A trip to the grocery store hits different for vegans. It’s not simply a matter of throwing anything and everything that looks tasty into the cart like the carnist customers out there.
It’s a grueling process of measured consumerism, of reading ingredient list after ingredient list, straining to see the fine print on every product you pick up.
Yet, even after we’ve read through enough ingredients to fill a Russian novel, oftentimes, we still wind up purchasing and possibly even consuming food or drink items that aren’t technically vegan.
The reason? There are tons of covert nasties hiding in plain sight on the packaging of all our snacks and supplies. The only option is to educate ourselves on all the things we need to avoid, which is where I come in.
Today, I’m going to be naming and shaming these sneaky non-vegan ingredients, so you can put them on your watch list and keep your diet (and morals) pure!
But before we dive into this guide, it’s my pleasure to roll out the red carpet for the readers of chefambershea.com. We here at gracefullplate have taken this awesome foodie site under our wing, and we welcome you too!
A Note For Omnivores Before We Begin
Now, in the small chance some omnis are reading this, I know what you’re thinking… just check for the “V” on the packaging, but guess what, most companies don’t think to advertise their products as vegan even if, by chance, they are.
And with that said, let’s get down to business!
Non-Vegan Ingredients That Fool Vegans Every Day
The seasoned vegans out there will likely already be aware of most of these duplicitous additives, but for those taking their first tentative steps into veganism, this guide will bring revelation after horrifying revelation, so brace yourself!
A moment’s silence for all the meals you’re about to cross off your favorite foods list… and let’s begin!
Whey is essentially a liquid byproduct of the cheese-making process, so, yeah… it’s a milk derivative. Accumulating during the curdling process, it’s strained off and used in all manner of other foods.
Credit where credit’s due, A+ for recycling waste, cheesy peeps, but boo to sneaking this stuff into so many delicious treats!
Rich in amino acids, it’s often used to make fluffy pancakes with a healthy twist and all kinds of smoothies, especially protein smoothies (even some of the vegan-sounding ones like matcha or dragon fruit), so if you’re planning on replacing meals with smoothies, it’s best to just make them yourself.
Whey can also be found in energy bars, all kinds of baked goods, and protein powders, but don’t worry, you can still make loads of energizing, high protein treats with plant-based alternatives to dairy-derived protein powders.
You’ll get exactly the same health benefits when using soybean, pea, or hemp protein.
This low-key dairy agent is also used in a bunch of processed cheesy snacks, so beware cheap, cheese-flavored chips, and be sure to check the box of your favorite crackers very carefully.
In fact, it’s a good idea to be wary of all pre-packed foods, as manufacturers love, love, love sticking this stuff anywhere and everywhere they can.
You should also watch out for whey in things like yogurt, as it’s commonly used as a thickening and emulsifying agent, providing a liquid food with more body and a smoother texture.
Yes, my vegan comrades… vitamin D is also on our watch list. But wait, isn’t vitamin D the stuff that our bodies naturally formulate when exposed to sunlight?
Well, yes, it is, but what many people don’t realize is that there are a number of different types of vitamin D, and D3 has very little to do with sunlight, and everything to do with lanolin.
Lanolin is extracted from sheep’s wool, and D3 is subsequently extracted from lanolin, and if it’s not sheep derived, it’s extracted from fish liver oils, which is even more messed up if you ask me.
So, where is this tricksy D3vil stowed away, hoping to smuggle itself into our systems?
You’ll typically see it lurking on the ingredient list of soft drinks, and as it’s also used to fortify orange juice, do yourself a favor and make your own juice using our amazing immune system-boosting orange, carrot, and ginger recipe.
Now, I wouldn’t be doing my job correctly if I didn’t mention that there are some vegan-friendly D3 supplements out there, but they’ll be clearly marketed as such, so if you don’t see “V” don’t take the D!
Lactic acid is a confusing one, to be sure.
From the “lact” in the name, you’d be right in assuming it’s related to lactose, which is only ever found in the milk of mammals, but lactic acid can be synthesized using plant-based ingredients such as corn starch or beet sugar.
In fact, most lactic acid in food is vegan, which is obviously great, but this does make it easy for the odd non-vegan acid to make its way into our diet, so whatever you down, don’t let your guard down.
If you see it listed on the packaging of a food or drink that isn’t clearly labeled as vegan, don’t hesitate to contact the manufacturer to ask about the nature of the lactic acid in their products.
Much like vitamin D, lactic acid is actually produced within our bodies when cells are breaking down carbohydrates to give us that skip in our step, so it does help to top ourselves up from time to time, but again, maintain a healthy level of suspicion before eating anything with it in.
