How do you know if the food you’re buying is vegan? It might seem obvious at first, but as soon as you start digging in, you realize the rabbit hole goes pretty deep. The unfortunate fact is: there are plenty of unnecessary animal products in food, especially anything processed. It’s something we’ve accepted for way too long, and it’s become so commonplace that, here in the States, manufacturers are even able to label products as “dairy-free,” even if they contain trace milk ingredients. Sorry, people with allergies.
Given that bleak picture, what is a vegan, or worse, a new vegan, to do? First, before you go any further, don’t beat yourself up if you make mistakes. I’m going to repeat that. Don’t beat yourself up if you make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. As long as your intention is good and you learn from it, you’re still doing the right thing, and no one will fault you for it.
Then, you need to devise a strategy to check if the products that you’re buying are, in fact, vegan friendly. That can be whatever you like and whatever you’re most comfortable with. Use these options to construct one for yourself.
Use a Vegan App
There are quite a few apps for vegans that make finding food a whole lot simpler. None of them are perfect, of course, and the databases in them may be incomplete, but they’re always a great place to start.
When you’re looking for a place to eat or a new grocery store with vegan options, check out HappyCow(Android | iOS). The app will use your location, or a location that you enter, to give you a list of nearby restaurants and grocery stores with vegan options. They’ll also mark specifically vegan and vegetarian places differently to let you know that they’re exclusively meat-free.
Is It Vegan?(Android | iOS) is another app that you should consider installing. This one scans the barcodes on food and personal care items and tells you whether they’re vegan or not. It really doesn’t get much easier than that.
Then, if you’re on Android, you can download the Vegan Additives app that lets you know if those confusing artificial and chemical ingredients come from animal sources. It’s a simple app that lets you search through a list of common additives and tells you where they actually come from.
Finally, when it comes to cleaning and hygiene products, among other things, you can use Bunny Free(Android | iOS) to look up the manufacturer to see if they test on animals and whether or not they’re exclusively vegan.
If you don’t want to install an app, you can also use Double Check Vegan to see if a particular ingredient is vegan.
Learn the Vegan Symbols and Certifications
Another dead easy way to check if something is vegan is to look for a certification. Some products go out of their way to have a third party certify that they are entirely vegan. Now, this is different than the package just saying “vegan” on it. That only means that the manufacturer is calling it vegan. You still need to take their word for it.
Here in the US, the most common, and probably most recognizable, certification you’ll find comes from vegan.org. They verify that the product has absolutely no animal products, wasn’t tested on animals, and wasn’t genetically modified using animal DNA. They actually charge for their certification, meaning the manufacturer cared enough to pay up. If you see see a vegan.org seal, you can be confident that it’s actually vegan.
Next, you may encounter the Vegan Society trademark. This one’s more recognized internationally, but you’ll still see it pop up on products in the US. The Vegan Society has been around for a while, and they’ve earned their reputation for standards. Like the vegan.org certification, the Vegan Society trademark guarantees that the product contains no animal ingredients, wasn’t tested on animals, and contains no genetically modified organisms with animal derived DNA or substances. Again, this one’s a no-brainer, when it comes to trust.
You also may come across certifications from VegeCert and the American Vegetarian Association. Both are reputable and do verify that your food is made without animal products, but they also have vegetarian versions of their certifications. Look at the fine print in the certification logo to ensure that you’re getting the vegan one.
Use Allergen Info For a Quick Tip
There’s another quick trick that you can use to check for dairy and egg ingredients. Food labels are required to post allergen info at the bottom of the ingredient list. Since milk and eggs are both potential allergens, you’ll be able to spot them quickly.
This one isn’t perfect, and of course, it’ll only work on products that are obviously meat-free and probably shouldn’t include dairy and eggs. This one works pretty well with things like veggie burgers and bread.
When In Doubt, Read the Ingredients
Unless there’s a third party certification, the only way to be really sure that there’s no animal products in an item is to read the full ingredient list. Depending on the item, this could either be a simple glance or an in-depth analysis.
See, the more processed a food item is, the more damn near nonsensical ingredients it’ll contain, and when the list of ingredients reads more like a chemistry textbook than a menu, it’s just about impossible to figure out what it actually contains. Aside from the obvious health factors, this is another major reason why vegans tend to avoid a lot of processed food.
Read through, and look for anything that stands out as being animal derived. If you have any doubt, you can always use one of the apps listed earlier or even a simple web search to find out what the ingredient really is.
When you’re reading through ingredients, there are a few common traps and things to look out for. They don’t usually stand out as being from animals, but make not mistake, they are.
Gelatin is way too common, and it pops up in some unlikely places. This one is usually made from animal bones and cartilage, so it’s definitely not vegan.
Next, casein, lactose, and whey are all milk ingredients. They’re common in “non-dairy” products, but they’re very much so still dairy.
Carmine and shellac both come from crushed up bugs. You also may find other artificial dyes that come from similar sources.
Albumen is from egg whites, and it might turn up in other products where eggs are typically used.
Monoglycerides, diglycerides, and glycerin all traditionally come from animal fat. You can commonly find them in baked goods and candy. This one’s a little tricky, though, because there are vegetable glycerides. Personally, I’ll avoid these unless the package specifically states that they’re from vegetable sources.
Vitamin D3 poses a similar situation to the glycerides. Historically it came from animal sources, but plant based versions do exist. Again, I avoid it unless it explicitly comes from plants.
L-cysteine is common in hair products and some baked goods. This one can also come from both plant and animal sources, so be careful that you’re getting the plant-based variation.
Finally, if anything says it has “natural flavors” in it, there’s no telling what those flavors are or where they come from. I think that this one is the hallmark of something that’s been processed into oblivion, so it should be avoided anyway, but it may contain animal products.
