I got this question in my inbox today, and I had to answer it right away. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked about how to read labels, so I’m really glad to be addressing it now. It seems to be the most complicated part of eliminating animal products from your diet, but it’s really much easier now than it ever was before.
“How do you know if something is vegan or not? I know not to buy milk or butter or anything, but I can’t figure out if something is vegan just based on the label. I can’t even understand half of the ingredients that are added to my food. How did you learn what all of them are?”
Reading ingredient labels is something that’s so instinctual for me now, I always read every label on anything I purchase, even if it’s certified vegan. I think it’s really important to know exactly what we’re putting in (and on) our bodies. It’s also good to become familiar with some of the chemicals that are commonly found in processed food, so you can try to avoid the really bad ones. When I first became vegan, I was terrified of reading labels. I was sure I would make a mistake and accidentally eat the wrong thing. I scoured books and websites to compile a list of the ingredients I couldn’t eat, and kept the list in my purse at all times. It wasn’t a very effective method, since I didn’t know what all the long, multiple syllable words meant, and I was constantly seeing new ingredients I didn’t recognize.
Shopping got a little easier when I found the book Animal Ingredients from A-Z. I used to take the book with me whenever I went to the store, and look up every ingredient I didn’t recognize. Over years of avoiding animal products, (and attempting to buy more whole foods) I stopped needing the book. If you were thinking, ‘that whole process sounds like a giant pain in the ass’, you’d be right! But don’t worry- now you can just use an app.
Animal-Free is a free app that lists any and all animal ingredients you’ll encounter. There’s a function on the app that allows you to scan the barcode and it’ll just tell you if it’s vegan or not, but I hesitate to recommend that feature, because it seems like it’s subject to a pretty wide margin of error. Of course, you’re welcome to try it out yourself and see what you think.
I also recently discovered another free app called Is it Vegan? Which basically does the same thing in a different format. You can scan the barcode of a product and it will give you a summary of every ingredient, with a detailed list showing which ingredients derived from plants, and which ones come from animal by-products. Once again, we run into the issue of accuracy and the possibility of uncontrollable variables- what if the maker of the product starts using new ingredients and the app doesn’t account for that? However, they are constantly fine tuning the app to make it as accurate as possible with the help of the users. Since it does show each individual ingredient and it’s source within the app, you can count on learning more about what to avoid on food labels. At the very least, it’s helpful while you’re just starting out.
Common animal ingredients you’ll see on labels –
Milk derived ingredients:
Casein/Sodium Caseinate (Milk protein)
Rennet (An enzyme from calves’ stomachs)
Whey (A serum from milk)
Lactose (Milk sugar)
Fat derived ingredients:
Lard (Fat from pig abdomens)
Tallow (Rendered beef or sheep fat)
Suet (The hard, white fat on the kidneys and loins of cattle, sheep and other animals.)
Meat/intestinal derived ingredients:
Stearic acid (Derived from tallow)
Catalase (Derived from cow liver or fungus)
Lipase (Enzyme from the stomachs and tongue glands of calves, lambs, and baby goats.)
Pepsin (Enzyme derived from the stomach of cows and pigs.)
Bone derived ingredients:
Gelatin (protein obtained by boiling animal bones, ligaments, tendons, and skins in water.)
Fish/Marine mammal derived Ingredients:
Isinglass (A form of gelatin derived from the internal membranes of fish bladders, often found in alcoholic drinks.)
Aspic (A jelly derived from meat and fish)
Cetyl Alcohol/Palmitate (A wax found in the head cavities of sperm or bottle-nosed whales.)
Sperm Oil (Oil derived from the heads of whales or dolphins.)
Ambergris (From sperm whale intestines, used in making perfumes and flavoring in food and beverages.)
Squalene (Oil from shark livers)
Insect derived ingredients:
Shellac (Resinous excretion of an insect called the lac bug. Used as a candy glaze.)
Carmine/Carminic Acid (All of the following are different names for the crushed female cochineal insect- it takes 1 million corpses to make a kilogram (two pounds) of Carminic Acid.)
Natural Red 4
I would like to clarify that the above is by no means a complete list of every single animal product found in food, it’s just a collection of some of the more common ingredients you’ll see, and where they come from. A lot of people tell me that avoiding these products is too much work and not worth it for them. I get that, it can feel really overwhelming at first, but now that you know where these long ingredient names come from, do you really want them in your body? I can tell you with absolute certainty that you won’t miss eating secretions from an ox pancreas, crushed beetle shells, or wax removed from inside the skull of a whale. There’s a reason why they all have long and complicated names- if they were named after exactly what they are, no one would eat them!
Of course, every now and then you’ll encounter something that looks like an animal based ingredient that is actually made from a plant alternative. It will usually be noted on the label that the ingredient was derived from a plant source. However, if you’re unsure abut it, don’t buy it right away. Go home and look up the product to see if there’s any more detailed information on it. Sometimes I’ll email companies to ask where they obtained certain ingredients. Most food companies are happy to answer your questions.
I know it seems like a lot of work right off the bat, but once you start to recognize the names, it gets a lot easier. Try out one of the apps on your next trip to the store and let me know what you think! Remember to be patient with yourself. Practice begets progress. It is very rare that anyone becomes a “perfect vegan” overnight- if you mess up and accidentally buy something with honey or stearic acid in it, don’t beat yourself up over it. Just try to remember and avoid the same mistake in the future. All we can do in this world is try to reduce the suffering of others, and by not supporting animal agriculture, you’re helping to accomplish that in a very real way. So be proud of yourself and keep it up!