The usual suspects are sauerkraut, cheese, olives, fruit preserves, frozen desserts, candy, bread, beer, and, obviously, cheese. All tasty things, I know, but don’t let it get you down. Here, have a list of amazing vegan recipes to cheer you up!
Casein is the stuff that gives cheese its super melty, super stretchy texture, and in my omni days, I basically worshiped the stuff, as I’m sure you did.
And considering studies have shown it to interact with the brain similarly to morphine, it’s no surprise!
Thankfully, we’re living in the golden age of vegan cheese, so we don’t miss out on too much, but be warned, just because a product is marketed as soy or almond cheese, doesn’t necessarily make it vegan.
In order to get some alternative cheeses to mimic the behavior of actual cheese when heated, manufacturers will implant casein into their product.
It’s still great for lactose-intolerant people, but for vegans… not so much. But something I’ve come to learn in my veganism is that cheese is overrated anyway.
You can reimagine so many traditional cheese dishes without even using vegan alternatives. For example, there are loads of healthy, dairy-free pizza options out there. You just have to give them a chance.
Isinglass may be a beautiful Tolkien-esque word, but it’s actually just a gross type of gelatin extracted from desiccated fish bladders — Yummy!
It’s most prominently used by wineries and breweries as a clarifying and fining agent, as it can accelerate the extraction of components such as yeast, meaning manufacturers can increase productivity and boost profits.
As isinglass is used in the production process rather than as an ingredient, it’s notoriously difficult to tell if your alcoholic tipple of choice has been made using these fish-derived filters, so to be safe, only buy wine or beer that is clearly labeled as vegan.
It’s also a common ingredient in a variety of foods such as traditionally prepared sea moss and jelly-based desserts, so be careful out there, friend!
Gelatin is what’s left behind after boiling down the unwanted parts of animals slaughtered for their meat — We’re talking skin, bones, ligaments, and tendons — Barf, am I right?
It’s used as a gelling or thickening agent in a myriad of foods, including marshmallows (sorry s’mores lovers), yogurt, fruity desserts, jelly desserts, cheesecakes, frosted cereals, and sometimes even cake.
Not to worry, though, as there are plenty of desserts out there for sweet-toothed vegans to enjoy; just look at our recipe for mouthwatering vegan peanut butter cookies!!!
Besides, the vegan scientists (vientists?) have managed to cook up some pretty great vegan alternatives to gelatin, so you can forget about missing out.
For instance, carrageenan is derived from seaweed, and agar agar is derived from heating and squishing algae, but I’d stick to the latter, as some studies have linked carrageenan to gastrointestinal issues.
Side Note — I’d also recommend checking out our dynamite gluten-free and dairy-free cheesecake recipe for gelatin-less inspiration; however, you’ll have to substitute the eggs for a vegan alternative if you choose to give it a go.
Carnists can’t believe vegans aren’t allowed beeswax or honey, and while it is a bit of a curveball, it’s pretty clear that beeswax comes from and belongs to bees… it’s right there in the name, jeez!
To be fair, plenty of new vegans also puzzle over this but in a different way. There’s no question that beeswax is animal-based, but where in the heck of it will you find it as an ingredient in food?
Wax doesn’t sound appetizing!! Well, I’m sorry to tell you, but you’ve likely eaten a great deal of wax over the course of your time as an omnivore — Shocking, I know.
Beeswax is commonly used to coat apples, glaze meats such as ham or turkey, give pastries that satisfying gleam, and give candies an appetizing luster.
You better sit down for this one, and grab a bucket too, because I’m about to blow your mind, and you’re about to blow chunks.
Castoreum, a common ingredient in various flavorings, and thus, countless foods, is a substance secreted by the anal glands of beavers, which is a fancy way of saying that omnivores have been eating beaver butt juice for centuries.
I’ve eaten beaver butt juice, you’ve eaten beaver butt juice, your granny has eaten beaver butt juice… unless someone was raised vegan from birth, there’s a good chance they’ve partaken in a big old heaping helping of beaver butt juice; it’s just the way it is.
Beavers use their castoreum secretions to mark their territory, but unlike the marking substance of other territorial animals such as cats, by all accounts, it smells pretty darn good, hence its use in a number of food items.
Who the first person to think this was a good idea was, I don’t know, but I can only assume they were a dangerously insane, beaver-obsessed individual.
Apparently, the scent of castoreum can be similar to raspberry or vanilla, so food items with these flavors are the biggest threats to your veganism.
If in doubt, simply make your own raspberry/vanilla flavored foods with fresh, beaver-juice-free ingredients, and might I suggest starting with our amazing vanilla chia pudding recipe?
