Vegan Label Reading Guide

Food can suddenly feel quite foreign when you decide to try vegan.

Do you ever find yourself thinking “Is it vegan or not?” when reading food labels? It’s an odd sensation when you realise you don’t actually know what’s in most of the foods you eat. You start to question even the most obvious things and your local supermarket may feel like uncharted territory.

A Caucasian woman reading a food label in a supermarket
Image Credit: Adobe Stock

But don’t panic. We’re not talking about learning a whole 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 trolley with confidence, but here’s a mantra to remember. If in doubt, it’s probably best to leave it out.

1. Does it say vegan on the pack?

There’s never been a better time to go vegan! There are more options available than ever before, and plenty of companies make it really easy by sticking the V-word right on the pack. But not everything that IS vegan SAYS vegan (see our guide to accidentally vegan products for more on this). So, if it looks vegan but doesn’t make it clear, move to point 2.

2. Does it say vegetarian on the pack?

Many packs state if something is vegetarian, so our first tip is to look for that. If it says vegetarian, you’ll need to look closer at the ingredients list.

Legally, a company must explicitly state which allergens are contained in a product, and these typically will be highlighted in bold on 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 on a vegetarian product, it’s likely to be vegan but it’s worth scanning the ingredients more closely just to be sure.

3. Common non-vegan ingredients

Are any of these in the ingredients list? If so, it’s definitely not vegan. These ingredients are derived from animals and commonly used in food and other products, so you’ll get used to them pretty quickly.

  • Casein - from milk (a protein)
  • Lactose - from milk (a sugar, not to be confused with Lactic acid, which is almost always vegan)
  • Whey – from milk. Whey powder is in many products, so look out for it in crisps, bread and baked products
  • Collagen - from the skin, bones, and connective tissues of animals such as cows, chickens, pigs, and fish (often used in cosmetics)
  • Elastin – found in the neck ligaments and aorta of cows, similar to collagen
  • Keratin - from the skin, bones, and connective tissues of animals such as cows, chickens, pigs, and fish
  • Gelatine/gelatin – obtained by boiling skin, tendons, ligaments, and/or bones and is usually from cows or pigs. Used in jelly, chewy sweets, cakes, and in vitamins (as coating/capsules)
  • Aspic - industry alternative to gelatine; made from clarified meat, fish or vegetable stocks and gelatine
  • Lard/tallow – animal fat
  • Shellac - obtained from the bodies of the female scale insect Tachardia lacca
  • 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, used in creams, lotions and other cosmetics
  • Albumen/albumin – from eggs (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
  • E-numbers – in Europe, food additives must be declared in lists of ingredients and are referred to as ‘E-numbers.’ E120, for example, is a food colouring made from crushed insects. Yum. Luckily for you we have a non-exhaustive list of  non-vegan E numbers.

*We’ve only addressed the ingredients that are likely to be unfamiliar to Veganuary participants.

4. ‘May contain’ labelling

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 UK, manufacturers 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. It still is vegan. This warning is a legal requirement; it doesn’t mean the item contains animal products.

A selection of dairy and non-dairy products in a supermarket fridge. Often people can be left wondering "Is it vegan?" when reading food labels.
Image Credit: Unsplash

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 they could also be vegan. If they are plant-derived then it should say so on the label.
  • In the USA, white sugar can be refined using animal bone char. (Also, don’t be fooled by the name ‘brown sugar,’ as it’s just white sugar mixed with molasses.) Click here for a list of vegan sugar suppliers.

6. Contact the manufacturer

If you’ve worked through the list and are still unsure if something is vegan, contact the manufacturer, and 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’re more likely to receive a detailed reply.

Find out more

  • 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 Happy Cow.

Page updated May 2020

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