Is It Vegan? A Comprehensive Guide to Checking if Items in the Grocery Store Are Vegan or Not
The comprehensive guide to help you find vegan food ingredients. We wrote this to help you navigate the ingredients food labels and to educate about general food ingredients.
And you're going to be amazed by what you find out!
Shopping in grocery stores today is definitely frustrating. While figuring out what in the produce section is vegan might be easy, checking if packaged items are okay to consume is getting exceedingly difficult considering all the added ingredients used to keep the food preserved, faster to produce, or cheaper to produce.
Doing a shopping trip can be even more difficult if you weren’t already accustomed to cooking a wide and diverse range of meals that were not vegan or vegetarian before you transitioned. Having previous experience with cooking a lot of different meals with animal products in them can help since you can more easily spot foods you know should contain a specific ingredient that is essential for producing that food item. Knowing the full list of animal products is helpful, as you will be more aware of what to avoid.
That being said, we wrote this comprehensive guide to help you navigate the grocery store and ask the right questions regardless of your experience in cooking. This guide starts out describing the animal ingredients we wish to avoid, then discusses how you can easily spot which products are vegan, and finally concludes by going in-depth about the tricky ingredients found both in the United States and in Europe. At the end of the guide, you will find a full A-Z list of ingredients to watch out for.
Contents of this guide:
What Are Animal Products?
Animal products in food are any ingredient derived directly from an animal, whether from its body or its excretions. In general, we can classify these products found in foods as originating from these sources:
Ingredients that derive from these sources are used in a variety of ways, including as flavorings, sweeteners, thickeners, stabilizers, coatings, vitamins, nutrients, and amino acids.
Bee products can be broken down more when talking about their honey and the honeycomb. For instance, wax, pollen, propolis, and honey are all bee products.
When discussing products from cows we must also include dairy, which often comes from dairy cows. Additionally, dairy can come in the form of whey, cheese, milk, butter, gelato, ice cream, cream, yogurt, kefir, ghee, and more.
Poultry can also be described more in-depth to include all egg products, which often come from chickens. Eggs can be used in the form of albumen, egg whites, and egg yolks.
Furthermore, we must mention that some food ingredients are tested on animals, usually lab mice or rats. Even food commonly thought of as safe for vegans might have had ingredients tested on mice. Notably, Impossible Foods had their meat substitute, the Impossible Burger, tested on lab rats as requested by the FDA. All the lab rats used in the testing were killed at the end of the experiment for dissection. (While there is debate on the topic, since the FDA required testing of their ingredients to prove safety and since their product might help save the lives of cows, we might also ask why they were using ingredients that needed any testing done at all on rats and humans.)
Lastly, some food ingredients are also made using human cells, including human fetal cell tissue. The finished food product itself does not contain these cells, but were used in the creation of synthetic flavorings.
Is the product you're buying colorful? Unless it's colored using natural foods, then you can thank that color to food additives like petroleum-derived or even animal-derived colorings. Ground cochineal, which are insects, are used to make carmine, a dye used to give a red color to many food products. Though, you may or may not find “carmine” or “cochineal extract” listed on the food label. Instead, you might find it listed with a number and code. Usually, this is listed as “natural red 4,” “CI 75470,” or “E120.” When it comes to food colorings, opt for naturally colored foods to be safe.
Natural and Artificial Flavors
In the USA, labels on packaged foods often contain the terms “Natural Flavors” and/or “Artificial Flavors.” These mean that additional ingredients have been added to the foods that either come from natural sources or from synthetic sources. What makes this problematic is that we cannot tell what the ingredients actually are to know if they have animal origins. One example of a natural flavoring that is from natural origins is castoreum, a food flavoring that comes from the secretions of beavers' anal scent glands and their urine. This flavoring is often used in food and beverages to recreate the flavors of vanilla, raspberry, and strawberry.
Grossed out yet? Packaged foods might even contain a flavoring, one that uses aborted human fetal cell tissue in the lab, to be used as a flavor enhancer. These are used in some soft drinks, bottled water, bottled coffee drinks, coffee creamers, soups, bouillon cubes, ketchup, sauces, bubblegum, candy, and more. Once this information hit the mainstream, some companies changed their ingredients and have been avoiding their usage. The general public cannot know whether the product has used this material or not, but this will be listed as “artificial flavors” if it's used at all. Again, no actual human cells are within the final product, but they were used in order to create this specific flavor enhancer.