Extracted from chicken, duck feathers, cow horns, and human hair, L. Cysteine may sound like a best-selling author, but it’s a non-vegan amino acid that works its way into a whole host of commercial bread products.
It can be synthesized, but this kind of gastro-chemistry is yet to filter down into the mainstream food industry, so for now, if you’re unsure if bread products contain L. Cysteine, either contact the manufacturer to ask or bake yourself some of the tasty vegan treats on our low-cal bread round-up.
Otherwise known as carminic acid or carmine cochineal, carmine is a red food coloring made by squishing cochineal beetles, which, much like extracting a beaver’s butt juice, ahem… sorry, castoreum, is a ludicrous means of sourcing an ingredient.
It’s used to color pasta in those multi-hue bags; to color certain sodas, frozen pops, and candies; and is sometimes on the ingredient list of cakes, fruit pies, doughnuts, and ice cream.
If you’re one of those who is always sucking on a hard candy, you might want to spit it out.
“Confectioner’s glaze” is the name given to the ingredient that makes candies nice and shiny, but this is some pretty divisive re-labeling of something that already has a name to make it seem less vile.
What manufacturers call “confectioner’s glaze”, or sometimes natural, resinous, or pure food glaze, is actually shellac, which is the stiff resin produced by female lac insects after dining out on lots of tree sap.
That’s right, my friend; we’re dealing with yet another animal exudate. We humans just can’t get enough of the awesome stuff that squirts out of the various orifices of animals. It’s tops!
Lecithin can be found in soybeans, so it’s not always an issue, but as most of it comes from egg yolks and animal tissues, you have to have your wits about you when you head to the grocery store.
The reason we extract this substance is that it’s a fantastic lubricant and emulsifier, helping manufacturers make lots of chocolate, candies, sauces, baked goods, cooking sprays, and marinades.
If you’re looking for some vegan lecithin for your own culinary endeavors, I’d recommend checking out some sunflower lecithin, as, in my opinion, it’s the best alternative out there.
Don’t get me wrong, omega 3 is super important.
We need this fatty acid to keep our hearts a-tickin’, our brains a-thinkin’, and our immune systems a-fightin’, but although you’ll find oodles of the stuff in plant-based foods such as seeds and nuts, most omega 3-rich foods on the market utilize animal-derived variants.
The really puzzling thing about omega 3 is that it’s not actually a single substance. You see that “3” there? Well that refers to three different subtypes of fatty acid.
One is known as EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), another is known as ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), and the last is known as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid).
DHA and EPA are both animal derivatives, while ALA is the stuff you’ll find in plant-based foods, yet, the ingredient lists on most packaging will simply use the term omega 3, even if the product only contains one of the three sub-types, as it’s the language customers are familiar with.
Sometimes the fine print on the packaging will specify which omegas are present, but if not, either pop the product back on the shelf, contact the manufacturer for clarification, or choose something you know for sure will only contain ALA.
One of the best ways to boost the ALA in your system is to eat lots of lovely chia seeds, and as a bonus, they can help with weight loss as well if that’s one of your personal goals, but I think you’re perfect just the way you are!
When animal fat is completely separated from the rest of the carcass (typically pigs) through a heated rendering process, it’s known as lard.
When cooled, it can be formed into what looks a lot like blocks of butter, and it’s typically used in many of the same ways as butter too.
You’ll find it in baked goods, particularly those involving pastry, as it makes for a very crisp, flaky texture, but in these instances, it’s pretty easy to avoid.
Lard only really becomes a problem for us vegans when it’s used as a lubricant in a pot or pan before plant-based ingredients are cooked in it.
For example, the cooking of beans in lard is fairly standard in Mexican restaurants across the nation and the world at large.
So, next time you hit up your favorite Mexican joint, be sure to ask if the ingredients are vegan, even if, to the untrained eye, they seem as cruelty-free as can be.
Many canned bean products also contain trace elements of lard, so before you bring even a single bean home with you from the grocery store, read any labels very, very carefully.
You should also be tentative when it comes to store-bought salad dressings, tortillas, cakes, brownies, and even french fries.
In regard to this last, next time you have a hankering for those most beloved potato goods, try making your own, but personally, I’d take some well-seasoned jicama fries over French fries any day of the week!
People sometimes erroneously believe that lactose and dairy are one and the same, when really, lactose is a sugar formed in milk that can be extracted and used as an ingredient in other foods.
It’s one of the most common contaminants you’ll find in snacks that are otherwise completely vegan.
