10 Most Common (and Kinda Gross) Animal Ingredients found in Prescription Medications

If you are taking prescription medications and drugs, there’s a good chance cow, pig, or other animal products are in your medication. For those of us who want to avoid animal-derived products for ethical, dietary, religious, or philosophical reasons, pinning down exactly what is in these drugs can be a challenge.

According to the authors of a new study published in BMJ, most of the drugs prescribed by primary care doctors contain ingredients derived from animals. To ensure patients are properly informed about these ingredients, the authors are urging drug makers to improve medication labeling so patients as well as physicians and pharmacists will know what is in the drugs that are prescribed.

Read about ingredients to avoid if you’re vegan

An important word of caution is necessary: do not stop taking any medication you have been prescribed without first consulting your doctor. Doing so could be dangerous for your health. If you discover or suspect you are taking a prescription that contains objectionable animal ingredients, talk to your doctor immediately about any possible alternative drugs or treatments.

That said, here are some of the common animal-derived ingredients that are found in medications and several drugs that are commonly derived from animals.

1. Carmine (red dye). If your medication is pink or red, it could contain cochineal, a red dye made from crushed female cochineal insects. This ingredient is also known as natural red 4.

Read more about food additives to avoid

2. Gelatin. Many prescription medications are in capsule form, and these little delivery systems may be made from gelatin. Gelatin is a protein that is obtained by boiling the skin, ligaments, tendons, and bones from cows and pigs in water.

3. Glycerin. This ingredient may be obtained from cow or pig fat. An alternative is plant-derived glycerin (from seaweed).

4. Heparin. This anticoagulant medication is derived from cows (lungs) and pigs (intestines).

5. Insulin. Although much of the insulin on the market is made from hog pancreas, diabetics can also get synthetic insulin.

6. Lactose. This ingredient is extremely common and is milk sugar from mammal milk. An alternative is plant milk sugars.

7. Lanolin. The oil glands of sheep are the source of this ingredient. It is an ingredient in some ophthalmic drugs and is used as a carrier in certain drugs that are given by injection. Lanolin is also is found in eye drops because it has antibacterial properties and can protect against dry eyes. Plant oils are an alternative.

8. Magnesium stearate. Medications are usually manufactured using magnesium stearate to prevent them from sticking together and from sticking to the equipment. The stearate portion of magnesium stearate is a form of stearic acid, which is a saturated fat found in cows, coconut oil, cocoa butter, and other foods. Depending on the source of stearate, this medication ingredient may or may not be animal-derived. This ingredient also may suppress the immune system. Some manufacturers use vegetable-based stearate.

9. Premarin. This conjugated estrogen product comes from horse urine. Talk to your doctor about natural hormone therapy.

10. Vaccines. Common vaccines for both children and adults, including the flu vaccine, contain animal byproducts or are prepared with them, including gelatin, chicken embryo, guinea pig embryo cells, and serums.

Read more about flu shots

To illustrate the extent of the problem associated with identifying animal-derived ingredients in prescription medications, the authors of the BMJ study identified the 100 most commonly drugs prescribed by primary care providers in the United Kingdom. Nearly three-quarters (73%) contained at least one of the following: magnesium stearate, lactose, gelatin. When they attempted to document the origins of these ingredients, they discovered it was difficult to get the data they wanted, and that when information was obtained, it often was inconsistent, incorrect, or ambiguous.

The authors concluded that “Our data suggest that it is likely that patients are unwittingly ingesting medications containing animal products with neither prescriber nor dispenser aware.”

What you can do
  • Before your doctor prescribes a medication, tell her about your concerns or preferences regarding ingredients in your drugs. In some cases you can get a vegetarian capsule rather than a gelatin one, for example.
  • Consider getting your medication from a compound pharmacy, where the pharmacist can prepare your prescription without the offending ingredient.
  • Also talk to your pharmacist, who should have information about the ingredients in your drugs.
  • Contact the drug manufacturer directly. Phone and email contact information for consumer product information can be found on company websites.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist for the product information sheets for your prescription.

Image: I-Man--10N

By Deborah Mitchell| February 19, 2014
Categories:  Live

About the Author

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah Mitchell

Deborah is a freelance health writer who is passionate about animals and the environment. She has authored, co-authored, and written more than 50 books and thousands of articles on a wide range of topics. Currently she lives in Tucson, Arizona. Visit her at deborahmitchellbooks.com.

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