When you’re starting out as a vegan, it’s best to stick to the “Big No No’s” like meat, milk, eggs, etc when you’re scanning ingredients labels, but once you’re comfortable with the basics, it’s a good idea to dig a little deeper.
Today I want to cover some ingredients that often aren’t thought of as things that have animal bits in them, but generally do. Most of these are available by themselves as well as in food products, and there are vegan-friendly versions of many of them, but in general, unless the package says otherwise it’s safe to assume that foods with these ingredients aren’t vegan.
If any of this is news to you, and you’ve been unwittingly consuming animal products while thinking of yourself as vegan, please don’t stress over it. Just like how the decision to adopt a plant-based diet probably took a while to catch on for you, this is just another phase of your personal growth. You’re doing the best you can, and by reading stuff like this, you’re obviously committed to continuing on that path, so don’t beat yourself up about the person you were yesterday and instead focus on being even better tomorrow, OK?
This is a strongly flavoured condiment that’s often used on meat as well as in some cocktails. You might find it in other sauces, but this is something you’ll probably purchase on its own.
Traditional Worcestershire sauce contains anchovies, which are a type of fish, and just in case you skipped the basic class, no, fish aren’t vegetables and vegans don’t eat them.
When you’re buying a bottle of sauce, a quick ingredient scan can tell you if there are anchovies in it. Most major brands do, but we’ve had some luck with our grocery store house brand. If there’s nothing in your area, Vegan Essentials has a vegan version.
When you see this sauce listed in the ingredients of another product, it probably won’t list all the sub-ingredients. In this case, it’s safe to assume that anchovies are present.
It always drove me nuts that the “butter alternative” usually contains dairy products, but historically, the goal wasn’t to create a vegan version of butter but instead a product for the army and for people who couldn’t afford butter.
There are some margarines out there that don’t seem to have milk in them, but often you’ll see whey listed instead, which is a milk protein. The other “hidden gotcha” is vitamin D, which is most commonly added to foods as vitamin D3, which is animal-derived. The other form is D2, which is vegan-friendly, and I like to remember the difference by using R2-D2 from Star Wars as my guide.
While there are a few margarines out there that are vegan-friendly, most notably Earth Balance, if “margarine” shows up in an ingredients list the odds are pretty good that it’s a variety with animal ingredients.
Granted, this usually shows up by itself, or as an ingredient in cocktails, but it’s worth noting that many beers, wines, and liquors either contain animal ingredients directly or, more commonly, use animal ingredients to filter out impurities (basically, they add something from animals to the liquid, which clumps around any floaters and makes it easier to filter them out.)
For filtered product, technically the final product doesn’t really contain anything beyond trace amounts of animal ingredients, but it’s something most vegans like to avoid. We’ve created a website Barnivore that lists many major brands if you’d like to know more.
There aren’t a lot of weird ingredients that I track religiously, but L-cysteine is one of them, because it’s hands down, to me, the weirdest one I see in common usage.
Most often found in baked goods (I think it helps the flours and other dry goods flow better in mass production,) L-cysteine is derived from things like feathers, hooves, blood, or my personal favourite – human hair.
(As an aside, I once wrote to a flour company that used L-cysteine in some of their products and asked them if it was made from hair, and if so, whose hair was it. They sent me back two pages of references to health standards that they follow and about five dollars worth of coupons, but they never answered the question…)
While there are non-animal forms of this ingredient, and it does occur naturally in many vegan foods, my understanding is that the vast majority of industrial sources (i.e. stuff you’ll find in ingredient lists) are still animal-derived, so if you see it on an ingredients list that doesn’t specify the source, it’s best to move on.
(This section was updated on April 19 after some feedback in the comments, see the comments for the original version…)
Most commonly sold as Jell-o, this ingredient is also used for pill capsules, candies, and marshmallows, among other things. It’s made from the collagen inside animal’s skin and bones, and it’s pretty much one of the last products extracted from a carcass – it’d be a waste product if it didn’t go so well with sugar, basically.
Maybe it’s because so many of us grew up with it that many people forget to question where it comes from – it’s one of those things that once you know, it’s very hard to un-know, but I often run into people, vegan and non, who haven’t learned yet (I wrote about my favourite gelatin story recently on Vegan Porn – content safe for work, site name maybe not.)
The good news is that there are a few vegan versions out there: agar agar is the usual replacement, and there are even Jell-o like products that use this instead, though they can be hard to find (we usually run into it in international food stores.) It’s important to realize that “gelatin” is just an ingredient, and things like Jell-o use it with sugar and other stuff, so if an ingredients list says gelatin, it’s animal-derived unless it says something weird like “vegetarian gelatin.”
Was there something that was a real eye-opener for you when you first found it in an ingredients list and realized what it was? Let us know in the comments!