Vegan 101: Reading Labels to Avoid Animal Products

by JL Fields on May 16, 2011

It’s time for another Vegan 101 post! (I hope you’re enjoying this series as much as I am!Today’s guest is my friend Bitt who blogs at Bitt of Raw. She is a smart, fun, and informative writer who often challenges the reader. Bitt is a long-time vegetarian-then-vegan who openly and courageously chronicles her health issues to help others on their journey.

As a new vegan I was stunned to learn along the way that, because I wasn’t reading labels well, I was still, inadvertently, consuming animal products. I know this has happened with some of you from your emails. Bitt is uniquely qualified to share with us how to learn to read labels and to make wise and compassionate choices when shopping.

***

Hi I’m Bitt from Bitt of Raw. Thanks JL for having me guest post. I’m eager to help new vegans tackle the topic of reading labels. It can seem daunting, but with some tips and practice, in time you will be a pro.

In middle school, I was taught to read labels in health class. Unfortunately for me then, it meant being fixated on the calories and “nutrition facts” section. Ingredient labels and nutrition facts were just then being mandated on most foods, even snack foods. It wasn’t about being healthy or about ethics to me then, but that new legislation does help us, as does recent allergy legislation. I feel it’s our right to know what (or who) is in our food.

I didn’t always read the fine print of the ingredients until I was forced to due to my gluten intolerance. Then I learned that food is not always just food, there are things like “maltodextrin” and “whey powder” and other odd terms that make it really hard to find out what the original source of the ingredient.

On long labels especially, it almost seems like there are code words for things. Once I learned all the tricky terms that mean gluten I learned to scan labels for them. Going dairy-free, then vegan, led to learning even more ingredient code words. I have to say, it does get easier. It’s almost instinctual for me now: anything boxed or bagged, I pick up and read the label.

Reading labels, here are some issues that vegans can run into:

  • Even “natural ingredients” can be questionable. And there can be plant or animal based sources for certain things, like lethicin. If the company doesn’t reveal the source, you can’t be sure it’s vegan.
  • Unfortunately, the term non-dairy or lactose-free doesn’t necessarily mean vegan. There are some soy-based cheeses out there than do not contain lactose, but contain casein, which is derived from dairy. Non-dairy baked goods or other foods can contain eggs or other animal ingredients.
  • Another issue is sometimes animal products are used in the processing of an ingredient. For example, apple juice is often filtered with animal products and so are many wine and beers. Bone char (bones from cows) is often used to filter sugar. Since in theory no residue is left in the product, they don’t have to label it that way. Sadly for us, this means more research.
  • Sugars that are called turbinado sugar, organic evaporated cane juice, organic dehydrated cane juice, or organic cane sugar are all vegan.  Even better: use sugar alternatives that are less processed like agave nectar, sucanat, coconut sugar, dates, or maple syrup.

When in doubt, ask the company. Then vegan (and raw) rumor mill can be incorrect. For example I heard from several people that Bubbie’s pickles were raw, then from a few they weren’t. I was so mixed up! I contacted the company directly, and found out the pickles are, but the sauerkraut isn’t…anymore. It once was. A lot of people are under the impression that Oreos are vegan, but some internet sources say yes, some don’t. There are long threads online about certain favorite (mostly unhealthy) junk foods like this.

Which brings me to this point: labels change, ingredients change. Sadly. Unless it’s an out and proud vegan company or you are buying it at a vegan store that’s vetted it for you, check the labels frequently to be safe. These days, some products are labeled with a big V for vegan. That sure makes it easy!

What about made on vegan equipment? This is good for people to know, especially those with severe allergies. Some vegans feel more concerned about this than others. It’s hard to know how well the equipment was cleaned down between batches of food. It’s a personal decision you will have to decide on whether you want potential residue of a non-vegan food on your vegan item.

This may seem tedious to read every box and bag, but trust me you will get much better at it and after a while you won’t need to think about it so hard. And since you are reading the labels scanning for animal products, you will be less able to ignore ingredients that aren’t really good for anyone, like MSG and artificial flavors. So your body will thank you.