It’s usually pretty easy to spot on an ingredient list, but the issue is that sometimes we’ll be so sure a product is vegan, we won’t bother to check the ingredients, only to discover (or not, as the case may be) that it does in fact contain lactose later on.
To give you fair warning, here are the foods you need to be wary of:
- Instant potato mixes
- Pancake/waffle mixes
- Breakfast cereal (in bar or loose form)
- Instant noodles
- Instant soups
- Cheesy snacks
- Coffee creamers
- Pre-cooked lima beans and peas
- Salad dressings
- Sugar beets
I know that you know that sugar comes from sugarcane plants, and thus, is a vegan product, but thanks to a particularly antiquated bone char filtration process that’s still shockingly popular throughout the world, white sugar may not be.
Often referred to as natural carbon, bone char is porous particulate matter produced by charring the pulverized bones of animals — Fun.
When introduced to sugar granules, it draws out the color molecules, leaving behind the moon-white table sugar we grew up with.
Food production technology has advanced to the stage where this barbaric process is no longer necessary, but you know what humans are like.
We’re creatures of comfort, and change is a scary prospect, so rather than have a big, shiny machine and cruelty-free synthesis handle things for us, we’d much prefer to celebrate our inner cave person by bashing bones and burning them.
To make matters worse, sugar manufacturers aren’t obligated by law to state whether bone char filtration has been used to make their product, so my advice is to steer clear of white sugar and any foods with added sugar.
It might seem like a nuisance at first, but you’ll be much healthier for it, as processed sugar can play havoc on our health.
Oleic acid (sometimes oileinic acid) can be rendered from lard, and it’s frequently used as a key component of synthetic butter, oils, beverages, condiments, and vegetable fats, all of which appeal to vegan-kind, as they all seem like fairly safe things.
So, keep your peepers peeled for this sneaky ingredient, and it won’t catch you out!
A Week In The Life Of A Vegan: Meal Plan Suggestion
After hearing about all those whack ingredients, you’re no doubt experiencing a wicked case of the woes and perhaps even questioning whether a vegan diet is right for you, so before we go our separate ways, I’m bringing the positivity with a 7-day vegan meal plan.
Once you hear about all the delicious treats you can rustle up for yourself without having to read too many ingredient lists, your passion for saving animals, saving the world, and improving your health will be well and truly rekindled.
Monday mornings are always difficult, or at the very least, a little depressing, so I’d recommend treating yourself to something tasty for breakfast such as toast drizzled with garlic oil, topped with peppered avocado slices, a fresh tomato salsa, and a sprinkling of nutritional yeast flakes.
If you’re feeling particularly ravenous, double up with a second slice of toast — Go on, treat yourself.
Should you still be dealing with some pesky meat cravings, I’d recommend frying up some fake bacon bits and sprinkling them on top too, as they’ll add that chewy, salty fix you’re still so accustomed to.
For lunch, we’re going for a hearty lentil stew as it’s good for the body, mind, and soul, which is exactly what you need to get you through your blue Monday.
What’s more, this recipe is great for batch cooking, and can easily be portioned into Tupperware and taken with you to work.
You’ve got a little more time to cook your final meal of the day, so let’s go for a mouthwatering, lime-infused pho soup with homemade vegan dumplings, and for dessert, some scrumptious coconut milk rice pudding — Mmmm, I’m getting hungry just writing this meal plan.
In many ways, Tuesday is even worse than Monday, as you’re reckoning with the fact you still have an additional three days to slog through before you get some you-time at the weekend, so let’s go for a classic pick-me-up food… PANCAKES!!!
There are a wealth of egg substitutes you can use to make big, fluffy vegan pancakes, but I tend to just go completely eggless.
To make up for the slight dip in flavor, I add a sprinkle of salt, some extra brown sugar, and a generous pour of vanilla essence to the batter.
Be sure to scatter all your favorite fruits and nuts on top, and perhaps even finish with a drizzle of agave nectar or some raspberry coulis.
For lunch on Tuesday, you need something that’s quick, easy, and has just enough spice to make you feel alive, so I’m suggesting a vegan ramen broth positively bursting with flavor.
Take some time to embellish this dish with all your favorite little veggie treats. I’d recommend grating some raw carrot on top, and if you have them, adding some fresh pea shoots and coriander leaves as a tasty garnish.
Personally, Tuesdays have me so defeated by the time the evening rolls around that I’m not looking to spend hours in the kitchen preparing a meal.
For a welcome break, keep things simple with an invigorating tabbouleh salad.
For the uninitiated, tabbouleh salad is a paired-back Mediterranean dish composed of finely chopped vegetables, tons of torn fresh herbs such as parsley and mint, and a generous serving of quinoa.
