Beef in Rocky Road ice cream? In the form of gelatin, yes.

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Beef in Rocky Road ice cream? In the form of gelatin, yes.

Maintaining a vegetarian or vegan diet requires a certain level of vigilance. You might have to scan ingredient labels, poke around in a sandwich or query waiters to determine if there might be a meat derivative or other unwelcome animal product lurking in your food. And one stealth ingredient seems to be tripping up vegetarians: gelatin, which is made from collagen that comes from the bones and hides of cows and pigs.

A Hindu cleric this week sought an apology from ice cream maker Baskin-Robbins, saying that the company did not make clear that the ingredient used in the marshmallow component of its Rocky Road flavor could be derived from beef. “It was shocking for Hindus to learn that popular ‘Rocky Road,’ which they had been eating for years, contained beef; while beef was not explicitly mentioned under the ingredients listed on the packages/boxes,” said Raman Zed, the president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, in a news release.

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Baskin-Robbins lists on its website the ingredients for Rocky Road, served by the scoop or in pints (the pint ingredients are also printed on the carton). Marshmallows, of course, are one of the flavor’s signature elements, and they are listed as containing “Corn Syrup, Sugar, Modified Food Starch, Gelatin, Water.” The Food and Drug Administration defines the ingredient in question thusly: “Gelatin means a product that has been obtained by the partial hydrolysis of collagen derived from hides, connective tissue, and/or bones of cattle and swine. ”

But not everyone — even committed vegetarians and vegans — knows about the animal origins of the substance that helps hold up that fluffy sweet. Marshmallows often appear on lists of foods commonly misunderstood to be plant-based, along with other foods that might contain gelatin, such as some cheesecakes. In his statement, Zed accused Baskin-Robbins of “not being transparent enough to mention in clear and simple terms” the potential that the gelatin in its ice cream came from cows, which are revered by Hindus, along with their milk. (Many Hindus are vegetarian.)

A Baskin-Robbins spokesperson shared a statement responding to Zed’s complaint, noting that it isn’t trying to hide the inclusion of gelatin from customers. “Baskin-Robbins is compliant with all regulatory standards and strives to provide clear, simple nutrition and ingredient information on menus and labels,” the statement reads. “Our website and app provide links to ingredient information, nutritional breakdowns, lists of major allergens, and information on allergen cross-contact with other menu items at our shops.”

It’s unclear why Zed singled out the popular ice-cream purveyor for his ire, since many makers of Rocky Road (containing marshmallows, of course) use similarly straightforward packaging and wording. Ice cream brand Tillamook, though, goes a step further — on its website, it lists the ingredients of its version, and uses a hyperlink for some to provide more information. Clink on “gelatin,” and users can read this description of it: “animal proteins that provide chewy texture to foods.” And Ben & Jerry’s gets around the potential for confusion by using carrageenan, a thickener derived from seaweed, in place of gelatin, in the marshmallows that grace its “Phish Food” flavor.

Baskin-Robbins isn’t the only company that Zed has targeted. “He has requested and received apologies from companies such as the outdoor recreation retailer REI for a yoga mat towel featuring an image of Lord Ganesha,” according to the Christian Century, a publication exploring faith in society. “He routinely demands that Amazon remove the sale of apparel featuring Hindu gods, goddesses, and symbols. And he has urged the Bank of Canada to produce beef-free bank notes (Canadian paper currency is said to contain traces of beef or mutton tallow).”

Marshmallows aren’t the only food to throw vegetarians for a curve of late. Videos posted on TikTok and posts on Twitter this year kicked off waves of people surprised to learn that parmesan cheese is usually not vegetarian — because it is made using calf rennet, an enzyme derived from the stomach lining of animals. While some cheesemakers have developed non-animal alternatives, the traditional cow-based product is used in classic Parmigiano-Reggiano, as well as a host of other cheeses.

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