Growing up with an allergy to tree nuts was the perfect introduction to deciphering packaged food labels. Long before I was concerned about animal bi-products sneaking into my food, I could navigate the ingredients panel of any package pretty quickly for allergens. Over the years, I’ve watched many people’s “light bulb” moments (and had plenty of my own) when realizing something actually had animal/animal bi-product in it, so I’ve put together some of my order of operations when determining the vegan-ness of something.
As a giant caveat, if you are striving for a whole-food plant-based lifestyle, label reading is really a small part of preparing a meal. Anything without a label (that isn’t purchased from a butcher) is probably vegan. Pile on the fruits, veggies, and whole grains that may not have labels without concern. Just remember to think about sauces, dressings, and on-the-go snacks or other packaged foods that end up in your kitchen.
Label Reading 101
The easiest way to see if a product is vegan, is to catch a glimpse of this little logo! Vegan Action has an application process for companies in the US (including territories), Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Companies can get certification on individual products only, so be careful with assumptions that an entire product line is vegan.
Remember, a product without this label may still be vegan. Maybe the company just hasn’t completed the application process, so don’t depend on Certified Vegan logos alone!
Since 2004, The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has made this ingredient search a bit easier. After recognizing over 160 allergens, the FDA compiled a short list of 8 foods that account for 90 percent of food allergic reactions (Read more about allergies in my Serving Up Compassion article). There is some overlap between top allergens and things vegans don’t eat, so use that legally required allergen info to first narrow down if there is:
The Fine Print
While the allergens may (or may not) be called out in bold at the bottom, you should be able to find out what you need by reading the impossibly small print on the back of the package. You may see some obvious ingredients, like milk or butter, that jump out at you. Others may not be so obvious. Here are a few more ingredients to watch:
- Carmine / Cochineal (red coloring, from beetles)
- Casein / Caseinates (milk protein)
- Custard (dairy)
- Gelatin (derived from animal bones)
- Ghee (clarified butter)
- Kefir (fermented milk, yogurt)
- Lactose / any ingredient starting with “Lact…” (milk protein)
- Nougat (milk, egg whites)
- Paneer (cheese)
- Pudding (gelatin and dairy)
- Rennet / Renin (from cow stomachs, used in cheesemaking)
- Whey (milk protein. Don’t worry weightlifters, there are other vegan proteins)
Here are some “hidden dairy” examples:
Want some ideas of what is vegan-friendly? Check out Eat This!
There are a few other labels worth mentioning. While these aren’t specifically vegan, you will likely see some of these labels in your grocery shopping adventures. First up, there is a pretty common “USDA ORGANIC” sticker or label on products these days. The standards cover produce, packaged goods, and animal products, and even has a rigorous set of criteria for becoming a certified producer. Because of the costs and transition period to guarantee organic farming, there may be some pretty-close-to-organic farming coming to a grocer near you without a label yet. This sticker shouldn’t be the deciding factor in your purchases, but worth keeping in mind. Additionally, check out the “Dirty Dozen.” If you are going to shop organic sometimes, spend your money where it counts. Some non-organic items are barely impacted by the pesticides sprayed on them, while others absorb them right up.
Next, you may see “Fair Trade” labeling on your food. As you dive into a more compassionate lifestyle by eliminating animal products, it’s only natural to start thinking about the supply chain of your food, and the true cost of something. While you may be able to find dairy-free chocolate for a low price, there is a strong chance that cocoa was harvested by child laborers under terrible conditions. These “Fair Trade” stickers are used by companies that are socially and environmentally responsible.
Lastly, Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, are being used with greater frequency. While some people preach the benefits of GMOs, there is evidence that GMOs are harmful to individuals and the environment. The Non-GMO Project provides this label to products that pass their extensive verification process.
Other Awesome Resources
- Barnivore: A website dedicated to clarifying if your beer, wine, and liquor is vegan. They don’t have an app yet, but they recommend some other apps for your iPhone, Android, or Windows device.
- Is It Vegan: This app lets you scan bar codes to pull up a quick “vegan” or “not vegan” answer. Not that I fear robots taking over the world, but outsourcing label reading to a bar code scanner could possibly backfire one day.
All logos and images in this post were pulled from Google Images.