Vegan Diet Label Reading Tips
With a good idea of what to fill your cupboards with, and in preparation for going to the grocery store to stock up and save money, let’s take a look at how to read labels so you can identify the most prevalent animal products that appear in various items.
Contrary to what many people think, vegans do not spend all their time deciphering labels. The truth is that once you know what to look for, one quick glance at the label will tell you if it has an animal product in it. Having said that, if you have to weed through a long list of ingredients to determine if it’s vegan or not, you probably shouldn’t be eating that product anyway. Why would you want to put into your mouth something that resembles a chemistry experiment rather than actual food? You shouldn’t feel like you’re in science class when you read a label.
The best way to avoid labels altogether is to eat whole foods as much as possible. The more you eat whole foods, the less you have to worry about animal products or unnecessary and potentially harmful ingredients in your food.
Having said that, I realize that we eat things other than just whole fruits and vegetables, so when we buy such things as canned beans, pre-made soups, store-bought tortillas, and other processed foods, I recommend we try to choose those with
• The fewest ingredients possible
• Ingredients whose names we can recognize
• Ingredients that are animal-free
Now, some people argue that once you eliminate the most obvious animal products from your diet (meat, animal’s milk, and eggs), you can relax a bit when it comes to the animal products hidden in commercial foods. Although I agree that being vegan is not about obsessing over being perfect, the fact is I simply don’t want to consume the blood, bones, or fat of animals, even when they’re hidden among other ingredients. I would never buy any of these things if they were sold individually, and I don’t want to eat them shoved into my food as filler or fat. In fact, many of these animal products are given names other than what they really are because even the manufacturers know that people wouldn’t buy them if they knew exactly what they were.
Gelatin: Made by boiling the slaughterhouse remains of bones, skin, and connective tissues of animals—most often cattle, pigs, horses, and fishes—gelatin is the by-product of the meat and leather industries. If it says “gelatin” on the label, it is animal-derived. Though there are vegetable-derived gelatinlike products available, such as agar, guar gum, carrageenan, and pectin, they would not be the source if a label simply says “gelatin.”
• PRODUCTS MOST ASSOCIATED WITH GELATIN are Jell-O, marshmallows, vitamin capsules, gummy candies, and ice cream. Vegan versions of each are available. For marshmallows, check out Dandies made by Chicago Soy Dairy (chicagosoydairy.com) and those made by Sweet and Sara (sweetandsara.com).
• ETHICAL CONSIDERATION: Though gelatin is made from the by-products of slaughterhouse waste, it is misguided to think that using the remains of the animals is a noble use of what would “go to waste,” as many people assert. We unnecessarily kill 10 billion land animals and countless marine animals every year, and the industries that profit off these animals have come up with sundry ways to make even more money by selling their by-products. These very profitable by-product industries simply wouldn’t exist if we didn’t kill animals in the first place. By purchasing animal by-products, we are supporting the primary industries we ethically oppose.
Whey and casein: Both are derived from animal’s milk. When you curdle dairy-based milk (to make cheese), you are essentially separating the milk solids (casein) from the milk liquid (whey). If the label says “casein,” “caseinate,” “milk protein,” “sodium caseinate,” or “whey,” they are most definitely animal-derived. Some soy- and rice-based cheeses have casein added to them. Although a similar process takes place to make tofu, no plant-based milk naturally contains casein or whey.
• PRODUCTS MOST ASSOCIATED WITH CASEIN AND WHEY: Some—but not all—brands of protein powders, boxed cereals, cereal bars, processed sandwich breads, prepared bread crumbs, and crackers contain these cow’s milk derivatives. Vegan versions of these foods are definitely available, so just check the label.
• HEALTH CONSIDERATION: When you separate the curds from the whey to make cheese, you’re tangling up all the milk proteins (the casein) into solid masses or curds. What remains contains only whey proteins. In cow’s milk, 80 to 87 percent of the proteins are caseins, which is not a good thing. According to renowned researcher and professor emeritus of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University T. Colin Campbell, casein is the “number one carcinogen [cancer-causing substance] that people come in contact with on a daily basis.” In dairy-based cheeses, the casein is even more concentrated, and in low-fat dairy milks, there tends to be more casein to make up for the fat that has been removed.
