Some things are very obviously vegan; like a wild blackberry, for instance. Lots of things are very obviously not vegan; for example, a roast chicken. But, as anyone who has ever tried being vegan for even a short amount of time knows, there are lots and lots of things that on the face of it would appear to be vegan but actually are not.
Here we take a look at some of strangest ways animals and animal products get into different foods, as well as other goods, which are not vegan for one reason or another.
1. Wine, Beer & Cider
Wine is made from grapes, beer is made from malt and hops and cider is made from apples, right? They are vegan, now shut up and pass me my drink!
Sadly, it isn’t quite that straightforward. Hold on to your pint but, sorry to let you know, your beer might well have been in contact with the innards of a fish. Isinglass, which is essentially the swim bladder of a fish, is used in some beers as a fining agent to make the beer clear.
Cider, beer and wine may all have been processed in a similar way, using animal products to filter or clarify them. As well as isinglass, any of the following might also have been used to help filter your tasty alcoholic beverage: gelatine, egg white, milk, animal blood, bone marrow and the shells of crustaceans.
Sugar?! What the funk? Sugar, is just sugar, isn’t it? Sadly, once again, life as a vegan just isn’t that simple!
Whilst sugar is produced from sugar cane or sugar beet, both obviously plants and therefore 100% vegan, yet again, the manufacturing process means that even sugar isn’t always vegan. In order to create bright, shiny, white, customer-friendly sugar – god forbid our sugar looked like it actually came from a plant – traditional processing has used bone char to draw out impurities. Bone char is essentially burned animal bones and such sugar is, therefore, not vegan friendly.
In the UK, most of the biggest suppliers, including Tate and Lyle, no longer use bone char but some still do. Moreover, when you buy any processed food that contains sugar there is no real way of knowing how that sugar was produced, and, unless it is a vegan-certified product, it could have used bone char.
When it comes to sugar it is also worth knowing that buying brown sugar is no way to avoid this unpleasant process. That’s because, in a way that neatly encapsulates much of what is bad about modern food production on a mass scale, brown sugar is actually sugar that has been processed to become white, with molasses then added to replace the brown colours that were removed to start with! What is all that about?!
3. Orange Juice
Orange juice. That’s the juice of an orange. That’s vegan. Ok, you get the picture now; yet again, things are not always that straightforward.
Whilst any product that is pure, unfortified orange juice is indeed vegan, some fruit juice drinks (not just orange) may be fortified with extra micronutrients and there is a chance these are not suitable for vegans.
Among the possible non-vegan additives are vitamin D and omega 3. The former is sometimes made from lanolin, which is made from the grease in sheep’s wool. The latter can be made from various plant sources, including algae, but one popular brand states in its ingredients: ORANGE JUICE CONTAINS TILAPIA, SARDINE AND ANCHOVY (CONTAINS FISH)
4. Breakfast Cereals
Having (not!) started your day with a nice fresh glass of (fishy) orange juice, how about a nice bowl of sheep grease? Well, vegans enjoying many popular breakfast cereals were dismayed not so long ago to learn that despite them using one of the many excellent non-dairy vegan milk substitutes they were still consuming animal products.
As with some fruit juices, many cereals are fortified with a range of nutrients designed to make them healthier. Vitamin D is once again the offender from a vegan point of view, with vitamin D3 almost always made from lanolin, or sheep grease to phrase it simply.
Bread covers a very wide range of products and whilst many breads are vegan, lots of bread isn’t. Some bread may contain butter, eggs or honey but these are usually quite easy to spot, either being likely to be mentioned on the labelling or being specific to a particular style of bread (for example brioche, which uses eggs).
However, there are quite a few less obvious animal products that find their way into your bread. Lecithin, unless listed as “from soy” is probably from produced from eggs, and is used as stabiliser; milk protein is sometimes used as a preservative or for flavour; whilst L-Cysteine, taken from feathers or animal hair, may still be added to some loaves.