Season with a bit of salt and pepper, and enjoy! For dessert, treat yourself to a few squares of your favorite vegan chocolate, or if it’s winter time, a warming cup of vegan cocoa.
Come hump day, you’re into the groove and dedicated to kicking the workday’s butt. As such, we’re going all business with a simple bowl of cereal, oat milk, and of course, a mixture of your favorite fruits.
For lunch, you’ll be tucking into roasted veg and a side of delicious Mediterranean mashed potatoes.
It doesn’t really matter what vegetables you go for, but if you’d like a few suggestions to get the creative juices flowing, how about spiced cauliflower and roasted asparagus?
The perfect Wednesday evening meal is simple but feels like it took a long time to make, so it’s time to break out my secret weapon… peanut butter noodles.
Start by putting some broccoli to boil, strain it, then add it to a large pan along with some cashews and maybe even some cubed medium-soft tofu.
Whilst those ingredients are sizzling away, grab a jug and pour in some rice wine vinegar, plenty of soy sauce, some garlic powder, some onion powder, a small squeeze of agave nectar, and then, the pièce de résistance, a big tablespoon of smooth peanut butter.
Throw the noodles in the pan for 2 minutes, stir your tasty sauce into the pan, cook for a further 3 minutes, and voilà; dinner time!
This dish has a powerful flavor, so you’ll need something pretty substantial for dessert — How does a raw recipe vegan blondie sound?
Thursday morning is smoothie morning in my household.
It’s quick, it’s super healthy, and as you can throw in pretty much whatever you want, it can be kind of fun too, but if you’re looking for some inspiration, check out our unbeatable green breakfast smoothie recipe.
That smoothie’s only going to take you so far, so you’ll need something more substantial for lunch. I’d go for a hearty instant pot chili, as it’s filling, healthy, easy, and quick!
On the menu for a Thursday evening is a stunning roast vegetable bolognese. This is a very open-ended meal that you can customize to suit your tastes.
It’s a great way to use up all the bits and bobs you have left over in the fridge before you re-stock.
You’ve been good all week, eating healthy stuff and smashing your work, so let’s get a little sinful for dessert with some vegan devil’s food cupcakes.
Although, these can take a while to prepare, so it’s best to make them over the weekend and then help yourself to them throughout the working week.
The weekend is nigh, you just have to get through one more measly little day, so to refuel, help yourself to a big, bold tofu scramble with lots of turmeric and black salt to give it that legit eggy look and flavor.
For lunch, prepare yourself a warming split pea and cauliflower stew, the perfect meal to lift your spirits for the final stretch of the work week.
Friday night dinner is no ordinary meal; it’s a celebration of having made it through the week. This meal is a declaration that it’s time to celebrate, relax, and enjoy all the things that make you feel human.
On such an occasion, for me, there’s nothing better than a homemade Thai red curry packed with veggies and tofu.
Actually, scratch that, homemade Thai red curry with vegan prawn crackers is better still, but sadly, vegan prawn crackers are hard to come by.
And if you’ve got room for dessert after that, how about a single vegan cookie?
Saturday is your time, and it should be cherished.
Make the most of the morning by treating yourself to a vegan fry-up — We’re talking mushrooms, tomatoes, vegan sausages, toast, spinach wilted in garlic oil, vegan bacon, hash browns… the works!
Take a late lunch, as you’ll be full from breakfast for a while, but when your appetite returns, chow down on something like this pappardelle al ragu.
Take it slow on a Saturday evening. You’ve got all the time in the world to whip up a delicious and nutritious meal, which is why I’d suggest some bell peppers stuffed to the nines!
You may think this is a little insubstantial for dinner time, especially on the weekend, but trust me, get a couple of these bad boys down you and you’ll barely have room for your gooey vegan brownie dessert.
Sunday breakfast should be a treat, but perhaps not quite as large as Saturday’s. How about a classic like PB&J on toast?
Some BBQ cauliflower bites with wholegrain rice and various dipping sauces should hit the spot for lunch.
In my opinion, Sunday dinner is the most important meal of the entire week, as it provides families a moment to enjoy one another’s company, so I recommend going for something rather bold and exciting, something like an impressive lentil (no)meatloaf.
Then, to bring the weekend to a close with timeless style, help yourself to a bowl of vegan ice cream — Yum!
Now you know the names of your ingredient enemies, you can officially begin your vegan journey, but don’t sweat it if one catches you out from time to time; it happens to us all.
It can be disheartening, but you’ll learn from your mistake and be extra careful not to let it happen again in the future.