This is another post in the Becoming Vegan series, which is meant to help those who are considering adopting or learning more about a plant-based diet.
Being raised vegetarian, I learned the habit of label-reading early on. When I was a kid, vegetarian-friendly foods hadn’t fully caught on, so many products had ingredients that were suspect. I recall getting into the habit of avoiding any food that contained “mono- and diglycerides” because one could never be certain if it was animal-derived or not, as well as lard (which, thankfully, is not used quite as widely as it used to be).
So when I decided to adopt a vegan diet several years ago, it was nothing new to read labels. Still, it was more challenging, because now I had to be on the lookout for dairy and eggs, as well as decipher what some of the more complex ingredient names meant.
Because I would have liked to have had a guide like this several years ago, I decided that I’d come up with a short list of the main mystery ingredients and things to watch out for when you are shopping. I’m breaking this up into three parts:
- What to look for on a food package besides the ingredient list
- Mystery non-vegan ingredients
- A few foods you’d think would be vegan but aren’t
For those of you who are practiced vegans, you may notice that I am missing some ingredients or products, so please let me know in the comments and I can add to the lists.
This may be pretty obvious, but the first thing you should look for is the word “vegan” in some form or another. If it’s not right on the front of the package, you can usually find it on the back at the bottom of the list of ingredients, bold and in all-caps. This is meant to save you some time, effort and frustration scanning the ingredients, and of course, make it so you are more likely to buy that particular product.
Keep an eye out for the phrases “dairy-free” and “cholesterol-free”. This usually means that the product contains neither dairy nor eggs (cholesterol), but I would caution that you may still want to read the ingredients list. I discovered this afternoon that a product I have been happily buying for quite some time said “may contain eggs” on the back even though it exclaimed it is “cholesterol-free” on the front.
Let’s start with the obvious non-vegan ingredients: milk, butter, cheese, dairy, eggs, egg whites and honey. Okay, now on to the not so obvious mystery ingredients.
This is not a comprehensive list, but I have tried to list some of the more common ingredients that you may be likely to find in your grocery shopping.
- Amino acids are not consistently from animals or plants, so take caution with this ingredient.
- Artificial color, specifically red, is produced from an insect called cochineal. Also avoid any product that lists carmine.
- Bee pollen is from, you guessed it – bees!
- Bone char is used to whiten sugar and other products.
- Calcium caseinate is milk-derived.
- Casein is a protein found in milk.
- Cod liver oil or fish oil comes from fish. This one is more obvious, but wanted to add it here anyhow.
- Gelatin is derived from animals and is used as a gelling agent. This is why most commercial marshmallows or jello are not even vegetarian. Aspic should also be avoided.
- Lactic acid has some debate around it. Some say that it is always plant-derived, but others say it is derived from milk. To be on the safe side, if you see that a product contains lactic acid and otherwise appears to be vegan, contact the company and find out if the lactic acid they used is animal or plant derived.
- Lactose is a milk sugar.
- Natural flavors is so vague that it truly could be from either animals or plants. Contact the product company to find out for sure if their natural flavors are vegan or not.
- Oleic acid or oleinic acid is animal tallow (rendered animal fat).
- Rennet or animal rennet is not normally found in most products you would naturally buy, but I am including it more as informational. It is usually found in cheeses (which means that many cheeses are not even vegetarian!).
- Whey is a co-product of cheese production.
This is more of a cautionary list (again, not comprehensive), because these items really depend on the manufacturer and the ingredients they choose to use. I admit I am still finding products that I had assumed would be okay to buy, but are not vegan after all. You might be surprised.
- Gluten-free. Okay “gluten-free” is not a food, but I think that a lot of people falsely assume that because something is gluten-free, it is also vegan. Many gluten-free foods still contain animal products from dairy and eggs to meat, so be judicious.
- Margarine. When I first chose a vegan diet I assumed that all margarine was okay, but not all of it is vegan.
- Marshmallows. I mentioned this one in the above list, but unless you buy marshmallows made without gelatin, then you’re just not even eating vegetarian.
- Non-dairy creamer. Sad but true – non-dairy creamer does not a vegan product make.
- Potato chips. Okay, I understand when a company puts milk in the sour cream potato chips – that’s pretty obvious. But salt and vinegar?! Yep – some potato chip companies put milk into some chip flavors that would seem obviously vegan. :(
- Pasta. This may be more common knowledge, but many pastas are made with eggs.
- Soy cheese. Believe it or not some soy cheeses still have some sort of milk-derived ingredients. Kind of pointless in my opinion, but there you go.
- Vitamins or supplements encased in gel caps. The capsules are usually made from gelatin, but you can find some that are made with vegetable gel. Typically you need to see “vegan” on the product to know for sure that it is free from gelatin or other animal-derived ingredients.
- White sugar. Not all sugar companies do this, but there are some sugar companies that whiten their cane sugar with bone char.
In the end, don’t beat yourself up if you realize that you are buying a product that has an ingredient that is not vegan. Use this as an opportunity instead to write an email or letter to the company that manufactures it and ask them to make it without that ingredient. You can also vote with your wallet – don’t buy it until they make it vegan.
For those of you already following a vegan diet, am I missing any food items from either list? And for those of you who are new to veganism, are you surprised at any of these items?