5 ingredients commonly mistaken as vegan

April 15, 2010

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?

Worcestershire sauce

Worcestershire sauce

I think a gallon would last a while. Photo by bossco

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.



I can't believe it's got dairy in it. Photo by ilovebutter

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.



Writing makes me thirsty... Photo by gilgongo

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.



I don't want to see it either. Photo by asobitsuchiya

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…)


Stapler in jello

I love the Office, but still... Photo by kimberlykv

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.”

What else?

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!

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Lenni April 15, 2010 at 2:03 pm

This is probably better known among vegans, but since it’s what led me to Vegan Porn I should mention: casein. When I first was vegan I was delighted to find soy cheeses in my regular small-town grocery store. This was just a year or so before the U.S. required milk products to be listed in the allergen information on ingredient lists, so back then they just listed “casein” where now it says something like “casein (milk protein)” or somesuch.

Anyway, something made me suspicious so I googled it, and a thread on VP came up in the results…and the rest is history. So thank you, crappy sneaky ingredients, for leading me to VP and now the Better Network.

angela April 15, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Agreed, casein blows, it ruins so many otherwise vegan-goodness.

Right now Vitamin D3 is making buying orange juice harder!The Calcium fortified ones are becoming Calcium and Vitamin D3 fortified. YUK.

Jason April 15, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Good point on casein Lenni – I was thinking more about everyday products as opposed to things like soy cheese, but I can definitely think of a lot of “look! I bought cheese you/I can eat!” scenarios that would end badly!

Diana April 15, 2010 at 6:27 pm

Vitamin D3. I’ve been vegan for almost a decade, but just found out about it from a discussion on margarine. It was a pretty good discussion about Earth Balance and their use of palm oil in their spreads, which I concluded is a really tricky issue: http://invisiblevoices.wordpress.com/2008/06/20/earth-balance-palm-oil-rainforests-and-ran/

Heather April 15, 2010 at 6:33 pm

Carmine / Cochineal! Who would have thought that they’d grind up bugs just to color something red? I was surprised when I read how many of them it takes to make the coloring, how they kill them, and that the bugs are only red because they eat berries. Why not just use the berries to color stuff? I hate that they put it in things that would otherwise be vegan too.

Barbi April 16, 2010 at 9:26 pm

A year or two ago I realized the stuff I put in my hair to defrizz had gelatin in it. I had never even thought to look at the ingredient list on hair products. And now that I started, I keep finding silk in everything! In case you have noticed, I have a massive head of terribly frizzy hair that is impossible to control, and it only seems to be getting worse with age! I am DESPERATE to find a high quality brand of defrizz-stuff that does not contain gelatin and silk.

Colleen April 19, 2010 at 11:32 am

It was casein for me, too. Things are clearer now, but I still have well-meaning in-laws trying to feed me casein-infested soy cheese…

Barbi: If you’re willing to shell out some serious cash, Aveda might have some stuff you could use.

jen April 20, 2010 at 1:13 pm

L-cystine isn’t a chemical or a food additive. It is an amino acid. It occurs naturally in hemp and quinoa.

Niki April 20, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Caeser salad and eggs as well as the potential for worchestshire sauce, anchovies, and bacon.

Jason April 20, 2010 at 4:28 pm

@jen, thanks for the clarifications! I’ve updated the L-Cysteine section of the post. For posterity, the opening paragraph was “There aren’t a lot of weird chemicals that I track religiously, but L-cysteine is one of them, because it’s hands down, to me, the weirdest food additive I see in common usage.” and the closer was “While there are non-animal forms of this ingredient, my understanding is that the vast majority 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.”

It’d be great if manufacturers could use hemp or quinoa instead, but for the purposes that they use the additive, animal-based sources seem to still be the status quo. As with many things, I think this may change over time, but it’s going to be tricky to get companies to disclose their sources…

jen April 20, 2010 at 6:14 pm

Thanks, Jason. I have no clue why people feel the need to manufacture food when there is plenty available in nature.

Leah Rutherford April 22, 2010 at 10:23 am

Shellac -” … is a resin secreted by the female lac bug, on trees in the forests of India and Thailand. It is processed and sold as dry flakes which are dissolved in denatured alcohol to make liquid shellac, which is used as a brush-on colorant, food glaze, and wood finish. ”

I found it in some very pretty candies that I wanted to buy, that is before I found out what it is.

Oh, sorry to be a pedant, but *everything* is chemicals. 😉

Meg April 22, 2010 at 10:36 am


Amino acids are chemicals. If you don’t understand why, please look up the definition of “chemical”.

Also, it is a food additive. It is commonly added to food as a dough conditioner or to enhance flavor.

Valerie April 22, 2010 at 7:37 pm

Confectioner’s Glaze. It’s in sprinkles and some candy and is not vegan.

