Vegans get very good at speed reading! When it comes to manufactured food products, unfortunately animal ingredients crop up in a lot of places you might not expect them to be, so the first few vegan supermarket trips do involve quite a bit of label-reading until you’ve established some regular vegan-friendly products to buy.
The aim is to spot and avoid animal products of any kind. This means ingredients or additives containing milk products, eggs, honey, fish, meat and ingredients derived from animal parts other than meat (such as gelatine).
How to speed-read food packaging
1) Look for the allergy advice. Doing this first will save you a lot of time! Supermarket brands in particular are generally good at specifying if a product contains milk or eggs, so if you see these listed on the allergy advice you can put it back straight away.
2) Look for ‘suitable for vegans’ in words or as a logo. There aren’t all that many of these about yet, but an ever-increasing number of vegan-friendly products are being labelled as such. Of the big supermarkets, Co-op and Sainsbury’s are the best at labelling their own-brand products as suitable for vegans and Tesco are starting to label more of their products, although not all their vegan-suitable products are labelled.
3) Time to tackle the ingredients list. Many animal-derived ingredients have obvious names (e.g. dried skimmed milk, beef stock), but not all do.
Non-vegan ingredients to watch out for
Butterfat/buttermilk/butteroil – commonly used in chocolate (including dark chocolate)
Casein – milk-derived
Ghee – clarified butter used in some Indian products such as naan bread
Honey – isn’t listed on allergy advice info
Lanolin – from sheep’s wool
Lactose – milk-derived. Often used as an additive in crisps and dips.
Shellac/E904 – insect secretions (strange but true), used as a glazing agent on some sweets and fruit
Whey – milk-derived
Non-vegan ingredients which are also unsuitable for vegetarians:
Carmine/cochineal/E120 – a red food dye made from crushed beetles
Fish oil – beware anything omega-3 enriched as they sometimes use fish rather than plant sources of omega-3.
Gelatine – made from animal bones and connective tissues
Rennet – calves’ stomach lining. Its most common use is in cheese, so not usually an issue for vegans. This is the reason why not all cheese is suitable for vegetarians.
Additives and E-numbers
If you need to find out whether or not a specific additive or E-number is suitable for vegans, Food-Info.net (a project run by Wageningen University, Netherlands) have a very useful page about additives which are or may be of animal origin. Not recommended for casual reading.
Multilingual label reading
Food-Info.net also produce bilingual allergy dictionaries which are free to download and list the names of many non-vegan food products, which could be handy for vegans travelling or living abroad.