Tips for Beginning Vegans: Label Reading

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Reading labels can be one of the most daunting tasks for new vegans.   If you’re lacto-ovo vegetarian, you need to watch out for obvious things like chicken broth, but it gets a little more complicated when you commit to avoiding all animal products.  However, I have a few tips that you can use to help decide whether or not a product is safe for you to eat.

  1. Check the cholesterol.  Get yourself into this habit to make life a little easier on yourself.  If the product has any cholesterol, even 1mg, then the product is not vegan.  Since cholesterol is not found in any plant-based products, this means there is some sort of animal-derived ingredient.  However, if it has no cholesterol, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s vegan.  It’s the whole rectangle-is-not-a-square thing.
  2. Check the allergy listings/bolded text. Most (all?) foods have at the end of their ingredient list, a list of common allergens in the food.  This includes milk, egg, soy, and wheat (those not allergic to soy or wheat obviously only need to look for milk and egg), however I’m not 100% sure that all companies list egg.  Some listings also boldface the common allergens in their ingredient list to make them stand out more.  If anything non-vegan is listed, go ahead and put it back on the shelf.  Again, though, just because it’s not listed doesn’t meant that it’s vegan.  This is separate from the “may contain traces of…” or “is processed on the same equipment as…” notices.  Some vegans may avoid these products to maintain personal purity, others may not since the traces left over from the manufacturing process don’t contribute to suffering or demand.
  3. Look for “big ticket” animal-derived ingredients.  These are the most common ones: vitamin D3 is rarely vegan while D2 always is, whey, honey, anything with lactose (though most other lac- ingredients are fine), and casein (a milk protein) finds its way into stupid things like soy cheese.  Be wary of items with “natural flavors” but “artificial flavors” are fine (it helps to contact the manufacturer about their sourcing for natural flavors).  Feel free to list other common ones I’ve left out in the comments.
  4. Look for the “little things”.  These are the ones that will trip even experienced vegans up sometimes or ones that require some questioning of yourself (ie. “Should I buy this bread that has possibly-animal-derived mono and diglycerides in the ‘2% or less’ part of the ingredients list?”).

Another good rule of thumb is to look for products with the fewest ingredients.  Not only does it mean that it’s likely less heavily processed, but it also makes reading the label easier.

Like anything, with time, reading labels becomes second nature.  Sometimes so much so you have to remind yourself to periodically check stuff that was formerly “safe” but all of a sudden now has the mysterious addition of something like whey.

The main thing I want to stress to new vegans is: don’t beat yourself up over mistakes, even big ones.  Accept that at some point, you’re going to unknowingly ingest an animal product.  This doesn’t mean you should throw your hands up and say, “Then screw it!  I’m not bothering at all if I can’t be perfect!”  Instead, just use the mistakes you make as a chance to learn and remind yourself of exactly how non-vegan of a world we live in.  You’ll know for next time.

25 Responses to “Tips for Beginning Vegans: Label Reading”

  1. Danielle

    Being vegan is about trying to reduce or eliminate exploitation of animals. If I buy vegan items made on shared machinery, I do it with the faint hope that some day the company will be able to afford dedicated machinery. It also indicates to the company that there is great demand for vegan items.

  2. Wheat Free

    At first, reading labels is a real pain. But after a while you get used to it, learn how to scan, picking up on red flags, or items you aren’t familiar with and need to look in to more.

    I have food allergies, so if I make a mistake, big or small, I don’t have to beat myself up, my body does it for me! No cheating for me!

    As I say, you get good at it.

  3. Rusty Haskell

    The bread that I had been buying for six months suddenly added milk to their recipe. I hadn’t remembered to check the label recently, but my (omni) wife noticed and warned me.

    What on earth is up with companies suddenly and inexplicably changing their recipes?

  4. chai

    lovely tips. thank you from someone who took the vegan pledge yesterday.

  5. Jimmy boy

    Another thing to look for is kosher “pareve.” This is not necessarily synonymous with vegan since fish is considered pareve. But, if there’s no fish, then you’re good to go!

    In Jewish law, all foods which do not fall into the categories of meat or dairy are considered pareve, and can be consumed freely with either meat or dairy. This includes all fruits and vegetables and foods derived exclusively from such sources; salt and other non-organic foodstuffs. Fish is considered pareve, and may be eaten directly before or after both meat and milk.

  6. bazu

    I wish we could start a campaign to get those pesky 2% or less ingredients out- does a food with 20 ingredients really need that drop of whey or skim milk or whatever at the bottom of the list? That’s my personal pet peeve! If I remember correctly, for example, Oreos used to have whey in them way back when. They don’t now. Anyone notice a difference?

  7. Mitch

    I have found this iPod list very handy. It’s much quicker than flipping through an animal ingredient book while in the grocery store.

    You can find the Animal Ingredients List A-Z For iPod at:

    http://thirty5.org/ipod/

    I hope it helps.