Lorraine Haines April 24, 2010 at 5:55 am

I’ve just downloaded a free iphone application called ‘Animal Free’. It has an extensive list of animal derived ingredients, and information on what each individual ingredient is.
It also tell you whether that item is always or sometimes animal derived.

Jacqueline May 1, 2010 at 12:37 pm

I agree with all those that others listed. Confectioner’s glaze is a big one… it’s in a lot of candy and goodies that people try to give to our kids. It’s not only not vegan, but it’s not vegetarian!

And depending on how you look at it, almonds are not vegan either: http://www.vegblogger.com/blog/2009/12/vegan-honey-the-great-debate.html

Jason May 2, 2010 at 1:20 pm

Thanks for the link Jacqueline! I think we’re at a point where we can find some level of exploitation/abuse at almost any level of food production, be it bees in pollination or the treatment of workers who harvest the crops or the simple fact that someone in the chain of people that got my lunch to the store ate meat. Some of these examples might border on the silly side, and some might sound like excuses, but it’s hard to have a debate on those levels without getting into some kind of “all or nothing” position, where you’re either living naked in the woods trying not to move or you’re eating at the steakhouse, and I don’t think it’s helpful…

At the end of the day, there are some things that suck but are still necessary, and they are what they are but I have faith that things will get better over time (and it’ll probably be for economic or technological reasons, not compassion, but I’ll take the wins where I find them.)

Hilary August 1, 2010 at 9:09 pm

Only recently I found that many of the inks used for tattoos actually have animal products in them. I recently found a Vegan tattoo parlour in Melbourne, Australia (where I live) that uses only vegan inks. As I understand it ink uses glycerine as a carrier, and although it can be derived from natural sources, most often it is from animal products.

strangeturnip September 28, 2010 at 9:08 pm

While I am not vegan, I try to pay close attention to hidden food ingredients. A lot of people in my life keep kosher and very strictly kosher food is usually labeled with a mark that can be helful to vegans.
Kosher food has to be milk based, meat based or neither although this last category can include fish and eggs.since milk and meat cannot be consumed together and neutral or pareve can be consumed with either meat or dairy, this category cam be useful in telling if meat ingredients are used.
A symbol of “kosher pareve” most commonly a U in a circle can denote if a meat ingredient is included. The same symbol with a “D” beside means it either has dairy ingredients or was prepared on dairy equipment. It would certainly help to determine if a meat based ingredient is present in a vitamin or other additive.

Only the most strict kosher standards–mostly orthodox- condider byproducts like gelatin to be the same as meat so the circle U mark (for orthodox union) or similar OK (k in a circle) are the most helpful as they show up on many normal food products, and supplements. If in doubt consult a local orthodox organization. One might also get a clearer answer from food menufacturers if you pretend you concerns are religious (it was due to hindu concerns the Mcdonalds finally disclosed the meat in their fries), or they may refer you to the rabbi that certified the food, who would know all the ingredients.

Teri March 30, 2015 at 3:34 pm

Thank you for clarifying that Jason. There are so many “what-if’s.” As you mentioned earlier, the delivery guy could be a meat-eater. I like to eat at Earthfare and they make vegan options as well as a chicken salad, broccoli & cheese soup, etc. The vegan community love to meet here. So the dude who made the vegan nuggets could have easily made the beef meatballs too.

Just wondering, do you consider oreos vegan? In the US, it’s made of wheat and soy. It’s not healthy but I consider like an accidently vegan snack.

Jessica Reese March 25, 2016 at 6:21 pm

Barbi- I use JustNatural hair care they have an aloe Vera based hair gel I use on my curly hair, I believe it’s vegan

June childrey July 21, 2016 at 7:59 am

Hello, I am newly vegan and one thing that tricked me so far are the words “non-dairy”. I thought my creamer was okay because it said that until I read the label and realized that non-dairy doesn’t mean the same to me as it does to the FDA. Luckily there are several alternatives that are quite good. I just thought it would help to mention for others that are new to this as well.

Jason July 21, 2016 at 8:32 am

Yep, it’s a real mess! “Non-dairy” is a regulated term that still allows for dairy products, and “dairy-free” isn’t regulated at all.

When I was starting out I thought dark chocolate meant no milk at all, which also isn’t always the case. But you learn, you move on, and you get better. Ingredient labels are helpful things!

Nan Sea Love November 30, 2017 at 10:58 am

Earth Balance has been owned by a dairy company for a long time. The same company that produces Smart Balance. It also contains Palm oil and in spite of its claims that it is sustainably sourced, that is not to be trusted, the Palm Oil industry monitors itself and is responsible for the horrible deaths of thousands of orangutan so and roufhly 200 other rainforest species. There are many great alternatives, my favorite is Palm oil free, organic and the most delicious VeganButter from http://www.miyokoskitchen.com

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