6. Sweets & Chewing Gum
Many vegetarians and vegans will be well aware that confectionary is a risky area, with lots of chewing gums, sweets and chocolate containing animal products. However, if veganism is new to you, you may well have never realised that these sugary treats actually often contain gelatine.
Gelatine is produced from various animal parts, including the skin and trotters, whilst stearic acid (often made from animal fat) is also often added. Note that any sweets (or other foods and drinks) that are bright red may well contain carmine (it may be labelled differently), which is produced from the cochineal insect.
7. Figs… sort of…
This is a bit of a QI question and actually almost everyone accepts that figs are indeed vegan. Which is great, because figs are an excellent source of vegan iron, as well as being a good way for vegans to get calcium and other vitamins and minerals too.
So, why then are figs on our list of surprising non-vegan items? Well, various types of fig can only be pollinated by specific types of wasp. In an amazing feat of biology, certain fig trees and certain wasps share a mutually beneficial relationship. Biologically, this process is called mutualism and it is thought that this is down to the co-evolution of the two different species.
Known as “fig wasps”, the female enters the fig through a tiny passage that is so narrow she will lose her wings in order to get inside. If the fig is male, the wasp will lay eggs inside. She will die but the eggs will eventually hatch and burrow out. Some of the female wasps will subsequently go on to take the male fig pollen they came into contact with on to a female fig.
If the fig is a female, the wasp will thus pollinate the fig and therefore allow it to reproduce itself but she cannot lay her eggs due to the anatomy of a male fig (called a caprifig) and will simply die inside the fig. Thus, in one sense, many, if not all, of the figs we eat contain a wasp. Or even multiple wasps!
Before you go throwing all your figs away, note that the fruit releases an enzyme called ficin that totally digests the wasp and so you do not really eat the poor wasp. Moreover, because this process is essential for the survival of both the fig and the wasp, and because the wasp is being neither manipulated nor exploited, figs are considered to be vegan. Phew!
8. Worcestershire Sauce
This may or may not surprise you but that brown condiment that is often used in sauces and stews – not to mention a Bloody Mary – contains anchovies. There are 144 different species of anchovy but all are most assuredly fish and therefore standard Worcestershire sauce is not vegan.
Anchovies are clearly listed on the ingredients so we hope this isn’t something that has caught any vegans out. Of course, if you are being cooked for by a non-vegan it might be worth checking that the umami in your vegan chili or veg stew isn’t from Worcestershire sauce. If you were a fan of Worcestershire sauce before switching to become vegan, then note that some vegan versions of this condiment do exist.
Margarine is a popular vegan substitute for butter but when buying this spread, as ever, it is vital to do your vegan due diligence. Some brands include milk derivatives and even gelatine and as ever, checking the ingredients or looking for vegan certification is the safest way to go.
10. Dark Chocolate
Sorry to break this to you, but it isn’t just milk chocolate that vegans need to look out for. Nor is it safe just to avoid chocolate with honey or butter-based elements like biscuits or caramel. Oh, no, vegan life is much more complicated than that!
Even seemingly pure dark chocolate may contain ingredients that render it non-vegan. Especially in cheaper bars, a whole host of milk derivatives may be added and these might be listed as casein, whey powder from milk, lactose or in any number of other confusing ways.
It isn’t just cow products that could find their way into your bar either. Lecithin on the list of ingredients should ring alarm bells. If it isn’t listed as being specifically “from soy” or some other plant source, chances are it has been made from eggs.
Popcorn is just popped corn. (See what they’ve done there!) And, if you pop it yourself at home then, yes, popcorn is just popped corn and is, therefore, totally vegan.
However, if you buy it pre-popped or in a microwave bag, you’ll need to be a little more cautious. Some popcorn may be popped in butter or other animal-derived fats, whilst flavoured popcorns could contain just about anything, including butter (either on its own or as part of a sweet sauce) and even wackier options, such as cheese or bacon.