If you want a complete list of animal ingredients, PETA put together a massive one. You probably won’t encounter most of the stuff on there, but it’s a good reference.
Wait, is Sugar Vegan?
Some of you were genuinely curious before reading that. The others just freaked out a little bit. In either case, the answer isn’t as simple as it should be.
My general policy here is that it isn’t vegan, unless it definitively states that it is. The vast majority of sugar is processed using bone char because it makes sense that you need to use animal bones to make sugar… from a plant. There are exceptions, though.
The whole “bone char” thing only really applies to cane sugar. So, sugar from alternate sources, like beets and coconuts, is almost definitely going to be vegan. Usually, if the sugar comes from a source other than sugarcane, it’ll be listed on the label of whichever product contains it.
Organic cane sugar is vegan too. If cane sugar is certified organic, it was processed using different means that don’t use bone char. Actually, it can’t be considered organic if the bone char is used.
What About Honey?
Honey is a hot topic of debate among vegans, but most, myself included, don’t consider it vegan. Honey is produced by animals(bees) for animals. We don’t factor into that equation, at all. When we collect honey, we’re essentially stealing from the bees.
At the same time, those bees aren’t getting much in return. Beekeepers usually replace the honey, which is the food the bees naturally eat, with a sugar syrup. Except, that sugar syrup isn’t nutritionally complete, and it usually keeps the bees barely alive enough to go out and make more honey. If that’s not exploitation, I’m not sure what is.
Honey production often involves moving colonies from place to place, forcing the bees to repeatedly adapt to new surroundings and circumstances. It puts a ton of undue stress on the bees and ultimately gets many of them killed.
Now that all that’s out of the way, it’s time to get to something that really matters; is alcohol vegan? Here’s another one of those moments of panic. What do you mean? Of course alcohol’s vegan, right? Sorry, but not all of it is, and the labeling on alcoholic beverages makes this one even murkier than food.
Alcohol labels aren’t required to list ingredients, and almost none of them do. That means you have no idea what actually went into making that can of craft beer. Usually, alcoholic beverages have a very simple base. Beer can be made with just water, hops, barley, and yeast. Wine’s mostly water, grapes, sugar, and yeast. Even still, there are plenty of beers and wines that aren’t vegan.
Is Wine Vegan?
Probably not. Sorry, but it’s true. Even though it’s totally possible to make vegan wine, most vineyards don’t. Sad, I know, but there is hope.
You’re probably wondering, but why isn’t wine vegan? There are a couple of reasons, but the most common one comes from fining. Fining is a process common in wine making that clears out any remaining bits of grapes and/or dead yeast floating in the wine. Normally, this stuff naturally floats to the bottom of the wine, and it’s simple to siphon the wine out without getting it mixed. Because modern wine makers are looking to produce as much wine as possible as fast as possible, they don’t want to wait around for this natural process to occur, so they speed it up thorough the fining process.
Fining agents bind to the particles floating in wine and drag them to the bottom quickly. Unfortunately, most fining agents are animal products. Gelatin, casein, albumen, and isinglass(fish bladders) are all common fining agents in wine.
There are vegan wines, though, and there are vegan fining agents. They just aren’t used as often. You can also look into natural wines. Natural wine is at the heart of a movement in the wine world where people are trying to make wine as naturally as possible, often leaving out the filtering and fining processes.
Here are some popular vegan wine options, but there are certainly more:
- Frey Vineyards
- Lumos Wine Company
- Fitzpatrick Winery
- Thumbprint Cellars
- Charlie & Echo
You also need to look out for certain aging processes tied to specific styles of wine. For instance, port wines are typically aged in barrels cleared using gelatin.
When all else fails, wine is fairly simple to make on your own, if you’re feeling adventurous.
Is Beer Vegan?
Here we go again… Alright, so beer is a lot better than wine, when it comes to being vegan. Most beer is vegan, most. There are a couple of frequent problems, though.
Just like with wine, fining is an issue for beer too. Some beers use the same fining agents that you’d find in the wine world, gelatin and isinglass. They aren’t nearly as common, though. Generally, you’ll see these in smaller homebrew situations(not craft breweries!), and traditional British brews. If you’re not sure, there are ways to check. The next section covers that. Most craft brewers are happy to tell you what goes into their beer too.
Next, some craft beer contains lactose, casein, or honey. It’s not a regular occurrence, though, and these typically are added for specific flavors, like the aptly named milk stouts. Again, there are exceptions, so it’s always best to check.
Most major American beers are vegan. PBR, Budweiser, Miller, Coors, Yuengling, and Samuel Adams are all vegan, with the exception of some special flavors. Those should be fairly obvious, though.
How to Make Sure Your Drink is Vegan
I didn’t cover hard liquor here because it’s very dependent on the brand and the specific bottle. Some employ specific filtering techniques that may not be vegan. Others age in barrels, like wine barrels, that may contain trace animal products. Like beer, most hard alcohol is vegan, but there are exceptions and sketchy little details.
I’m a fan of whiskey, and for the most part, it’s vegan. However, things get complicated with barrels. Some Scotch and Irish whiskey distillers choose to age part or all of their blends in wine barrels. Depending on the wine, that may or may not be vegan. This one’s an extra technical, super nitpicky detail that a lot of vegans would ignore, so it’s entirely up to you. F.Y.I., most American whiskeys age in fresh oak barrels, so there’s not much need to worry there.
Barnivore is the absolute best resource for checking whether your booze is vegan friendly. They have a massive database of just about everything that you can think of, including some really obscure stuff. Whenever you’re picking out a new beverage, consult them first.
For anyone with an iPhone, you can also try the Vegaholic app, which uses the data from Barnivore in a more streamlined way for your phone.