Although we are providing some scenarios where animal products are used in the making of these flavorings, they are not necessarily all non-vegan, and the majority are certainly made from plants. In general, avoiding either natural or artificial flavorings might be a safer option though.
Company Trade Secrets and Exemptions
You might be surprised to learn that not all ingredients are listed on food labels. There are quite a few exemptions made under the law for food labeling, including any company trade secrets that might cause a competitor or former employee to steal their company's formula or process. Also, incidental additives that are present in a food item at insignificant levels and which do not have any technical or functional effect on that food are exempt from being labeled. Some of these trade secrets, incidental additives, or chemical solvents might involve an animal-derived ingredient. Unfortunately, consumers cannot possibly know in this case what may or may not be included here.
Added Natural or Synthetic Vitamins, Proteins, Amino Acids, and Fats
Fortified foods are packaged foods that have had vitamins added to them, whether from an organic or synthetic source. Some naturally sourced vitamins include animal-derived sources, such as sheep's wool or fish oil. Be on the lookout for vitamin D3, l-cysteine (E910, E920, E921), mono and diglycerides (E471), whey, pepsin, rennet, cod liver oil, propolis, collagen, biotin, vitamin H, cystine, lipase, lard, linoleic acid, and vitamin A, as they all may be derived from animals. L-Cysteine might even be derived from human hair. In all these cases, you'll want to ensure the ingredients listed are from a plant-based source or are certified vegan.
Certified Vegan Labeling
Have you found a product that has a “Vegan” label on it?
Firstly, this could be the company stamping their product as vegan themselves. Most of the time, the label is good and can be trustworthy, but other times, we've found things like honey listed in the ingredients, which is clearly not vegan. What gives? While we can and certainly should trust the company properly labeling their product, that stamp was not regulated in any way. If the vegan label is wrong or misused, people must notify the company to complain so that the company is aware of their mistake. A lawsuit may also be required to properly notify the company so they can update the label. So, in the case of a self-labeled stamp, we still recommend checking the ingredients.
The second scenario is that the product has been certified by a third-party certifier. There are three main certifiers in the USA and Europe: Vegan.org, The Vegan Society, and V-Label. “For any flavoring—whether natural or artificial—we would ask our client to confirm the raw materials so we can assess each one meets our vegan trademark standards,” said a spokesperson at The Vegan Society. “For any other raw materials, including processing aids that are not declared on the packaging, we would ensure they meet our vegan trademark standards by assessing their raw materials and development of the ingredients. We often work under non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) with companies with 'trade secrets'.”
A spokesperson for V-Label said similarly about their process. “The producer of the product that should get V-Label licensed has to list all materials (including processing aids, additives, etc.) that they are using to produce this specific product. Companies that want to label their products with the V-label are obliged to indicate all materials used, even those that do not have to be listed on the label.”
What that means for you is that a certified vegan product has been scrutinized for every ingredient and manufacturing process to make sure everything is 100% vegan. This label is there so you can easily identify these products, and we encourage you to familiarize yourself with what their labels look like to better recognize them in the store.
Most foods in the produce section that have been imported have produce coatings to protect the food from transport damage and prevent premature ripening. This includes most fruits and vegetables, with the exceptions of leafy greens, bananas, and perhaps soft-fleshed fruit like peaches. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, apples, plums, oranges, papayas, and so on all have produce coatings on them. The produce coatings use 1 of 3 mixtures: petroleum-based, plant-based, and beeswax-based ingredients. Since your grocer is not required to disclose this information, which mixture their products might have cannot be known to you. Additionally, your grocer likely does not know what processes the produce has undergone prior to receiving them.
“I found out the hard way that all the produce I was buying had coatings, especially a lot of beeswax coating,” says Every Vegan Recipe founder, Louisa. “I'm allergic to propolis which is in beeswax. I kept getting allergic reactions immediately after eating certain produce. After doing a lot of research, I found out that everything is coated. Worse off, everything I tried to clean with to remove the coatings did not work.” If you're trying to avoid beeswax altogether, Louisa recommends either growing your own produce, buying your produce from a trusted local farm, or cutting the skins off the produce you buy if you have no other option.
