Doughnuts, or donuts, the deep-fried, sugary snacks beloved of Homer Simpson, are a global junk food staple. The USA alone makes 10 billion of them each year, and they are popular around the world, with hundreds of local varieties available. But are doughnuts suitable for someone on a vegan diet?
In this article, we dive deep into the ingredients of some of the most popular doughnut varieties on the market. But first, let’s take a quick look at the fascinating origins of the ring-shaped snack that has gone around the world.
Where do doughnuts come from?
The origins of the doughnut have been traced back to the early Dutch settlers in New York, at that time known as New Amsterdam. They brought with them the recipe for a treat they called olykoeks (“oily cakes”), a dumpling-shaped ball of fried dough made with flour, eggs, milk, yeast, salt, baking powder, and sweetened with sultanas, currants, and raisins.
One of the earliest mentions of the doughnut is in Washington Irving’s History of New York (1809), which described “dough-nuts” as “an enormous dish of balls of sweetened dough, fried in hog’s fat,” (so definitely not vegan, then).
Also in America, later that same century, the innovation of hollowing out the middle of the dough gave doughnuts their classic ring shape. By the start of the 20th century, the alternative spelling “donut” was also being used across America.
Are doughnuts vegan?
Which ingredients in modern doughnuts might make them non-vegan? Let’s break down some of the main things that go into the popular snack to review their vegan suitability, before looking at some of the big doughnut brands on the market.
Eggs and milk – the biggest problem with doughnuts for vegans is that traditional recipes contain both eggs and milk in the dough. Eggs are used as emulsifiers, foaming agents, and tenderizers to produce volume and texture. Milk products, such as whey, are used to preserve the freshness of the doughnut. Dairy products also feature heavily in some of the most common doughnut toppings, such as custard, cream, and milk chocolate.
Sugar – sweetness is a big feature of any doughnut, and it is normally achieved through putting sugar in the dough and/or in the toppings or fillings. Glazed doughnuts typically mix milk with sugar to produce the icing that goes on the outside of the dough.
But why is this an issue for vegans? Sugar comes from plants, right? That’s correct, but the production processes used for cane sugar include putting it through a filter which is sometimes made from “bone char” (i.e. charred animal bones).
It’s very difficult to find out which cane sugars have been through this process, and which haven’t. So, the easiest way to guarantee that what you are purchasing hasn’t been through bone char processing is to look for either beet sugar or organic cane sugar.
Food coloring – many doughnuts use food coloring in their toppings. If they are natural food colorings they are almost certainly made from plants (and therefore fine for vegans), with the exception of carmine (also known as cochineal), which is made from beetles.
You might assume that lab-produced artificial colors would also be vegan. But many of them have been tested on animals, making them highly problematic for ethical vegans. The following list highlights some very common food colorings that have all been tested on animals: yellow 5 (E102, also known as tartrazine), yellow 6 (E110), red 3 (E127), red 40 (E129), blue 2 (E132, also known as indigo carmine), blue 1 (E133), and green 3 (E143).
This list is not exhaustive. Further research is required if you encounter another artificial coloring in an ingredients list and want to check its status in terms of animal testing and veganism.
Glycerides/lecithin – monoglycerides and diglycerides are made from glycerol (also known as glycerine and glycerin), which is used in foods as a sweetener and preservative and sometimes crops up in doughnuts. Lecithin is a generic label that also covers glycerol and other fatty compounds used as emulsifiers (products that promote the mixing of oil and water).
So, what’s the issue? Some types of glycerol/lecithin come from plant sources, such as soybean and palm oil (see below for more on that), while others come from animals. Some labels may state “soy lecithin” or “vegetable glycerin.” Other labels will not specify, meaning that the only option, if you want to find out for sure if it is vegan, is to contact the manufacturer.
Palm oil – as you’re reading this article about doughnuts it’s possible that you’re not one of the people who are vegan exclusively for health reasons… And ethical vegans, those whose dietary choices are based primarily on their concern for animals and the environment, may be interested to know that lots of doughnuts on the market include palm oil in their ingredients list.
Produced from the oil palm tree, palm oil is vegan in the sense of being derived from a plant. But many ethical vegans have concerns about the links between palm oil plantations and the destruction of the tropical rainforest habitat of numerous endangered species (most prominently the orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra).
If palm oil is something you’re concerned about, then it’s another thing to look out for on the labels of any shop or restaurant-bought doughnuts.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the big brand doughnuts to see if their offerings are vegan or not.
Are Krispy Kreme doughnuts vegan?
Founded by a teenager in Kentucky in 1933, Krispy Kreme has gone on to become one of the biggest doughnut brands, with over 1,000 stores spread across every continent (plus thousands of more shops offering their products).
But are they vegan? In almost all cases, sadly not. The ingredients for the base used for basically every Krispy Kreme doughnut include both milk powder and egg yolks. According to the FAQs on Krispy Kreme’s US website: “the only animal by-products used in our doughnuts are eggs (whites and yolks) and dairy products (including milk, butter, yogurt, whey, nonfat milk, and nonfat whey).” That’s quite a lot of animal by-products…
> Read more: Are Krispy Kreme donuts vegan?
