Food can suddenly feel quite foreign when you decide to try vegan. Our vegan label reading guide takes away the confusion.

Young woman shopping in grocery store.
Image Credit: Adobe Stock

Do you ever find yourself thinking, “Is this actually Vegan” when reading food labels? It’s an odd sensation when you realize that you don’t actually know what’s in most of the foods you eat. You start to question even the most obvious, and your local supermarket suddenly feels like uncharted territory.

But don’t panic! We’re not talking about learning a new language here – within a week, you’ll have graduated to Expert Label Reader status, and by the end of the month, you’ll be able to add another word to that title: Expert Label Speed Reader. Vegans can read labels astonishingly quickly. It’s like a superpower. But we’ll let you in on a little secret. It’s only because we know what to look for.

Below are a few tips that’ll have you throwing items into your shopping cart with confidence! Refer to this vegan label reading guide as often as necessary. And if in any doubt, it is probably best to leave it out.

1. Does it say vegan on the label? 

There’s never been a better time to go vegan! There are more options available than ever before, and the internet means we can look up almost anything whenever we need. Plus, plenty of companies are starting to make it really easy by sticking a vegan label right on the package. But not everything that IS vegan SAYS “vegan” (see our guide to accidentally vegan products for more on this). Some food labels are still playing catch up, and it’s still somewhat uncommon to pick up something and find it labeled “vegan.” So does that mean your food choices have suddenly plummeted to the sum total of the fruit and veg aisle? No. It just means you have to be a bit clever! So, if it looks vegan but doesn’t make it clear, move to point 2.

2. Does it say Vegetarian on the label?

Many labels will obviously state if something is vegetarian, so the second tip in our vegan label reading guide is to look for that.

Legally, a company must explicitly state what allergens are contained in a product, and these will typically be highlighted in bold within the ingredients list or stated separately below it. If you see a non-vegan allergen ingredient (eggs, milk, whey, and casein are usual suspects), then that item isn’t vegan. If none are listed, then it is very likely vegan. But it’s worth scanning the ingredients more closely just to be sure. This is where the list below becomes your best friend.

3. If you see one of these listed, then the product is not *vegan:

  • Casein – from milk (a protein)
  • Lactose – from milk (a sugar)
  • Whey – from milk. Whey powder is in many products. Look out for it in chips, bread, baked products, etc.
  • Collagen – from the skin, bones, and connective tissues of animals such as cows, chickens, pigs, and fish – used in cosmetics and nutritional supplements
  • Elastin – found in the neck ligaments and aorta of bovine, similar to collagen
  • Keratin – from the skin, bones, and connective tissues of animals such as cows, chickens, pigs, and fish
  • Gelatin – obtained by boiling skin, tendons, ligaments, and/or bones, usually from cows or pigs. Used in jelly, chewy candy, cakes, and in vitamins as coating/capsules
  • Aspic – industry alternative to gelatin; made from clarified meat, fish, or vegetable stocks and gelatin
  • Lard/tallow – animal fat
  • Shellac – obtained from the bodies of the female scale insect Tachardia lacca
  • Carmine – a red dye extracted from insects. Often found in cosmetics and red processed foods. Sometimes called cochineal extract.
  • Honey – food for bees, made by bees
  • Propolis – used by bees in the construction of their hives
  • Royal Jelly – secretion of the throat gland of the honeybee
  • Vitamin D3 – from fish-liver oil; in creams, lotions, and other cosmetics, as well as added to foods and supplements
  • Albumen/albumin – from egg (typically)
  • Isinglass – a substance obtained from the dried swim bladders of fish and is used mainly for the clarification of wine and beer
  • Cod liver oil – in lubricating creams and lotions, vitamins, and supplements
  • Pepsin – from the stomachs of pigs, a clotting agent used in vitamins

*We’ve only addressed the ingredients that are likely to be unfamiliar to Veganuary participants. We haven’t listed the ‘obvious’ like chicken, beef, or specific types of fish or shellfish.

A selection of dairy and non-dairy products in a supermarket fridge
Image Credit: AdobeStock

4. “May contain” labeling

If the product in your hand still looks to be vegan, you may be confused by a warning that it “may contain milk” or “traces of milk.” What? Does it, or doesn’t it? Is it vegan or not?

In the US, a manufacturer must declare whether a product is made in a factory where allergens are present. Since most food allergens are in animal products, you may find a warning about milk, eggs, or even shellfish on a product that otherwise appears vegan. Don’t worry. This is a legal requirement. It still is vegan!

5. A few things to watch out for…

  • “Dairy-free” or “lactose-free” doesn’t necessarily mean vegan – in fact, more often than not, they’re not vegan. Read these labels as you would any other.
  • Glycerin(e)/glycerol, lactic acid, mono or diglycerides, and stearic acid can all be from slaughterhouse fat but could also be vegan. If they are plant-derived, then it should say so on the label.
  • In the US, white sugar can be refined using animal bone char. (Also, don’t be fooled by the name “brown sugar,” as it is just white sugar mixed with molasses.) Click here for a list of vegan sugar suppliers.

6. Contacting the manufacturer

There will be instances where you might still be unsure if something is vegan. Typically, this is when an item is labeled as “vegetarian” and contains an ingredient that may or may not be vegan, but there are no further details to confirm this either way. What you do here is entirely up to you, but you may want to contact the manufacturer directly – especially if it’s a food you used to buy often, and you want peace of mind. Contacting these companies directly is also positive in that it highlights the need for better labeling and promotes demand for vegan products at the same time.

If you do choose to get in touch, then here’s a little tip: Be specific. If you just ask, “is it vegan?” a lot of the time, they’ll just play it safe and say no. A good question to ask is, “I notice this item isn’t listed as vegan, but there isn’t anything obviously not vegan in its ingredients. Could you please confirm if there is anything that makes it unsuitable, i.e., cross-contamination during manufacture or ingredients involving animal products?” You are more likely to receive a detailed reply that will help you make an informed decision.

There are plenty of vegan Facebook and social groups to join and ask questions like this too, because chances are, someone has already reached out to manufacturers (vegans are a helpful bunch).

More helpful resources

  • Check out our vegan shopping list of essential foods if you’re struggling to read labels.
  • More information about animal-derived ingredients/products used in food manufacturing is available at HappyCow.
  • There’s an app for this! Many vegans swear by the Is it Vegan or Vegan Scanner apps.

Thinking of trying vegan?

Veganuary inspires and supports people all over the world to try vegan for January and beyond. Millions of people have already taken part.
Will you join them?