When I was a kid, in chubby adolescence, I got invited to go water skiing.
I had a lot of fun, but the next day I could barely move.
My whole body seized up on me and my muscles burned.
I spent a whole week recovering.
One of my aunts said to me that I was having so much pain because my body had built up too much lactic acid in the muscles.
Imagine my surprise when a few years later, as a young adult starting to educate myself about plant-based eating, I started noticing lactic acid as an ingredient on different food labels.
I was really confused.
I thought lactic acid formed in muscles!
I realized that I was never given a formal lesson on what lactic acid is.
I was in the dark about the stuff that apparently my own body is capable of producing and also shows up on food labels everywhere.
At that point, I was curious to know is lactic acid vegan/plant-based?
It turns out that yes, it is. Nearly all the lactic acid that you see as a food ingredient is actually derived from cornstarch or beet sugar. Lactic acid, in the natural world, is incredibly common. It was first discovered in soured milk (hence it’s name).
It is also found in certain meat products and naturally occurs in fermented vegetable dishes like sauerkraut.
Eventually, the food industry found a way to synthesize the stuff through the wonders of chemistry.
Nowadays we see lactic acid on food ingredient labels everywhere.
If you are a vegan, you should feel confident that you are staying true to your vegan ideals when you eat a product containing lactic acid.
What is Lactic Acid?
This common food preservative and flavor enhancer is produced through the process of fermenting carbohydrates.
It is most often associated with dairy products like yogurt and cheese, where it plays a crucial role in the fermentation of the milk proteins.
But we also see it all over the place in packaged food.
Lactic acid preserves color and flavor, regulates the ph of food, and functions as a general preservative.
Lactic acid is not only used in food. It is also found in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
Did you know that it is also a key ingredient in the making of biodegradable plastics!?
So what, exactly, is lactic acid?
Lactic acid is most commonly made from fermenting sugars from carbohydrates with different strains of lactobacillus bacteria.
Lactic acid is what is produced from this process of fermentation. It is a byproduct that is both an acid and an alcohol.
What is Non-Dairy Lactic Acid?
Most of the lactic acid available on the market today, even what they use in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, is non-dairy. It is vegan.
A lot of you may think that lactobacillus bacteria are dairy-derived, but in fact, they are not. Lactobacillus is an incredibly diverse family of bacteria.
They exist throughout the natural world, including inside our own bodies.
In fact, there are over 180 different identified species of lactobacillus bacteria!
Wherever they are found, their primary job is to create lactic acid. Yes, lactobacillus cultures are a fundamental part of making yogurt and cheese.
But did you know that these bacteria are also responsible for a quality sourdough bread starter?
They are an important part of a healthy diet, and essential to our gut health.
It’s important to note that lactic acid does not contain lactobacillus bacteria. Lactic acid is not a replacement for a probiotic.
It’s also important to know that while lactic acid can be and is produced in dairy products, 90% of the lactic acid produced industrially is done so using non-dairy ingredients.
We all know that industry always looks for the cheapest way to produce something.
Fortunately for vegans, the most “efficient” production methods of commercial volumes of lactic acid do not include dairy.
Does Lactic Acid Come from Animals?
As I just mentioned, commercially produced lactic acid is generally not made using animal-derived ingredients.
Because it is not economically feasible. It’s too expensive. Beet sugar and corn starch are much cheaper than animal-derived products.
That being said, lactic acid can be produced from animals.
When they make lactic acid from animal products for commercial use, whey is what is usually used.
If you have any questions about the origins of the lactic acid in a particular product, feel free to contact the manufacturer to clarify your doubts.
If a product is certified vegan, you can rest assured that any lactic acid in the product is derived from a vegan source.
What is Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB) and is it the same as Lactic Acid?
Lactic acid bacteria are not the same as lactic acid. LAB solutions or powders are often sold for people who want to make their own yogurts and cheeses or pickle and preserve veggies.
So what’s the difference?
LAB is an additive that you place into your food to facilitate the production of lactic acid.
You are literally inoculating your food with the helpful lactobacillus strains (and other bacteria) responsible for the fermentation process.
The great thing about LAB is that when you use it, you are creating a natural probiotic food.
This food will contain not only the lactic acid (the compound necessary to preserve the food and responsible for the tangy taste) but also the beneficial probiotic bacteria that are essential to your health.
The addition of LAB to your diet is actually quite healthy.
Lactic acid bacteria are non-sentient living organisms. This means that they are also considered vegan and appropriate for a plant-based diet.
However, if you want to use LAB in your home-made food, be sure to read the ingredient label on the package.
Some brands offer LAB starter produced on dairy products before being separated in processing.
Other brands reproduce the lactic acid bacteria completely free of any dairy product.
Dairy is not necessary to reproduce them. Be sure to read the label on the package to know exactly how the LAB starter you will be using was produced.
So What About the Lactic Acid in our Bodies?
Now that we’ve studied a bit about the lactic acid in our diets – what the heck is up with the lactic acid in our bodies?
How does the same substance responsible for preserving my pickles make my muscles burn after a hard workout?
It all comes back to the breakdown of carbohydrates.
When you have low oxygen levels in your body, the carbohydrates in your blood break down for energy, but into lactic acid.
This is part of a process that allows energy to continue being produced, despite not having enough oxygen in your body to do so efficiently.
This process of creating lactic acid in the muscles helps power us through tough physical situations. It’s a survival mechanism.
Lactic acid (along with other metabolites) protects our muscles from permanent damage by slowing down normal metabolic processes until our bodies can rest and recover.
There’s actually evidence that the presence of lactic acid in the blood has little correlation to the severeness of the pain you might experience after an intense workout.
Scientists now believe that the pain has more to do with your body’s inflammatory response to certain kinds of muscle contractions.
But that is a topic for a different day!