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.