Before I went vegan, I never really paid a lot of attention to food labels. Now that I'm thinking about it, I don't think I've ever even read them. At least, I don't remember. Then, when I changed my diet, I learned how to read labels as a vegan.
When you're just transitioning to a vegan diet, all of the sudden you're unsure of what you can eat and what you can't eat. It says vegetarian on the label, does that mean it's vegan? I doesn't seem to contain any animal products, but it also doesn't say it's vegan, can I eat it? May contain eggs and dairy. Yeah, thanks, that's not really helpful either. And what about all those ingredients I've never heard before?
Learn How to Read Labels as a Vegan
If you've had any of those thoughts before, then I'm sure this step by step guide of how to read labels as a vegan will make your grocery shopping a lot more convenient! Trust me, once you start actively reading those food labels, it will become so easy to tell whether something is vegan or not.
Don't worry, you don't have to memorize a list with 5849139 ingredients that aren't vegan (although I've included a slightly shorter list of ingredients to avoid). In the end, it all comes down to a few clues to look out for - and experience. And that comes naturally.
Step 0: What does vegan mean to you?
What is your personal definition of veganism? Before you start looking for vegan products, you should be able to answer that question for yourself. Because ultimately, this will strongly influence if you consider something vegan or not.
Before I share my definition of veganism with you, I want you to know: there is no right or wrong, good or better definition of veganism. You are unique and therefore, your personal definition will be unique. Some may share a similar understanding while others may disagree on some aspects. But that is okay because we all have a different story and a different journey. Here is my understanding:
I try to exclude, as far as it is possible and practicable for me at this given moment, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty towards animals be it for food, clothing or any other purpose.
I know that I currently don't fully live up to that definition - yet. I am when it comes to food and definitely working on myself when it comes to clothing, shoes and personal care products. But I also know that doing everything at once would feel overwhelming. So I try to make every decision a little bit better than yesterday's decision.
Step 1: Does it say it's vegan?
Let's start simple. As more and more people are adopting or trying a vegan diet, supermarkets and food manufacturers also become aware of veganism. As a reaction to the increasing demand for vegan products, they start explicitly labeling their products as "vegan" products - either through logos or by stating "suitable for vegans". There are several vegan certificates that you should look out for. The most common ones are:
Step 2: Does it say it's vegetarian?
Similar to the vegan labels, there are also labels for vegetarian products. The most common one is the vegetarian category of the yellow V-label. Even if chances are the vegetarian label has been added for good reason, it's still worth checking the ingredients. Food items might be labeled vegetarian even if there are no animal products listed in the ingredients if animal products were used in the production process. And then it comes down to your personal definition of vegan.
Nonetheless, it is important to know that there are two categories of the V-label. Don't be fooled by seeing the yellow circle and thinking it is vegan. You should always check that it actually says vegan and not vegetarian underneath. Some mock animal products such as mock meat or nut cheeses only have the vegetarian V-label and are indeed not vegan.
Step 3: Does it have any allergy warnings?
Companies are obligated by law to state all allergens contained in the product. They must do so by highlighting them in bold in the ingredients list. Most often, you will also find a "Contains egg/milk/dairy" statement underneath.
My tip would be to first look out for any allergens stated on the packaging to see if it's worth actually reading the whole ingredient list. This way, you will save yourself a lot of time. Keep in mind though that not every allergen is non-vegan. "Contains nuts/gluten/wheat/soy/celery" is totally fine (as long as you're not allergic to them of course).
Step 4: Does it have any non-vegan ingredients?
When there's no obvious non-vegan allergies stated on the packaging, it's worth reading the ingredient list. For some ingredients it's pretty obvious they contain animal products (such as eggnog), others are not as obvious (casein) and some even sound non-vegan but they actually are vegan (cream of tartar). Here is a list of ingredients you should watch out for:
- albumen/albumin (typically derived from eggs)
- artificial butter flavor
- aspic (similar to gelatine)
- bacterial cultures/lactic acid starter cultures
- butter acid
- butter fat/oil
- casein (milk protein)
- casein hydrolysate (milk protein)
- collagen (made of skin, bones and connective tissue of animals)
- curds (dairy product)
- custard (milk and egg mixture)
- egg whites
- elastin (similar to collagen)
- gelatine/gelatin (made from ground up animal bone and skin, can be found in jams and marshmallows)
- ghee (made from butter)
- honey (food made by bees for bees)
- isinglass (dried swim bladder of fish, used to clarify wine, fruit juice and beer)
- keratin (made of skin, bones and connective tissue of animals)
- lactose (milk sugar)
- lard/tallow (animal fat)
- lysozyme (animal enzyme)
- meringue (whipped egg whites)
- meringue powder
- milk protein
- ovalbumin (egg protein)
- pepsin (made from stomach of pigs)
- propolis (used by bees for construction of hives)
- recaldent (found in toothpaste)
- shellac (made from the bodies of the female scale insect Tachardia lacca)
- tagatose (sweetener)
- vitamin D3 (sometimes derived from fish liver oil)
- whey powder (milk protein)
Non-vegan ingredients in clothing
- leather (animal skin)
- silk (fiber that silkworms weave to make cocoons)
- cashmere (wool from cashmere goats)
- angora (wool from angora rabbit)
- calcium lactate
- cocoa butter
- cream of tartar
- lactic acid from plants
- sodium lactate
For some ingredients it's not 100% possible to say they're vegan or non-vegan. This is because they can be animal-based or plant-based. Examples are glycerine, lactic acid, stearic acid. For those, it's best to contact the manufacturer or look it up on the internet for a specific brand.
Step 5: Was it produced in a cruelty-free way?
The last question is especially relevant for personal care and cosmetic products. Here, it becomes a little bit more difficult. The terms "cruelty-free" and "not tested on animals" are not regulated, so it's best to use cruelty-free logos for guidance. There are two common cruelty-free certifications.
Keep in mind that the terms "not tested on animals" and "vegan" are not mutually inclusive. A product can be vegan (not contain animal products) and still be tested on animals. The other way round, a product not tested on animals could contain animal products.
If you are unsure and you can't find the cruelty free/vegan logo on the packaging, you could also look up the product online. PETA offers a cruelty-free products and brands list.
Bonus Tips on How to Read Labels as a Vegan
Here are a few other things to keep in mind:
- May contain: This means a product was made in the same factory as other animal products. Businesses have to state that in order to protect themselves from lawsuits in case of allergic reactions caused by cross-contamination. It does not mean it is not vegan. This depends on your personal definition of veganism. Even if a product does not contain animal products, you might not want to support a brand that produces animal products as well.
- Dairy-free/lactose-free: This does not mean it is vegan as it can still contain milk (in case of lactose-free) or other animal products.
- E numbers: Food additives must be marked on the ingredient list with an E number. Some of them are not vegan: E120 (carmine), E441 (gelatine), E542 (bone phosphate), E901 (beeswax), E904 (shellac), E910/E920/E921 (L-cysteine), E913 (lanolin), E966 (lactitol).
- Sugar: Sugar cane may be processed with bone char from cows. It’s best to look up the brand online or choose organic/beet sugar.
- Formulas can change over time. Even if you know a product and have used it for a while, it is better to still check the labels for any formula changes.
- Stick to the foods with no ingredient lists! Unprocessed plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and beans are vegan.
This rounds up this step-by-step guide on how to read labels as a vegan. If you're missing anything on this list that you find helpful and think everyone should know, find me on instagram and let me know! I'm also always learning and would love to add it to this guide.