We live in a world that isn’t vegan in the slightest. This is a well-known fact of course, but some food items which could be vegan aren’t due to sneaky, unnecessary ingredients put into common foods. The accidental consumption of non-vegan foods can be avoidable by knowing exactly how to read food labels as a vegan.
The most foolproof method of avoiding the accidental consumption animal products is to buy products which are strictly vegan. What I mean by this is only buying items which are certified vegan – they will have a label somewhere on the packaging that clarifies that they’re vegan.
The second easiest way is to buy foods without packaging (just plain veggies), or with a short & simple ingredient list. Whole foods are what’s best for us to begin with and we should be focusing on eating more foods without an ingredient list that resembles a rap sheet or without packaging at all (this also helps the environment!). Although, there is nothing wrong with sometimes straying from healthy foods and indulging occasionally. There are countless vegan foods out there, many of which aren’t exactly healthy (Oreosoreos) and it’s okay if you want to eat them sometimes.
When dealing with food that’s not strictly vegan and has a more complex list of ingredients, the best way to make sure they’re vegan is by knowing what to look for on the label.
How can I check if my food is vegan?
The first step would be to memorize sneaky ingredients which aren’t vegan.
Here are some of the most common ingredients that aren’t recognizable as an animal product by the name:
Casein is a protein compound in dairy milk. It is found in products that use dairy.
Gelatin is a product made from tendons and bones of animals. It is very common in candy products (including marshmallows!) and jelly.
Vitamin D3 specifically (vitamin D2 is from plant sources), found in most food items fortified with vitamin D, almost always is from an animal source. The most common source for vitamin D3 in fortified foods is from sheep. Sheep are one of the few animals that naturally produce vitamin D, it comes from a part of their wool called lanolin. It is most common in breakfast cereals, and can be found in foods that are otherwise vegan.
Glycerin comes from fat or oils and can be from both vegetable and animal sources. It is rarely clarified as either. It is commonly found in candy as well as soaps.
There is soy lecithin which is vegan friendly and then there is lecithin from milk and eggs which is not. Lecithin is a fatty compound made up of multiple sources.
For the most part, if an item is otherwise 100% vegan, odds are the concerning ingredient is from a plant source as well; but it is still best to check with the manufacturer if it is not specified whether it’s from an animal or plant source.
Once you master the art of speed-reading ingredient lists by knowing what to look for, one of the best tricks for recognising vegan food is by learning what keywords on labels mean. Fish products, dairy, and eggs are all considered possible allergens and need to be clearly identified on food labels. If a food does not, or would not, contain other animal products like beef stock (such as dessert items, pasta, or bread) then figuring out if they’re vegan is a breeze. Another tip is that vegan products will have 0% cholesterol always but sometimes products with animal-based ingredients contain such a minimal amount of animal products that their cholesterol rating on the nutrition label is also 0%, so other methods need to be checked to be sure it is vegan. This is just a good first step.
Allergens will either be in bold text and/or at the bottom of ingredient lists. Something that can be tricky is when an item says it “contains” an ingredient, such as milk, it is not vegan. If an item says “may contain” (or other wording similar to this) an ingredient such as milk, it is vegan, despite some debate. All “may contain” means is that it is manufactured in the same facility (sometimes on same equipment which is thoroughly washed before uses) as other products which do actually contain the ingredient(s) in question. This is primarily a warning for people with severe allergies for fear of possible (but highly unlikely) cross contamination and has little to do with veganism. It’s debatable whether or not we should be supporting companies with accidentally vegan products – but I think consuming accidentally vegan products leads to companies realizing they don’t need animal products. It is personal preference, and these warnings on labels can also be used to help you if you don’t want to support companies that make other products which aren’t vegan.
Reading ingredients is something which is tricky for everyone new to veganism and/or a healthier lifestyle. The amount of unknown ingredients in food and the fact that companies don’t have to clarify what exactly ingredients are is scary; which is why learning how to read labels and ingredients to look out for in veganism is a necessary skill. Hopefully one day we won’t have to even read labels.