Nine Foods You Think Are Vegetarian—But Definitely Aren’t

vegetarian food labels


Navigating life as a vegetarian can be difficult. If there’s not hidden fish sauce in your Pad Thai then there’s chicken stock in your “vegetable” soup. But some things are even harder to avoid than the bacon your grandmother slips into the green beans, and even the most careful vegetarians can end up with sneaky meat products in their refrigerators. Here are 10 foods to avoid if you’re serious about an animal-free diet.


1. Parmigiano-Reggiano Cheese

parmesan cheese

Cheese makers use an enzyme called either “rennet” or “chymosin”, which is derived from the stomachs of young animals like lambs and calves, to coagulate liquid milk into curds and whey. Although all hard cheeses used to be made with animal rennet, Sue Sturman, director of the Academie Opus Caseus cheese academy, says about 95% of American-made cheese is now made with Fermentation Produced Chymosin (FPC), a vegetarian, kosher, and halal ingredient. But the recipes for certain cheeses, like Parmigiano-Reggiano, are protected by European law and therefore always use animal rennet.

Words to look out for: Most cheeses use some kind of enzyme to curdle the milk. The nutrition label may say rennet, chymosin, rennin, or enzymes but none of those necessarily means the cheese was made with animal rennet. You’ll need to check with the manufacturer to be sure, or look for cheeses labeled “vegetarian”.

Alternatives: Some companies make “parmesan style” cheese that doesn’t use animal rennet. For example, Kraft grated Parmesan and Stella Parmesan are both vegetarian.

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2. Red Candy

red candy

Many red candies—and anything else that’s colored with natural red dye #4, like some ice cream, yogurt and fruit punch—contains carmine. Carmine is the PC term for crushed up beetles (yes, beetles) that are boiled in ammonia or sodium carbonate to extract a red dye. Some companies use it to avoid artificial dyes but keep the bright colors people associate with candy. “If you want to stay away from artificial colors, carmine produces the best-looking red,” says Carol Zamojcin, secretary at the Long Island Institute of Food Technologists. There are other ways to get a natural red, typically from grape skins and beets, but nothing that makes the bright hue you see in candies like Nerds and Good n’ Plenty.

Words to look out for: In 2011 the FDA began requiring food companies to list carmine on their labels, but not all list the ingredient under the name “carmine.” You should also watch for: Natural Red 4, Crimson Lake, Cochineal, C.I. 75470, and E120.

Alternatives: If you’re not into artificial dyes, look for products colored with natural, plant-based compounds like lycopene, which comes from tomatoes, or anthocyanin, which can come from plants like flowers and fruits.


3. Yogurt
Not all yogurts are created equal, and certain brands use gelatin to get that silky-smooth texture. Gelatin is an additive made from the skin, bones, and connective tissues of animals, and is the main reason JELLO is so darn jiggly. It’s also commonly used in marshmallows and gummy candy. Some yogurts use carrageenan or agar, which are plant-based, “but if it says ‘gelatin,’ it’s an animal-derived product,” says Zamojcin.

Words to look out for: Food producers usually label gelatin as “gelatin,” but sometimes it slips into the ingredient list under the guise of “hydrolyzed collagen protein.”

Alternatives: Gelatin isn’t a necessary ingredient in yogurt, so it’s not too difficult to find a vegetarian-friendly brand. Just make sure to look at the ingredient list before you throw the container into your cart.


4. Processed Sugar
It isn’t a bleach bath that takes sugar from coarse and brown to fine and white. Most raw sugar is actually refined with a bone char. To make bone char, imported cow bones are incinerated and reduced to activated carbon, which can pick up color impurities in sugar. White sugar, as well as brown sugar and confectioner’s sugar derived from white sugar, comes into direct contact with the bone carbon throughout the filtration process. The sugar that ends up on grocery store shelves, however, rarely contains bone particles, which Zamojcin says makes it OK for some vegetarians to eat. But strict vegetarians and vegans still say no to refined, white sugar because animals were used in processing.