  8. Mindy

    I have recently seen that the Mint bar from Green & Black says “Suitable for vegetarians and vegans” but also shows it having 4 (somethings)(mg?) of Cholesterol! I haven’t heard back from them yet on why this is. :(

  9. Chava

    Just wanted to point out that eggs are also pareve, so check for that too if you’re going by the kosher label.

  10. Crystal

    Wow! Thanks for the advice. I am a recent vegetarian (turning vegan). If any one has any other advice as to where I can purchase vegan products. (I live in Louisiana and vegan products are extremely limited!!!!)

  11. almost vegetarian

    Incredibly helpful, that. Much thanks, indeed!

  12. philip

    i noticed that on the green and black’s mint bar a few weeks ago, also! i sent them a question and they have not responded either! i wonder how many inquiries they get about it…

  13. mikep

    Ok, I’m basically a vegan (i like milk) and I don’t think it’s that hard to buy vegan products. I mean if you’re buying/ eating something with lots of ingredients than aren’t you kind of missing the big picture. I thought vegan/ vegetarianism was about consuming foods that, aside from being meat free, are natural and unrefined. What has happened to eating fresh (or frozen) fruits and veggies, whole grains, beans, and legumes? Use fresh herbs and spices to experiment with flavor. Try your hands at some vegan baking or research some interesting ethnic recipes. I dunno, maybe I’m crazy but I def don’t want all of that processed crap in my body (food made with shared machines, come one, those coporate mindf***s dont care about me, you, or your vegan friends).
    Anyways, those vegan bars probably have cocoa butter (natural derivative of the cacau bean) or safflower oil in them which may account for the cholesterol. These are non-animal products. All types of olive oil have cholesterol, as well as other plant and seed based oils.

  14. ryan

    Anyways, those vegan bars probably have cocoa butter (natural derivative of the cacau bean) or safflower oil in them which may account for the cholesterol. These are non-animal products. All types of olive oil have cholesterol, as well as other plant and seed based oils.

    Sorry, you’re dead wrong here. As mentioned above, only animal products have cholesterol. Check the label on your olive oil.

    I think you’re thinking of saturated fat, which is completely different.

  15. ridgerunner

    Actually, according to “The Scientific Basis of Vegetarianism“, by William Harris M.D., many plant foods do contain trace amounts of cholesterol. The amounts are so small, however, that when reported, they round down to zero for any normal portion size. Note that Dr Harris is a long time expert in optimal human nutrition (plant based) and has been a vegan for 50+ years. He would also recommend that for optimal health, you eat your greens, fruits and beans before those grains and starchy vegetables.

  16. David

    green and black’s bars

    Most of their bars have the disclaimer that they are made on shared equipment.

  17. Deep Roots » Blog Archive » Carnival of Empty Cages #6

    […] new vegans, Ryan at The Veg Blog has some good tips on label reading for beginners. He also compiled a list of 10 Ways To Be A Kick-Ass […]

  18. Nat

    I can’t find the ipod list that Mitch posted the link for… can anyone help please?

  19. Suus

    For the Europeans and people living in Europe or traveling there

    This list is of all the E-numbers that contain animal products or by products.

    http://www.food-info.net/uk/qa/qa-fi45.

    It would be so helpfull if they make this worldwide.

    In any case all the tips above are helpfull and very appreciated.

    Thank you.

  20. Cassandra

    has anyone ever fasted?? its like a religious ethiopian thing. so these cats go vegan for 2 months and then feast on whatever they want once its over. i decided to try it(as well as make a few other changes) for a month. i am thinking of becoming a permanent vegan or vegetarian. but im mexican and i keep thinking of all of grandma’s foods that i wouldnt be able to eat. is it wrong to be a part-time vegan for health purposes only rather than moral?
    ^dont judge.

  21. Cassie

    Thanks for this great post. I’ve been thriving on a vegan lifestyle for just about two months. I feel great, have more energy than I have since I was a teenager, and sleep for about 2-3 hours less each night (I was sleeping too much before). I’ve also lost about fifteen pounds. All of these physical benefits are just secondary about how good it feels to live a peaceful lifestyle for which no animals need to suffer.

    This site is full of great information and is very inspirational. Thank you!

  22. Different, But Better Than Before « Going Vegan in a Non-Vegan World

    […] first I read every label in the store. I still read labels but I now know what to look for and can quickly determine if something is vegan or not. Shopping is no more of an effort than it was before going vegan. But it is far less […]

  23. Samantha

    Cholesterol over 1mg means it’s not vegan??? Gaaah! How many times do I have to go through my closet? I am extremely new to being vegan and it’s like every single day there is something new I have to watch out for. It’s not vegan even if the ingredients are all plant derived??

  24. jess

    I thought honey was not vegan. So why would we check for casein in honey at all? Just wondering….

  25. ryan

    Jess — You’re right. I think some text must have accidentally been deleted because that section makes absolutely no sense. :) I’ll fix it up…

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