Guess what? Happy Cow has a list of all the ingredients that are derived from animals. So if you are confused about one of them, check this list, and if you are feeling tech-savvy, there’s even an app for scanning for animal ingredients in your phone.  No excuses for animal cruelty!

***

Thank you, Bitt! Once again, I’m learning something new.  Whey was one of my mistakes early on in my vegan journey. And sugar really had me confused.  This is incredibly helpful.

Readers, any tips on reading labels that you would like to share?

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  • http://kindercuisine.wordpress.com karla

    There are a couple of great aps for iphone that tackle this problem – I actually posted about these a while back. These make life so much easier! http://kindercuisine.wordpress.com/category/tech/

    Hope this helps :)

    • http://www.jlgoesvegan.com JL goes Vegan

      This is great, Karla, thank you!

    • http://bittsblog.blogspot.com bitt

      THanks for those links!

  • Elizabeth @ RunWithSneakers

    Great post!  Thanks for the Happy Cow link (and app).  I’m going to check that out right now.  I became a diligent label-reader when I gave up sugars for a year (there are lots of names for “sugar”).  I always have my reading glasses on in the grocery store (I’m sure people think it’s odd, but I don’t care much.)  

    I’m always tempted to tell my friends/family who tell me that they are vegetarian, that the cheese they are eating may not be vegetarian (“enzymes” often mean “animal rennet”).  But I’m torn as to how much info I should share, especially when someone hasn’t asked me.  It’s tricky so I leave it be.

    • http://www.jlgoesvegan.com JL goes Vegan

      Elizabeth, that’s a great point about “unsolicited” input. Sometimes my attempt to be helpful is misconstrued as proselytizing.

    • http://bittsblog.blogspot.com bitt

      I tell people that when the subject comes up. For example my cousins were talking about the wax on the edge of cheese and other odd cheese ingredients so I brought up the rennet. I thought it fit in appropriately. These types of things aren’t common knowledge so I figure they should be informed. Most still go on and eat it anyway, but a few will at least think twice.

  • http://twitter.com/therawproject Christine

    Great post, thanks JL and Bitt! So true that labels have to be carefully read, I was shocked to find a hummus at Whole Foods that had egg whites in it and that many sauces and candies you’d think would be vegan friendly aren’t. 

    • http://www.jlgoesvegan.com JL goes Vegan

      It’s so surprising, the animal products that are needlessly added!

    • http://bittsblog.blogspot.com bitt

      egg whites in hummus? YUCK!

  • Christina

    Great post! You learn a lot reading labels. Sometimes it’s baffling, such as the addition of eggs to hummus. Why?!

  • Veganworldtrekker

    Yes. Great points! You gotta read labels and you gotta ask restaurant waitstaff(worldwide) if veggies cooked in same oil used for chicken or meat dishes. Eg. french fries at beach stands often cooked in same fryer with oils from chicken fingers! 

  • http://www.thedomesticvegan.com Jess – The Domestic Vegan

    Awesome post!  Bitt is so great.  I love this series, even though I’ve been vegan for almost 4 years.  :)  So much fantastic info!

    • http://www.jlgoesvegan.com JL goes Vegan

      Jess, this makes me happy! Though a “101″ series, I have really hoped it will be helpful to all vegan (and vegan-curious) folks. I cannot believe how much I’ve learned!

  • Stemotson

    Carrageenan. Avoid this at all cost. It’s not an animal product but it will really screw your body and mind up. Some soy milks even have it in. For more info: http://www.notmilk.com/carageenan.html 

  • stefanie

    This is a great post. Thank you for the tips.

  • http://www.choosingraw.com Gena

    I’m someplace in between really concerned and more relaxed about the equipment warnings, but I did stop buying Green + Black chocolate recently when they got real about how much possible dairy contamination exists in their products. Great post, B!

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