Food Labels for Ecovores: Avoiding Hidden Animal Ingredients

Sometimes it's easy to tell when food is contaminated by unwanted animal products. If the ingredients include 'beef stock,' for example, it's fairly obvious that there are animal products in there! Unfortunately, things aren't always so clear. There are several ways that animal junk can sneak into the food supply of unwary herbivores.

If you’re avoiding animal ingredients, knowing how to read and interpret food labels is a vital skill: animal products turn up in strange places!

If you're avoiding animal ingredients, knowing how to read and interpret food labels is a vital skill: animal products turn up in strange places!
For many reasons, more people than ever before are exploring vegan, vegetarian, or other types of plant-based diets. Some follow a plant based diet to prevent or control diabetes, or as part of a heart-healthy lifestyle. Others choose to eat veggie to lessen their environmental impact, or avoid industrial animal agriculture for ethical reasons. For whatever reason, there’s no way around it: Americans are eating less meat and more plants.

Vegans eat no animal-based foods at all. Vegetarians or semi-vegetarians might eat some animal products but not others– for example, eggs but not chicken. Ecovores might be omni or vegan or anywhere in between, but avoid industrially animal ingredients in all cases. For anyone trying to make conscious decisions about consumption of animal ingredients, learning to read and interpret food labels is a vital part of becoming an informed food consumer.

Sometimes it’s easy to tell when food is contaminated by unwanted animal products. If the ingredients include ‘beef stock,’ for example, it’s fairly obvious that there are animal products in there! Unfortunately, things aren’t always so clear. There are several ways that animal junk can sneak into the food supply of unwary herbivores.

Plan A: Real Whole Unprocessed Food

The first line of defense involves shopping for whole foods, and avoiding prepackaged or heavily processed foods as much as possible. If you pick up an eggplant at the farmer’s market or in the produce aisle, odds are very good that it contains only eggplant (well, hopefully… buy non-GMO foods! but that’s another post). The more you can use whole foods for cooking, the less chance you have of accidentally consuming hidden animal products.

Plan B: Read Those Food Labels!

The second principle for mindful herbivores is to always, always, always read the labels of packaged food! Hidden animal ingredients are found in some really weird places: vegetable soup (beef stock); dry pasta (eggs); frozen hash browns (lard, milk); Spanish rice (chicken fat); marshmallows and gummy candies (gelatin)… the list is long and infinitely surprising. Even some veggie-burgers, veggie hot dogs, chicken-less patties, etc. contain milk and eggs — which are typically supplied by the very high-pollution/ low-ethics factory farms that cry out for avoidance by thoughtful consumers! Label-reading is a mindful herbivore’s best friend– for best results, make it a way of life!

In addition to buying whole foods and reading labels for obvious animal ingredients, watch out for these specific ingredients or products:

Dairy — There are so many reasons to avoid dairy, it’s difficult to adequately summarize (again, that’s another post!). But since milk products are one of the most common additives to all types of food products, they can be tricky to avoid unless you learn to read food labels carefully.

To avoid eating hidden dairy, don’t buy food containing casein, any kind of caseinate, any type of whey, lactalbumin, lactoferrin, lactoglobulin, lactose, lactulose, nougat, recaldent, or (in Indian foods) ghee and paneer. All of these are definitely dairy in origin; read more here to learn about other substances that may or may not be dairy derivatives. Dairy products turn up in some very odd places, including potato chips, soy cheese, and ‘non-dairy’ creamer (?!)… so do your homework, read those labels, and avoid accidentally supporting industrial dairy farming.