However, there is one exception. In the UK, to coincide with “Veganuary” 2021, Krispy Kreme introduced its first-ever vegan doughnut, the Original Glazed Vegan doughnut, described by the company as “a plant-based doughnut that is equally delicious as the original, with absolutely no compromise.”
It’s available to order online only, for home delivery in the UK. But hopefully, there will be more to follow soon in their stores around the world.
Are Dunkin’ Donuts vegan?
One of the largest coffee and donut shop chains in the world, with nearly 13,000 locations spread over 42 countries, Dunkin’ Donuts is many people’s go-to choice for sweet snacks.
> Read more: Vegan options at Dunkin Donuts.
But are they vegan? Unfortunately not, as with most of the other big doughnut brands on this list, their ingredients contain dairy and egg products (in their case, skimmed milk and egg yolks). So, not suitable for anyone following a strict vegan diet. Also, like Krispy Kreme, they use palm oil.
Are Tim Hortons’ donuts vegan?
Canada is the number one donut-consuming country in the world per capita, and Tim Hortons is largely responsible for that. With over 3,000 stores spread across the land, plus others as far afield as China, the company which began selling only coffee and donuts has grown into a Canadian institution.
But are their donuts vegan? I’m afraid not. Although Tim Hortons don’t use eggs in their donuts, they do use dairy in the form of whey powder (which comes from milk). So, sadly, the store that sometimes calls itself “the most Canadian place in the universe” does not offer vegan-friendly donuts.
Are Mochi donuts vegan?
Mochi donuts (also known as pon-de-ring) are a Hawaiian innovation, combining traditional American donuts with Japanese rice cakes (mochi). This interesting fusion, available through the growing Mochinut chain in the US, uses rice flour and silken tofu to produce a sticky, chewy texture, quite different from typical yeast or cake doughnuts.
But are they vegan? Despite the presence of the tofu, I’m afraid they’re generally not. Mochinut’s website notes that they “contain [a] small portion of wheat flour, egg & milk powder.” It might only be small, but it’s still not vegan!
Are Morrisons’ doughnuts vegan?
Morrisons is the fourth-largest supermarket chain in Britain, with nearly 500 stores spread across the country. Amongst their huge range of products, they also offer their own brand of doughnuts.
But are they vegan? Well, perhaps surprisingly, given that Morrisons started out as an egg and butter store, some of their doughnuts may actually be suitable for vegans!
Interestingly, this seems to be one of those cases of a product being accidentally vegan. Morrisons don’t brand their product as vegan doughnuts, but they don’t generally use milk, eggs, or other non-vegan products when producing their own doughnuts. Last Christmas they even produced a limited-edition spicy gingerbread doughnut which won rave reviews from fans of their accidentally vegan products.
But hang on a minute… before anyone rushes down to their local Morrisons to clear the shelves, there are a few important caveats to attach. As this is not a product designed specifically for vegans there is always the chance that Morrisons could change the recipe to add non-vegan products.
There also seems to be some inconsistency in the recipes that they use in different stores. That’s why Morrisons advise that anyone looking for vegan doughnuts should always double-check the ingredients and allergens lists on each product to make sure that it is suitable.
Finally, the product may not contain milk and eggs, but further research might be needed to ascertain whether some of the other ingredients meet your own standards of veganism (see the ingredients list above for things to look out for).
Are Sainsbury’s doughnuts vegan?
Sainsbury’s is the UK’s second-largest supermarket chain, with nearly 1,500 stores. Like their competitor Morrisons, they also offer their own brand of doughnuts which has created much debate amongst doughnut-lovers within the British vegan community.
Like Morrisons, Sainsbury’s doughnuts appear to fall into the category of accidentally vegan. Some of the doughnuts available in Sainsbury’s don’t have eggs and milk mentioned in their ingredients list.
However, the same caveats apply as with Morrisons. As these doughnuts are not specifically produced for vegans, ingredients could change, there seem to be variations from store to store, and some of the ingredients may not meet everyone’s definition of veganism (palm oil for example).
So, what does it all mean? Traditionally doughnuts are not vegan, and the vast majority on the market are still not suitable for people following plant-based diets. In addition to the obvious milk and eggs in the mix, there are other hidden things to look out for, including ingredients that are either animal-derived or which use animal products in their production process.
> Read more: Are bagels vegan?
But the good news is that alternatives exist for every non-vegan ingredient in doughnuts. Alternative milk and egg substitutes can be used to make vegan doughnuts, along with sugar that hasn’t been through the bone char process.
Most store-bought doughnuts aren’t vegan. But there are a few “accidentally vegan” offerings out there that don’t contain milk or eggs (although further research is needed about some of their other potentially non-vegan ingredients, depending on how strictly you define your veganism).
Also, a few of the big chains are starting to offer their own branded vegan doughnuts (shout out to Krispy Kreme). Plus, there is an increasing number of local vegan-friendly stores satisfying the doughnut desires of the vegan population.
Check out what’s available in your local area or look up some vegan doughnut recipes online to make your own.