Words to look out for: There’s usually one ingredient listed on a bag of sugar: “sugar.” So to know for sure if your sugar is processed with a bone char you’ll have to ask the manufacturer. Some sugar companies are explicit with their terminology, but others will simply use the term “natural carbon.”

Alternatives: Raw cane sugar, beet sugar, and organic sugar are never processed with a bone char. Some white sugar manufacturers, including C&H Sugar Company and Imperial Sugar, have also opted out of the process and refine their sugar without animal byproducts.


5. Beer and Wine
Guinness, most British beer brands, and some wine manufacturers use “isinglass” (aka ground up fish bladders) to filter out leftover yeast particles that make beer and wine look cloudy.

Words to look out for: Isinglass is often not listed on labels since it’s used for filtration and not an actual ingredient in the beer or wine. To know for sure if there could be fish particles floating around your booze, ask the company.

Alternatives: Most American and German-made beers are isinglass-free. But if you’re looking for a new beer-of-choice, check Barnivore’s vegan beer, wine, and liquor guide.


6. Chips
Even if you’re not buying the “Chicken & Waffles” variety, some brands and flavors of chips contain chicken fat and pork enzymes. “Most chips are fried in vegetable oil, but there are some fried in beef or chicken fat,” says Zamojcin. Brands may also use animal fat or flavorings to add a smoky, meaty flavor to the chips.

Words to look out for: The obvious one are tallow, pork fat, lard, and chicken fat. But the ever-so-vague “natural flavors” could also hint at animal products. To be sure, ask the manufacturer or buy chips that are labeled vegan or vegetarian.

Alternatives: Since most chips are fried in plant-based oils, the chip aisle at your grocery store will be mostly vegetarian-friendly. Just look closely at flavors that are meant to taste meaty, like barbeque and hot wing.


7. Vitamins and medications
“Gel caps” doesn’t just mean “squishy.” Most gel capped vitamins and medicines are made with animal gelatin, according to Zamojcin, though they can also be made from carrageenan or agar, which are both plant-based. Some multivitamins also contain fish oils.

Words to look out for: Like yogurt, the ingredients listed on your medication bottles will say “gelatin” or “hydrolyzed collagen protein”. But if gelatin isn’t listed, check with the company. “Even if it says, ‘gel cap,’ it might not be made with gelatin,” says Zamojcin.

Alternatives: Health food stores usually sell empty capsules made from plant fibers, called “Veggie-Caps.” If they can’t get a pill made without gelatin, some vegans and vegetarians transfer the contents of gel caps into the vegetarian alternatives.


8. Heart-Healthy Orange Juice
Orange juice touted as “heart-healthy” often contains added omega-3s, which are sometimes derived from fish like anchovies, tilapia, and sardines.

Words to look out for: Some brands are up front about where they’re getting the omega-3s. Tropicana Heart Healthy, for example, specifically states that it contains fish oil and fish gelatin. But other brands aren’t so forthcoming and may just label “omega-3 oil” on the ingredients list. Zamojcin says to be wary of vague labels and to always ask the manufacturer to be sure you’re not drinking something fishy.

Alternatives: Stick with your run-of-the-mill, completely natural orange juice. It still offers benefits: drinking two glasses of 100% orange juice a day significantly lowers blood pressure and heart disease risk, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.


9. Pre-Made Pie Crusts
The flakey, buttery crust promised on most store-bought pies and pie crusts aren’t actually made with butter. Most are made with animal lard, which is less expensive and lasts longer on the shelf.

Words to look out for: Non-vegetarian pie crusts will list lard or tallow in their ingredients.

Alternatives: If you can’t make your pie crust at home, head for the freezer section at your local grocery store. Because crusts kept in the freezer last longer, they’re sometimes made with either butter or vegetable shortening instead of lard.

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