It’s time to answer another one of those is it vegan? questions. Today we’re going to look at carnauba wax (Copernicia Cerifera) to determine whether or not we can safely use it and, if we can, whether it’s actually a good idea to do so.
What is carnauba wax?
Carnauba wax is the wax taken from the leaves of a specific palm tree that goes by the rather beautiful name Copernicia prunifera. (1)
Alternative names for carnauba wax include Brazil wax, which makes perfect sense when you discover that this particular plant is only found in certain parts of the South American country, and palm wax.
It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that palm wax is a coverall label for many different types of, unsurprisingly, palm wax, including those from Indonesia where sustainability and its environmental impact has been brought into question.
Carnauba wax, on the other hand, is rather remarkable. Harder than concrete and pretty much insoluble in both ethanol and water, it also has one of the highest melting points of all the natural waxes, beating beeswax hands down in this department:
- Carnauba wax melting point: 82 °C to 86 °C (180°F to 187 °F)
- Beeswax melting point: 62 °C to 64 °C (144 °F to 147 °F)
Once processed, the wax is commonly shipped in flakes with a yellowy-brown hue and will often be listed in ingredient lists as Yellow Carnauba Wax. It has a variety of uses (more of which later) and is exported around the world, with the US and Japan amongst the highest consumers.
RELATED: CAN VEGANS USE BEESWAX?
Is carnauba wax vegan?
Yes! As it is derived solely from a plant-based source, carnauba wax is vegan and is often seen as a good alternative to beeswax and other non-vegan products such as gelatin.
There are, however, ethical concerns over how carnauba wax is harvested. A recent documentary by German public broadcaster ARD alleged that workers who gather the leaves are often ill-treated and poorly paid and cited the working conditions as “slavery”. Hopefully this exposé brings about change for all those affected. (2)
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RELATED: WHY ISN’T JELLO VEGAN?
Is carnauba wax halal?
Yes! Carnauba wax is considered halal by the Muslim Consumer Group.
How is carnauba wax made?
Leaves from the Copernicia prunifera naturally produce carnauba wax in order to protect the fronds and aid the plant’s hydration in the arid conditions found in northeastern Brazilian states such as Rio Grande do Nort, Piaui, and Ceara.
Brazil wax production begins by harvesting the fronds, usually only 6 to 8 leaves at a time, which are then dried and either beaten by workers or processed mechanically to release the waxy flakes.
Once collected, the wax is then placed into boiling water and filtered for purification purposes. From there, it is dried once again and sorted into levels of purity. Some will be powdered down, while the rest will remain in its natural, flakey state.
Further processing may occur depending on what the wax will be used for. For example, it may be refined, bleached, or have synthetic waxes added to it after the initial harvesting process has been completed. This is common when carnauba wax is intended for use in both cosmetics and the pharmaceutical industry.
Is carnauba wax edible?
Yes, it is. In fact, carnauba wax is widely used throughout the food industry: from candy through to the waxy coating found on fruit and vegetables. (3)
Obviously, when you buy an apple from the store it doesn’t come with an ingredient list, but it’s highly likely to have carnauba wax as a coating.
In other foods, such as gummy candies, you may see the wax listed as either 903 or E903, depending on whereabouts in the world you live.
Why is carnauba wax used in food?
There are a number of reasons why food manufacturers and producers use carnauba wax, but the most common is probably as a glazing agent.
As mentioned above, Brazil wax is often used to give apples a shiny coating that also offers a layer of protection as well. Even chocolate and gummy candies can contain the wax to make them shinier and more attractive to consumers.
Carnauba wax may also be used as an acidity regulator or as a bulking agent to fill out foodstuffs during production.
Are there any health concerns associated with carnauba wax?
Carnauba wax is fully approved for consumption pretty much everywhere around the world (as stated by Codex, the FDA, the FAO, etc.), but that doesn’t mean that is hasn’t been subject to speculation and links to various health concerns.
The most common of these is the link to cancer and, again, it’s our old friend the apple that gets regularly cited as they are so often coated with wax. The question here, however, is whether or not carnauba wax is harmful, not wax (or, indeed, apples) in general.
Wax seems like an odd thing to eat, but carnauba wax is actually deemed to be safe and entirely fit for human consumption, as it isn’t digested, but passes through the body without breaking down.
