Feb. 28, 2012 -- Many vegetarians and vegans strictly avoid animal products because of dietary, medical, cultural, ethical, or religious convictions.
But what they don't know about their medications may run counter to these beliefs. Many medications use gelatin as part of the manufacturing process. Gelatin is almost universally derived from animals. It does many things for many medications. Gelatin may help form capsule shells, make liquids thicker, and coat drug powder.
Doctors often focus on the medications' active ingredients when they write prescriptions -- not the coating or other added ingredients. These may include binders/fillers, coating agents, lubricants, and sweeteners.
Researchers polled 500 people who were being treated by a urologist about their dietary preferences, restrictions, and willingness to take medications containing animal products. Previous research has shown that many urology drugs contain gelatin.
Of these, 200 people said they didn't eat animal products. Most of these people said they would prefer to take medicines containing only vegetable products. Just one in 10 said it didn't matter.
Among the 176 with a stated preference, more than half said they would take a drug containing an animal product if no other alternative existed, but 43% said they would not knowingly take a medication containing an animal product.
Animal Products in Rx Drugs
Of the study participants, very few said they even thought about asking if their prescription medicines contained animal products.
A first step: Educating doctors and pharmacists to ask people about their dietary preferences may be helpful. "Many health care professionals are unaware that certain patient groups have dietetic preferences, which may mean they may not wish to take gelatin-containing medications, and most patients are unaware of what their oral medication contains," the study authors conclude.
Urology drugs are likely just the tip of the iceberg. Gelatin is an ingredient in many drugs. The new findings are published in the Postgraduate Medical Journal.
Some solutions may exist, and more are needed, according to the researchers. They include vegetable-based alternatives and clearer labeling, such as the adoption of a vegetarian symbol to be used on medication packaging.
More Animal-Free Alternatives Needed
"As a registered dietitian who works with many vegetarians, I do counsel them to check labels and ask manufacturers for the presence of any animal byproducts," Connie Diekman, RD, says in an email. "I provide the same guidance to those with food allergies or intolerances."
Diekman is the director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. "The study is a good reminder that everything we consume by mouth needs to be assessed by those who have limitations on their eating patterns," she says.
Elizabeth Kavaler, MD, says the new findings are somewhat eye-opening. She is a urologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. She often discusses with her patients the way a drug is delivered because it can cause potential side effects in some people.
Kavaler never discusses animal byproducts though. The new findings may change that. "The onus is on the doctor to bring this up if we make a recommendation," she says. "Some medications may have gelatin-free alternatives, but they may be less effective and/or more costly, due to reimbursement issues."
Unless and until more options become available, "it is a matter of priorities." Going forward, Kavaler tells WebMD, "I will say, ‘If it is not a life-and-death issue, you can take this one that doesn't have an animal product.'"
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