Rennet — For herbivores who haven’t yet left dairy behind, rennet is a potential source of accidental animal ingestion. Rennet is a coagulating agent used to make cheese; it can come from animal, vegetable, or microbial sources. Vegetable or microbial rennet is appropriate for vegetarian diets; animal rennet typically comes from salted and ground up newborn-calf-stomach (um… ew?!). Read more about rennet here, or find ‘vegetarian cheese’ (who’d’ve thought one would need to specify?) by brand name here. Better yet, try making your own non-dairy cheese from cashews, tofu, or nutritional yeast: no ground-up calf-stomach here, thank you very much!

cow and calf
NOT an appropriate cheese or candy ingredient

Gelatin — A binding agent made from boiled hooves, skin, and tendons of various slaughtered animals, gelatin is commonly found in marshmallows, gummy candies, ‘Jell-O’- type desserts, and as a coating for pills or vitamin capsules. Some kosher gelatins are made with agar-agar instead of animal bits, but most are not. Due to a growing market share representing herbivorous tastes, vegetarian versions of traditionally gelatin-containing foods are often available at stores such as Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s.

Sugar — Raw sugar, beet sugar, and turbinado sugar are not processed with animal bits. Sweet-leaf stevia and agave nectar are other natural sweeteners that do not incorporate animal products. Some refined (white) cane sugar, though, is filtered through charred animal bones (again: ew!) in order to whiten it. Since white sugar is used to make powdered and brown sugars, these can be affected also.

In the case of animal products and sugar, it’s an issue of process rather than content; if you consume it, you aren’t actually ingesting the animal products. But you are rewarding the companies that use them, and so supporting industrial animal agriculture second-hand. Not all sugar cane processors use bone char– if you buy white sugar, consider rewarding the companies listed here for not filtering your sugar through burnt animal bones.

Aspartame — During the manufacturing of aspartame, part of the chemical reactions depend on an enzyme from pig kidneys (porcine kidney acylase). This is another example of process vs. content contamination, but that process still supports industrial pig farming (however indirectly). If it’s important you to avoid giving those guys your dollars, avoid products made made with aspartame. Like dairy junk, it can show up in unexpected places. Besides soft drinks and low-calorie sweeteners, be sure to read labels for breath mints, chewing gum, maple syrup, jams and jellies, nutritional bars, protein drinks, and vegetable drinks.

Alcohol — Like sugar, many types of liquor, beer, and wine are made with various unsavory materials. Milk proteins, meat-protein gelatin, bone char, egg proteins, and isinglass (made from fish bladders) are often used as ‘fining agents’ to improve clarity; unlike sugar, some sources claim that sometimes these may also be included as actual ingredients in the finished product (though that doesn’t appear to be the norm).

Once again, it’s quite possible to make the target product without using these materials; in order to support manufacturers running things most ethically, look up your favorite brew on — or contact the company yourself, and ask just exactly what’s in there! ‘Cause like so much of what we buy to eat and drink, they surely don’t have to tell us about it on the label.

Know What You’re Eating

These are just a few of the most common hidden animal ingredients that can sneak unwanted animal junk onto your plate. As a society, we’ve become tremendously disconnected from our food system; U.S. consumers often don’t even know what it is they’re actually consuming. Take back the power to choose what food does or doesn’t get to enter your body — and who does or doesn’t get support from your checkbook.

With food choices, as with all choices, scientia potentia est (knowledge itself is power); and caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).

[Also: Non iligitimi vincit — Don’t let the bastards win!]


Image credit: Creative Commons photos by Mike Schmidjelkeschaafsma, and Tim Patterson.

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4 thoughts on “Food Labels for Ecovores: Avoiding Hidden Animal Ingredients”

    1. Feel free to add to it, here in comments! I constantly find new perversions… most recent: milk products in jarred chopped LEMONGRASS, for pete’s sake… good grief! (read those labels, fellow ecovores!)

      1. Or how about “may contain”? Why don’t you people know what’s in your products?? What do you mean my raw almonds “may contain” milk??? If you don’t know, who do I ask??! And why “might” you have let it get there in the first place??? ARGH!!

        1. Right?! My thoughts exactly. I’ll buy “made on equipment that also processes blah blah blah”… but if they don’t *know* what’s in there, NEVERMIND!

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