The real problem is whether or not you trust the people responsible for the produce you are buying. Some may try and cut costs, using another coating agent that costs far less than the safe carnauba wax. Instances of petroleum based waxes being used is not unheard of, and it’s obvious that they are to be avoided.
The best way to ensure that you’re not falling foul of such unscrupulous behavior is to avoid waxed goods altogether wherever possible. This will be easier for some than others, but good places to get your produce from are farmers markets or direct from the tree if you are lucky enough to have access to one (which isn’t going to be many of us, granted).
Failing that, opt for duller fruits and thoroughly clean them before taking a bite, or take the peel off altogether (although be aware that you will lose a stack of nutrients if you do).
Can carnauba wax cause an allergic reaction?
Yes, there is such a thing as a carnauba wax allergy, despite being considered hypoallergenic, which proves that people can be pretty much allergic to anything. That’s not to undermine those who suffer allergic reactions to carnauba wax, but the likelihood of it happening is very rare.
The types of carnauba wax allergic reactions can also vary. Some may have dermatological reactions caused by applying cosmetic products directly onto the skin, whereas others will be affected when consuming foodstuffs that include carnauba wax.
Symptoms also differ greatly, with some reporting swelling of the contact area and dizziness, while others state that they feel nauseous after ingesting the wax.
Naturally, should you have an allergic reaction to anything, the best thing to do is seek medical advice immediately.
Other carnauba wax uses
As we’ve already seen, carnauba wax is used across many different industries. It’s versatility is one of its strengths, and new applications for this multipurpose wax are being found all the time.
So, what is carnauba wax used for? Some common uses include:
- As a plant-based alternative to gelatin.
- As a glazing agent in foods such as candies, chocolate, and chewing gums.
- As a coating for fruits, vegetables, pharmaceutical tablets, vitamins, dental floss, disposable cups and plates, and more.
- As a waterproofing layer on clothing and footwear (usually in combination with other waxes).
- As a thickening agent or hardener in cosmetics, such as mascara, lip balms, and nail polish.
- As an ingredient in deodorants.
- As a carrier for other additives.
- As an ingredient in sunscreens.
- As a polish for everything from cars and floors to shoes and musical instruments.
- As an ingredient in candle production (check out our guide to soy candle making kits).
- As a wood finish.
- As a key ingredient in surfboard waxes.
Is carnauba wax sustainable?
The question of whether or not carnauba wax is sustainable is a difficult one to answer as so much depends on how the product is harvested. In theory, the wax should be completely sustainable, as it is taken from a naturally occurring plant, but the reality can be somewhat different.
The plant in question, the Brazilian palm, Copernicia Prunifera, needs to reach an age of somewhere in the region of 40 years old before any attempts at harvesting the wax can be made, which poses problems straight off the bat.
Couple this with the fact that the trees do not cope well with over-harvesting and you can see even more issues arising. Typically, a mature palm tree will only survive a harvest of a maximum of 10 to 20 fronds every two or so months, but many farmers restrict their collections to as little as six to eight fronds per tree, per harvest in order to keep their plants in excellent condition.
On the other hand, carnauba wax benefits from being a biodegradable, natural product. So, if greater emphasis is placed on strategic cultivation of the palms themselves, the wax they yield does indeed appear to be an environmentally friendly product.
What is carnauba wax…answered!
That’s it, plenty of waxy wonderings covered for you. Should you have any others, please feel free to drop me a line in the comments section below.
About The Author:
Lisa Williams is a committed vegan, passionate animal welfare advocate, and keen follower of too many v-friendly food blogs to mention. She started happyhappyvegan.com back in 2016 because she felt there was a need for more straightforward information on plant-based living.
Back then, too many sites seem to either concentrate solely on recipes or be too intimidating or inaccessible for the v-curious, and she wanted to change that. The landscape is certainly a whole lot different now!
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- PalmPedia | Copernicia prunifera | https://www.palmpedia.net/wiki/Copernicia_prunifera
- Boris Djuric | Documentary Slammed Haribo for Modern Slavery | https://newswire.net/newsroom/news/00098335-documentary-slammed-haribo-for-modern-slavery.html
- American Chemical Society | Edible coatings for ready-to-eat fresh fruits and vegetables | https://phys.org/news/2013-09-edible-coatings-ready-to-eat-fresh-fruits.html