Coral is a misunderstood organism. Is it an animal? Is it a plant? Is it a rock? Other than looking beautiful in reefs, what function does it serve? Are products derived from coral considered vegan or safe for vegans?
The answers might lead you to a complicated conclusion, and different vegans might give you different answers. It might ultimately boil down to personal preferences and what each particular vegan is comfortable with using, because the way coral is used and harvested does not even remotely mimic the way animals are raised for dairy, eggs, or meat.
What is Coral?
Coral is the larger formation created by hundreds or thousands of small invertebrates called coral polyps. They have digestive systems, but their nervous systems are limited. Invertebrates live to perform very simple functions, and they do not feel pain.
Coral polyps can be as small as the head of a pin. Without the protection and solidarity that a group provides, they are not hearty enough to survive on their own. Coral polyps secrete a calcium carbonate substance called limestone that helps them stick to rocks. Other coral polyps that float by will secrete that same substance to stick to the existing coral polyps, whether they’re dead or alive.
Coral doesn’t travel. It stays in its reef formation and uses very small appendages to grasp food, like algae and zooplankton, as it floats by the structure. The coral uses the minerals and vitamins from algae and zooplankton to continuously fortify itself throughout its life.
What Happens When Coral Dies?
Coral can live for somewhere around 4,000 years. Coral might live even longer, but scientists are hesitant to disturb active reefs. There are currently coral formations in the ocean that are twice as old as the current bible. Some coral polyps are as old as the invention of recorded history, as they were born around the time writing was invented.
Although coral has the potential for an extremely long lifespan, it’s rare that polyps will live for thousands of years. Coral is heavily impacted by factors like environmental pollution and global warming. Coral is sensitive to temperature and to the chemicals it’s exposed to. Mass die offs of coral happen all the time. The end result is fossilized coral that washes up on shore, or dead reefs that remain anchored to their original rocks.
It is undoubtedly a problem that the state of the environment has created a hostile environment for coral. It’s important to use sustainable products, reduce carbon emissions, and hold companies accountable for the amount of pollution they’re responsible for producing. Coral is sensitive to its surrounding waters, and anything that pollutes the air or the water around a reef will make its way to the coral. In addition to this, rising global temperatures superheat the water near coral, making temperatures inhospitably high.
The sad reality is that much of our coral has already died. Many species of coral are deemed threatened, and several are listed as endangered.The only way to preserve the health of coral is to provide it with the environment it needs to thrive. We cannot properly do this until real change is achieved without environmental standards. For now, we have masses of dead, fossilized coral washing ashore everyday.
Coral Products Fall in a Gray Area
Coral mining has been a punishable offense for quite some time. Countries often explicitly prohibit coral mining off their shores. The coral used in today’s products, like coral calcium oral supplements or coral calcium toothpaste, comes from coral that has already died. Nothing is harmed to create these products.
The remnants of coral are very rich in minerals, and they don’t fully decompose on their own. Coral doesn’t have bones. It only has soft, rudimentary organs that decompose after death. The entire calcium exoskeleton, the source of the mineral, is left behind.
The coral used in modern coral products does not have any negative impact on the environment. Reefs don’t need to be disturbed to source it, and none of the coral was raised for the purpose of becoming farmed. Coral is not a food, and it doesn’t provide any other necessary byproducts. The only valuable coral is coral that has already died.
This is why the topic polarizes vegans and vegetarians. Yes, coral is an animal. No, it was not raised in captivity or deliberately killed. It lived out its entire natural life in the wild. We simply have an abundance of dead or fossilized coral, and it just so happens that their remnants can be beneficial to us.
Veganism for Dietary Reasons
Some people become vegans exclusively for dietary reasons. Vegan diets can help to remedy conditions like obesity, high cholesterol, and medical conditions impacting blood sugar. If you’re only a vegan for dietary reasons, you probably don’t live a completely vegan lifestyle.
If you’re strictly a vegan for dietary reasons, you might own a leather wallet or use lipstick made with insect-derived carmine red dye. If that’s the case, coral shouldn’t concern you. Using supplements or products containing coral calcium won’t add any fat or cholesterol to your diet. In fact, coral might be a valuable source of calcium for people who don’t utilize dairy as a source of calcium in their diets.
Veganism for Ethical Reasons
People who have chosen a vegan lifestyle for ethical reasons are likely to have a more difficult time determining if coral derived products have a place in their daily lives. Ethical vegans have elected to remove all animal products from their diet because they believe that raising animals for meat, eggs, or dairy is a cruel practice.
These animals are raised in overcrowded factory farms and don’t often enjoy any quality of life. They’re utilized for their byproducts or killed for their meat, which is often perceived as unnecessary cruelty.
Ethical vegans will not use products tested on animals or products owned by parent brands that participate in animal testing. They don’t want to spend any of their hard earned money funding people who engage in activities they perceive to be unethical.
There are some vegans that are technically only vegetarians, because they make exceptions under certain circumstances. People who do not purchase animal products or consume meat may eat eggs laid by their own pet chickens. These people take comfort in knowing that the chicken the eggs came for was raised ethically, fed well, cared for, and loved. The eggs aren’t a result of the cruel meat industry, so some people feel less uncomfortable about consuming them.
Coral is a slightly different circumstance. Coral lives out its full life undisturbed in the wild and is never killed for its calcium or minerals. This coral dies of natural processes, and its remnants are used to create things like coral calcium toothpaste. This is a significantly different scenario from factory farming, as the death of the animal was natural and it was never confined, tortured, abused, or subjected to human cruelty.
Some vegans might find that coral doesn’t violate their ethical standards. Other vegans make it a practice to avoid any and all animal related products, even if the animal wasn’t raised for its meat or byproducts.
Fossilized Coral and Fossil Fuels
Coral calcium is derived from fossilized coral. Coral creates its own exoskeleton out of many thin layers of calcium carbonate that accumulate over the years to form something similar in texture and hardness to a rock. The skeleton is fossilized by this substance, meaning that the nutrient rich usable part of the coral actually comes from its fossil.
Many vegans might regard fossilized corals in the same way they regard fossil fuels. Animals weren’t killed to power your car. They were already dead, and we’re using what they left behind. Fossilized coral is, in essence, the same thing. Dead coral just lays around without a purpose. Coral calcium enriched products simply found something to do with it.
Any vegan who uses fossil fuels shouldn’t object to the usage of fossil coral. Their usages and methods of extraction may be different, but they possess the same origin philosophy. It’s already there, and it will only go to waste if we don’t find a constructive way to repurpose it.
The circumstances surrounding the usage of dead coral are highly unique. It’s not as clear cut as farmed animals or big agriculture. Eco safe coral is more or less derived from scavenging, and its removal from the environment has no impact on the ecosystem. Coral is not mass farmed, raised in captivity, or killed for its byproducts.
If you’re a vegan curious about coral products, whether or not they can be incorporated into your lifestyle is a decision only you can make. Consider the driving factors that motivated you to adopt a fully vegan lifestyle. If the use of coral or the way it’s obtain directly conflicts with your ethics, don’t use it. If you regard fossil coral in the same way you regard fossil fuel, coral products are likely a good fit for you.
Source 1 - protecting coral
Source 2 - coral exoskeleton
Source 3 - vegan diets