A vegan’s guide to reading food labels

Read Time:   |  23rd February 2018

Are you a new vegan who's struggling to get to grips with reading labels? Here's what to watch out for when checking product labels on your next shop...

When first deciding to go vegan, it can sometimes be a frustrating and confusing experience trying to figure out which foods are safe to eat and which contain hidden animal ingredients.

Often, before making the transition to veganism, we have no idea what was in the food we ate, and now it can seem like an impossible task reading through labels with ingredients we didn’t know existed.

It can be especially daunting at first to look at a food label and not know if it’s vegan.

Don’t worry, as we have a handy guide to help you read the labels and navigate yourself around the supermarket with ease.

We’ve even included a comprehensive list of sneaky ingredients that aren’t obviously labelled as non-vegan you can print out and take to the supermarket with you.

Very soon you’ll be fluent in this new language, and will just know why you pick up one brand over another without having to check each time.

Where to start with reading vegan food labels?

Firstly, start by looking out for a vegan label on the food packaging.

Many supermarkets and household food brands are now opting to mark their products as being vegan, which means going shopping has never been easier, and you can save time not having to look through a huge list of ingredients.

Young couple reading wine bottle label in supermarket

For example, stores such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco’s, and Lidl are now all using the vegan food label.

Although, despite the huge amount of change in labelling over the last few years, some food companies are still playing catch up and not yet labelling things vegan.

However, this does not necessarily mean the product is not suitable, you just have to be a bit more clever when looking.

Is the product labelled as vegetarian?

The next thing to do is to look out for foods mark vegetarian. If the product is labelled as being vegetarian, then this is half way there. Now all you have to do is check the ingredients list to see if it contains any other animal derived products.

Both dairy and eggs are allergens and legally food companies must make allergens very clear on the packaging, which will mean that dairy, eggs and all of their by-products will often be highlighted in bold or capital letters on the label, or they could appear in a separate list.

If the product is vegetarian and does not seem to contain any animal derivatives, then it is more than likely vegan.

Something else to keep in mind, is that if a product states that it ‘may contain’ an animal ingredient, but does not list it on the label, then it is probably safe for you to eat.

That’s because this is something businesses have to do in order to protect themselves from litigation should someone have an allergic reaction to an ingredient that may have accidentally ended up in the product during the manufacturing process.

Don’t let it put you off such products – it doesn’t mean that animal products have been flying all over the factory where they’re produced and you aren’t supporting a product containing animal products by buying them. That’s the important thing.

A nutrition label on food packaging

Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list and there are other E numbers that come from animal sources. Often the origin of the E number can be found by searching online.

However, sometimes with E numbers the only way to definitively know if something is 100% vegan, is to contact the manufacture directly or only buy products that bear a vegan trademark.

Many vegans take the view that life is too short to check out every single E number on the packaging of a product that’s otherwise vegan.

Others are determined to ensure that they buy absolutely no animal-derived products. The stance that you take is totally up to you.

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Animal ingredients on food labels

It’s important to look at the food label and check for animal ingredients. This is a list of animal ingredients that can be added to food that you may not think to look out for…

  • Casein a milk protein.
  • Lactose – a milk sugar.
  • Whey – a milk by-product.
  • Collagen – from the skin, bones and connective tissues of animals such as cows, chickens, pigs and fish.
  • 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.
  • Gelatine/gelatin – obtained by boiling skin, tendons, ligaments and/or bones and is usually from cows or pigs.
  • 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 or sheep’s wool.
  • Albumen/albumin – from egg.
  • Isinglass – a substance obtained from the dried swim bladders of fish, and is used mainly for the clarification (fining) 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.

While that may seem like a long list, there are plenty of foods that are made without any of the above ingredients and, once you know what to look out for, it becomes easy to spot non-vegan foods.

vegan food label

E Numbers on food labels

As well as this, food additives can create another issue. All food additives in Europe must be marked on the ingredients list and are given an E number, which can make navigating labels a little more difficult.