Lactose: The sugar in all mammalian milk (including that of humans), lactose appears on labels as such. However, “lactate” or “lactic acid” is not animal-derived.
• HEALTH CONSIDERATION: There seems to be a misunderstanding about the components that make up mammalian milk, since I often hear people mistakenly assert that they’re “allergic to milk” and thus drink lactose-free cow’s milk. Casein is the milk proteinto which people can become allergic; lactose is the milk sugar that gives many people gas, bloating, and cramps. Since so many people are suffering from “lactose intolerance,” which is our body’s natural revulsion to a sugar we’re not equipped to digest after we’re weaned, the dairy industry came up with a profitable solution: lactose-free milk. Though the milk may not contain lactose, it still contains saturated fat, dietary cholesterol, and casein. If you want truly lactose-free milk, drink those derived from plants.
Lanolin: A fat derived from sheep’s wool, lanolin is a by-product of the wool industry, and it is most commonly found in cosmetics, lotions, moisturizers, and lip balms. The product Oil of Olay is derived from the word lanolin, which is a primary ingredient. Plenty of beauty products are made without lanolin.
Stearate or stearic acid: A fat derived from either plant or animal sources, it’s used for making candles, soaps, and plastics; it’s sometimes used in chewing gum and candy. The best way to know its source is to read the label. If it’s plant-derived, it will most likely say so.
Carmine or cochineal: Both of these terms refer to the ground-up bodies of beetles that are then used as a coloring in red-colored juices, dairy-based yogurt and ice cream, and cosmetics. The word carmine is derived from a word that means “crimson,” so essentially you’ll find it in products that are some shade of red, pink, or purple. It also appears on labels as “carminic acid.”
Bonito: These are dried fish flakes and are frequently seen in Japanese foods.
Lard: The fat taken from pigs’ stomachs.
Lipoids or lipids: The fat and fatlike substances found in animals and plants. When they’re from plants, they usually say so.
Rennet or rennin: An enzyme taken from the fourth stomach of young ruminants to make dairy-based cheese. Each ruminant produces the special kind of rennet needed to digest his or her mother’s milk. There’s kid-goat rennet especially for goat’s-milk cheese, lamb rennet for sheep’s-milk cheese, and calf rennet for cow’s-milk cheese. In the case of the latter, most of the stomachs are from the discarded males of the dairy industry who are sold to the veal industry.
Urea or uric acid: Excreted in urine and other bodily fluids, it’s used to give a brown color to baked goods, such as pretzels. It will appear on the label as such.
Isinglass: This is derived from the swim bladders of sturgeon fish and is used as a clarifying agent in some wines and beers. It won’t appear on the label, but any beer or wine labeled “vegan” means that it wasn’t clarified with isinglass. The isinglass is typically not present in the finished beer or wine.
INTENTION, NOT PERFECTION
These days we also see a lot of warnings on labels that say the food was manufactured in plants and on equipment that have also been used to handle cow’s milk and other allergens. This is more about liability protection than anything else. The Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act now requires labeling of any food that contains or was in contact with machinery that processed one or more of the following allergens: peanuts, soybeans, cow’s milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, and wheat.
People have asked me if I—from a vegan perspective—buy or eat products that may be processed using machinery that also has non-vegan products processed on it. My answer is yes, I do. That kind of low-level concern about purity is not why I’m vegan, and it doesn’t mean I’m less vegan if I eat chocolate chips that were processed on machinery that may also process non-vegan chips.
CHALLENGE YOUR THINKING:
Being vegan is not about striving for an unattainable level of purity. Being vegan is about intention—not perfection.
CHANGE YOUR BEHAVIOR:
Do the best you can to make compassionate, healthful choices that cause the least amount of harm to others.
Being vegan is about doing the best we can in this imperfect world. It’s not about being perfect or pure. If we lose sight of that, if we treat veganism as the end rather than the means, not only will we drive ourselves crazy, we’ll also forget what being vegan is all about. Though there are some things we have no control over, I think it makes more sense to focus on what we can do rather than on what we can’t. And there’s so much we can do.