perplexed woman staring at boxed food label
Food,  Tips

Label Reading 101 for Vegans

Reading labels is serious business if you’re vegan. Most of you already know that being vegan means avoiding all animal by-products. This includes meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, seafood or shellfish, and, for some of us, bee products. If you’re like me – i.e. impatient and not good with small fonts – you might find it easier to use an app OR memorize some red flag ingredients to be on the lookout for while you’re shopping. I’ve included my personal list along with my favorite label reading shortcut — the allergen warnings.

What is an Allergen Warning?

Food allergies are a big deal and between federal regulations and today’s litigious climate foods will include allergen warnings to help those with severe allergies avoid accidentally eating foods that can make them sick. Dairy, eggs, and shellfish are all major allergens that also happen to be personas non gratas on the vegan diet, so it’s usually the first thing I look for when scanning a label. It should be below all the ingredients in bold font. You’ll see two types of warnings: ‘contains’ and ‘may contain’.

Contains vs May Contain

Contains is pretty easy to figure out. If an ingredient is listed here that means it’s intentionally used in the formulation of the product and it’s definitely in there.

In 2004 the FDA passed the FALCPA or Food Allergen and Consumer Protection Act. This requires disclosure of the top eight allergens in food items:

  • Milk
  • Soy
  • Eggs
  • Wheat
  • Fish
  • Peanuts
  • Shellfish
  • Tree Nuts

There are some exceptions, but most labels will show these warnings.

‘May Contain’ is a little trickier. You might see things on labels like “May contain traces of milk,” or “Made in a facility that also processes cashews”. These warnings are cautionary and generally deal with the possibility of cross-contamination. Most manufacturers make multiple products in their facilities which means that even with cleaning and sanitizing, it’s possible that trace amounts of the last product made there will make it into the next one. Unless you’re allergic to one of the ‘may contain’ ingredients, these are typically fine to eat as a vegan.

Ingredients to Look Out For

  • Gelatin
    This thickening agent is made by boiling the skin, bones and connective tissues of cows and pigs until it renders down to a colorless gelatinous substance. Common Uses: gummy candy, jams,jellies and anything that jiggles.
  • Shellac
    This vanity substance is secreted by the female lac insect. It’s sometimes used to make a food glaze for sweets. Common Uses: make sweets and baked goods shiny and irresistible or as a waxy protective coating on fresh produce.
  • Isinglass
    Very similar to gelatin in texture, this filtering agent comes from fish bladders. Common Uses: It’s often used as a fining agent to remove impurities in beer and wine. Yeah, not all wine is vegan, but there’s a tool to help with that.
  • Cochineal/Carmine
    Cochineal scale insects are ground up and used to make carmine, a natural red dye. Common Uses: carmine dye is used to give a desirable red hue to foods, candies, and even cosmetics.
  • Refined Sugar
    Though most brands of refined sugar sold in the UK are vegan, manufacturers selling in the USA often use with bone char made from cattle bones – sometimes labeled as ‘natural carbon’. Common Uses: bone char is used to whiten and lighten processed sugar. Just one more reason to avoid it.
  • ‘Natural’ Flavorings
    Some of these ingredients are animal by-products. Labeling for them can be incomplete or ambiguous which is one reason why many vegans avoid them unless the product is vegan certified. Common Uses: natural flavorings are often used to mimic expensive whole food ingredients. An example of this is castoreum, a vanilla food flavoring made from the secretions of beaver anal glands.
  • Sneaky Names for Dairy
    Whey, lactose and casein are all sneaky names for dairy that you may see on a label instead of ‘milk’. Common Uses: dairy is the go-to for adding fat and creaminess to everything from chocolate and baked goods to cookies and sauces.
  • Some Vitamins & EFAs
    Some items and fortified foods are not vegan due to the source of some of the vitamins and EFAs found in them. For example, Omega-3s and D3 are both typically derived from animals. Most omegas come from fish, while D3 is made from fish oil or the lanolin (another to watch for) found in sheep’s wool. There are vegan alternatives for both. Common Uses: typically found in multi-vitamins, supplements or fortified foods like cereals.

Unlikely Foods to Double Check

Getting together with friends? Make sure you check your wine before you start sipping!

Many times, the foods you least suspect are the ones that will give you the most trouble! While some, like bread, seem obvious, others, like toothpaste, wine or orange juice often go under the radar for new vegans.

  • Bread Products – look out for eggs, dairy, and l-cysteine, an additive made from poultry feathers.
  • Sweets/Candies – jelly, marshmallows, gummy bears and chewing gum are all typically made with gelatin.
  • Orange Juice – some orange juice brands varietals are fortified with omega-3, which comes from fish. Double check the source on the label or pass on any products where the source is unspecified.
  • Toothpaste – besides typically being tested on animals, most kinds of toothpaste contain glycerin which is sometimes made from pigs. Glycerin CAN be made from plants as well though, so it’s best to check the sources.
While pesto is delicious, it’s often made with parmesan. Be sure to check your labels.
  • Dark Chocolate – while most dark chocolate is vegan by default, some brands use dairy ingredients like milk-fat for a creamier finish.
  • Pesto – traditionally, pesto is made using parmesan, which is not vegan, and in some cases, due to rennet, not vegetarian either.
  • Pasta – many kinds of pasta, especially fresh ones, are made with egg. Double check your packaging before consuming.
  • Deep Fried Foods & Tempura – Many tempura and fryable batters are made using egg. In addition, fresh fries and other fryer goodies are sometimes fried in animal fat. It’s a good idea to ask what kind of fat is used when ordering in a restaurant.
  • Roasted Peanuts – peanuts are often coated with gelatin to help salt and seasoning stick.

First things first – take a deep breath. That was A LOT of information and while it may feel overwhelming now — once you get the hang of it and learn which questions to ask, I promise it becomes second nature. If you’re new the veganism, deal with the big, obvious categories first, and then work your way down to the nitty gritty.

Good Luck!

Fitness/ Fros/ Vegan Food. Graphic designer/illustrator, entrepreneur, marketing swiss army knife, amateur coder, & lover of pugs, chocolate, & travel.


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