Many of these E numbers are fine for vegans, however there are a few to look out for that are not cruelty-free. Some common ones to keep an eye out for include:

  • E120: Carmine, also known as cochineal, carminic acid or natural red 4. Crushed up beetles used as red food colouring.
  • E441: Gelatine. A gelling agent made from ground up animal bone and skin, often found in confectionery.
  • E542: Bone phosphate. Ground up animal bones used to keep foods moist.
  • E901: Beeswax. As the name suggests, this is wax that’s made by bees, and is used as a glazing agent.
  • E904: Shellac. Glazing agent, made from the secretions of an insect called the lac bug.
  • E910, E920, E921: L-cysteine and its derivatives. Made from animal hair and feathers, these additives are found in some breads as a proving agent.
  • E913: Lanolin. A greasy substance secreted by sheep and other woolly animals. Mostly used in cosmetics, but also used to make vitamin D3, rendering many multi-vitamins and fortified foods unsuitable for vegans.
  • E966: Lactitol. A sweetener derived from lactose, which is made from milk.

A few other things to look out for:

  • ‘Dairy-free’ or ‘lactose-free’ or ‘free from’ doesn’t necessarily mean vegan – sometimes they are not so be careful.
  • 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 USA, white sugar can be refined using animal bone char as part of the process.
In the USA, white sugar can be refined using animal bone char as part of the process. However, most verities of sugar in the UK are vegan-friendly, with the exception of icing sugar which can contain egg whites.

In the USA, white sugar can be refined using animal bone char as part of the process. However, most verities of sugar in the UK are vegan-friendly, with the exception of icing sugar which can contain egg whites.

What to watch out for on breakfast cereal labels

If you’re a fan of cereal in the morning, but overnight oats, porridge or muesli isn’t your thing, fortified products can provide useful amounts of several nutrients.

For example, iron is often added to wheat biscuits and combining them with toppings like raisins and shelled hemp seeds increases the overall iron content of this breakfast.

It could be served with a couple of satsumas or kiwi fruit, which helps to boost iron absorption due to their vitamin C content.

Check if cereals are fortified with iron by looking at the nutrition table on the label. Select wholegrain products for a fibre boost and opt for plain cereals to help limit your intake of added sugar.

A note about vitamin D

Animal-derived vitamin D3 is commonly used to fortify foods, whereas vegan products are fortified with vitamin D2.

Sometimes it’s easy to tell if a breakfast cereal fortified with vitamin D is vegan – you might spot the Vegan Trademark for example.

If the label isn’t helpful, you can contact the manufacturer for information.

Breakfast cereals are often fortified with vitamin D derived from animals, so it's important to check whether or not this is the case before purchasing.

Breakfast cereals are often fortified with vitamin D derived from animals, so it's important to check whether or not this is the case before purchasing.

Milk and yoghurt alternatives

During recent years this product category has exploded, which is great for anyone wanting to explore vegan alternatives. Also, this means that it’s more important than ever to be label savvy.

Here are some considerations for everyday staples:

  • Fortification – As a minimum, look for calcium in the nutrition table. Iodine and vitamins B2, B12 and D are also particularly valuable additions.
  • Protein – If you want to help optimise your daily protein intake, look for products based on soya or peas.
  • Sugar – Look for lower sugar options like unsweetened, no sugar or plain products. Bear in mind that added sugar might feature on labels as ingredients like maltodextrin, fructose or concentrated grape juice.

Ready meals

If your weekly shop includes ready meals, here are a few tips:

  • Limit salt and saturated fat intake – When deciding between products, compare the amount of salt and saturated fat per serving to help limit your intakes and protect your heart health.
  • Add protein – Products may lack protein-rich foods or contain small portions. Add a source of quality protein to balance a lower protein ready meal, particularly if it contains less than 15g of protein per serving. For example, y ou could follow it with a soya yoghurt, a glass of soya milk or a handful of peanuts or cashews.
  • Vitamin B12 – Fortified nutritional yeast flakes are a nutritious condiment that is great for adding a cheesy, nutty flavour to ready meals – look for added vitamin B12 on the label when purchasing them from your favourite supermarket or health food retailer.

If you are able to access a freezer and batch cook weekly, this can be an economical way of stocking up on tasty and nourishing meals, such as soups, pasta sauces, chillies and curries containing quality plant protein like kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas and other legumes.

Remember, if in doubt about any product it is always best to contact the manufacturer directly – that may seem like a bit of a pain, but if it’s a product that you wish to buy frequently, then it’s worthwhile in the long run. And it’s always nice to have some peace of mind!

We hope this helps you to read vegan food labels with confidence – you’ll be a pro in no time!

Are you a new vegan who’s confused about what you should be eating every day to stay healthy?

Make meal planning simple with our easy seven-day vegan meal plan for beginners! 

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Vegan Food & Living

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