan- it was just some cheap stunt which I find offensive. Going vegan for a month would have, in no way, showed you directly what your carbon footprint is.As for some derivative of human hair.. I really don't care- somehow I don't think the humans it came from were put into concentration camps and then slaughtered.

    Keeping it ethicals? Then why don't you try staying vegan instead of just trying to get more readers with stunts.

  • Comment number 12.

    "I did not spend the last 4.5 billion years evolving to end up eating vegetables"

    This IS the next step in that evolution. The ability to have self-aware thoughts and a larger brain and the knowledge that you can stop the pain and suffering of other beings at will.

  • Comment number 13.

    coke is also used to process sugar beet.
    (made from coal)

  • Comment number 14.

    coke is also used to process sugar beet.
    (made from coal)

    "Not only that, raising animals is a lot more carbon intensive than growing vegetables. David Pimentel, an ecologist from Cornell University, has calculated that animal protein production requires more than eight times as much fossil-fuel energy than plant protein yet yields proteins only 1.4 times as nutritious for humans.

    That's the average. When you look at individual sectors the figures are even more startling. Take beef, for example. Using US Department of Agriculture figures he found that beef production requires an energy input to protein output of 54:1 (as well as 100,000 litres of water per kilogram of meat)."


    this guy. is he talking the intensive factory feedlots of the west in america and the transportation across the states of both the finished meat and the cost of transporting the feed from Iowa to california?
    because if so he is skewing the figures.
    Most European grass fed cows use less energy than their american counterparts.
    As for 500 litres of methane a day?
    MAybe but again I'd rather see the research that establishes this figure.
    reality is for health alone we should eat way less meat than the average american;) .I also believe in global warming . Also that animals are living and have souls(awww look at the hippie) but feed lots are disgusting wastes of energy.
    america's production is appalling.
    Most are pretty bad. but here(doodle land) they do take some things to new heights

  • Comment number 15.

    "I don't think I have a single college in the medical profession who has not encountered a child that is malnourished and sick because of the vegan diet their parents have imposed on it"

    I also doubt there is a single one that would not say that alcohol is way more dangerous to them kids even when only daddy drinks it, than a vegan diet.
    (look meatest spell check does not recognise vegan;)

    please as to vegan=unhealthy .this is bull
    vegan = lazy or slow or low energy..this is bull
    if you think this then you must be lazy. Sorry folks, but there are millions or healthy Vegans around the world.


    heather calm down.;)please.

  • Comment number 16.

    Processing aids - a favourite topic of the Real Bread Campaign.

    Ajinomoto, which makes synthetic L-cysteine, says that the tests used to determine the origin of the stuff is not 100% accurate. They go on to say that unscrupulous manufacturers of E920 from human hair could be taking advantage of this.

    E920 can either be used as an additive (and therefore must be declared on the label) or a processing aid, which does not have to be declared on the label. To us, rules governing on which side of the line a substance falls seem woolly:

    According to The Food Labelling Regulations 1996, a processing aid ‘…means any substance not consumed as a food by itself, intentionally used in the processing of raw materials, foods or their ingredients, to fulfil a certain technological purpose during treatment or processing, and which may result in the unintentional but technically unavoidable presence of residues of the substance or its derivatives in the final product, provided that these residues do not present any health risk and do not have any technological effect on the finished product.’

    So, is prolonged crumb softness (one function of several enzymes used as processing aids)is not a technological effect on the finished product?

    Another of the processing aids that can be used in the manufacture of factory loaves is phospholipase A2. One source of this enzyme is pigs' pancreas. We have been unable to establish how much (or if at all) porcine phospholipase is being in industrial baking.

    The Federation of Bakers insists that no bread labelled as vegetarian involves the use of any animal products.

    You can read more about this issue at our website.

  • Comment number 17.

    According to The Food Labelling Regulations 1996, a processing aid ‘…means any substance not consumed as a food by itself, intentionally used in the processing of raw materials, foods or their ingredients, to fulfil a certain technological purpose during treatment or processing. The Federation of Bakers insists that no bread labelled as vegetarian involves the use of any animal products. This is good topic.
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