May Contain Traces
When you come across a food label that states that the food “may contain traces of xyz” or “was processed in a facility that also processes xyz,” that statement is indicating that the food product was created in a facility that also creates other types of foods. A shared facility situation is very common in food manufacturing, especially with smaller businesses. These statements are providing the consumer a clear statement that they cannot guarantee that the food has zero traces of xyz ingredients. This is particularly important for those with severe food allergies where even a trace of their allergen can be life-threatening. These warnings do not imply that the food has any traces of these ingredients though, as it is clearly only providing a warning that it cannot be guaranteed. Whether or not you avoid this type of food because of this labeling is dependent on your preferences. If the ingredient mentioned is an animal product and you wish to avoid any trace of it, feel free to avoid this food.
Dairy-Free or Gluten-Free
You might see the phrases “dairy-free” or “gluten-free” on your packaged foods and think they must also be vegan. Dairy-free means that the food does not contain milk but might contain any number of animal-derived ingredients, including eggs. Gluten-free means that the food does not contain gluten, a protein found in certain grains, but that does not mean the product is vegan or vegetarian in any way. In both these cases, reading the entire ingredient list to check if certain ingredients are present is recommended.
Fried foods often use eggs or milk in the batter and might have even been fried in animal fats, like lard. The fried food might also have been fried in the same fryer used to fry animal products. If you found packaged fried foods in your grocery store, like donuts, fried tofu, or vegetable rolls, make sure to check the ingredients and ask for more information if needed.
Vegetarian/Vegan Section in the Grocery Store
Your local grocery store might have a refrigerated section where you can find a lot of vegan products, like vegan cheeses, vegan sausages, and tofu. Athalia Norman, a cultural anthropologist who has severe milk allergies, gave us information regarding an ingredient we should watch out for. “Caseinate! This is a milk derivative. This is straight up derived from cow's milk and not vegan at all, much less safe for someone with a milk allergy.” Casein has been found in some of the cheese alternatives found in Trader Joe's from this section of the store. Unfortunately, this section also contains vegetarian items, so be sure to check those labels for certified vegan products or check for dairy/egg ingredients.
Granulated sugars made from sugarcane, sugar beets, and coconut have often used bone char from animals to whiten the sugar more from its natural color. Coconut or date sugars never use this char. Brown sugar is also put into question, since a lot of brown sugar is made by combining granulated sugar together with molasses. Don't fret, though; if you purchase certified organic or certified vegan, the sugar will definitely be vegan. According to regulation, certified U.S. Department of Agriculture Organic (USDA Organic) sugar cannot be filtered through bone char. So, buy organic sugar and worry not!
Sauces, Salad Dressings, and Marinades
Always check the ingredient labels on sauces, salad dressings, and marinades. These often use sneaky ingredients like milk, eggs, anchovies (seafood), or flavorings that derive from animals.
Beer and Wine
Beer and wine producers all over the world use certain clarifiers during the process to help clarify the color and liquid from particulates. These clarifiers are often made from fish, eggs, gelatin, or casein. Look for certified vegan labels to ensure the product is vegan.
An A-Z List of Ingredients in Foods
Below is a list of ingredients you should look out for. When in doubt, you can also use this handy website to check specific ingredients.
- Aliphatic Alcohol
- Amerchol L101
- Artificial Flavoring
- Bee Pollen
- Biotin/Vitamin H
- Bone Char/Bone Meal/E542
- Casein/Caseinate/Sodium Caseinate
- Cod Liver Oil
- Confectioner's Glaze
- Egg/Egg Whites
- Fatty Acids
- Fish/Fish Oil/Fish Sauce
- Lactic Acid
- Linoleic Acid
- Marine Oil
- Milk/Milk Protein
- Myristic Acid
- Natural Flavorings
- Nucleic Acid
- Royal Jelly
- Shellac/Resinous Glaze/E904
- Stearic Acid
- Tallow/Tallow Fatty Alcohol
- Urea/Carbamide/Uric Acid
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B-Complex Factor
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin D/Ergocalciferol/Calciferol/Vitamin D3
- Vitamin H
We're Launching a Vegan Recipe Platform
Interested in learning more? Sign up to our VIP list for early access!