12. Energy Drinks
Whilst rumours that taurine is made from a bull’s blood or other even less savoury bodily fluids are wide of the mark, it is worth being aware that some energy drinks are not vegan. The vast majority available in the UK are, as they use synthetic, vegan-friendly taurine, but some, especially bright red ones, may well use E120, or carmine, which we mentioned above. This is made from an insect called the cochineal and is not vegan.
13. Pasta & Noodles
What you may find a surprising non-vegan food very much depends on your level of knowledge about food and drink, veganism, or other products. Pasta and noodles may or may not be vegan but, by and large, it is usually quite easy to tell.
The most common offending ingredient is egg but pasta made with this is usually called egg pasta and the same applies to noodles. Check the ingredients if you are in doubt but note that other non-vegan ingredients might include squid ink (in coloured pasta) or some form of milk-derived additive.
Some crackers and other similar snack products, such as rice cakes, may be among the many sneaky non-vegan foods to use some type of milk or milk derivative as an additive. Milk powder, whey, casein and the other usual suspects are the ones to look out for and are used either as fillers or in some other food-science fashion to make production easier, cheaper or better.
15. Vegetable Soup
You might think it was a safe assumption that vegetable soup would be vegetarian at least and most probably vegan but, alas, that would be a mistake. This may be an issue you encounter in restaurants more than if you buy a soup in the supermarket but it is always best to check. Better restaurants will make separate stocks for various products, but in some establishments, one single stock, made with meat, may be used to flavour a whole range of dishes, including a vegetable soup.
With more and more people switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet, we suspect this will stop happening eventually. Most restaurants clearly show vegan and vegetarian dishes on their menu but if you see an ostensibly vegan dish not marked as such, it is definitely worth clarifying.
Many candles contain stearic acid produced from animal fat and as such are not vegan. This is used to make the wax harder and so if you like to use candles at home look out for ones specifically labelled as vegan. These are usually 100% soy but even if a candle doesn’t use stearic acid it may not be vegan. Some candles, especially those at the higher end of the market, are made from beeswax.
Again, it shouldn’t surprise too many people to learn that some cosmetics contain animal products, whilst others may have been tested on animals or use ingredients that have been.
Whilst beeswax is used in candles, it is also an ingredient in some lip balms and similar products. Just about any item of make-up may contain an animal product or derivative and, as well as beeswax, guanine is an ingredient to look out for. This derivative of fish scales is used in lipstick, mascara and other products to give a shimmery look. The shimmer looks a lot better on the fish itself though as it swims in the ocean!
Tallow, which is animal fat, good old carmine (red dye made from insects), lanolin, animal collagen and retinol, and gelatine are other animal products that the cosmetics industry use in a range of their products. We’re not sure what’s worse, eating these things or smearing them on your face.
Oh, come on, give us a rest, surely having sex is vegan?! Well, yes, of course, but if you are using a condom, make sure your protection is vegan. Hard though it may be to believe in this day and age, some condoms are effectively made from the intestines of sheep. Known as lambskin condoms, at least the makers have the decency to give a pretty good clue as to the condom’s non-vegan credentials in the name.
Less obviously, however, many latex condoms use casein, a milk protein. This is used to make the latex smooth, whilst the lubricants used on some condoms may also not be wholly vegan. If in doubt, check with the manufacturer and make sure you’re careful, when you’re being careful.
19. Vitamins, Supplements & Other Tablets
As we discuss in our feature on vegan vitamins & supplements, unfortunately many tablets and capsules are still made from gelatine or other animal products. Moreover, some other tablets may have ingredients, both active and inactive, that might be derived from animals, for example, vitamin D3 (derived from lanolin, as mentioned).
If you are taking a multivitamin or other supplement, looking out for a vegan-specific one is probably the safest way to go. Unfortunately, it is not just nutritional supplements that might be non-vegan in this way. Certain prescription drugs or over the counter medicines may well be non-vegan friendly, so it is always worth checking with the doctor or pharmacist or the manufacturer.
If a vegan version of the medication is not available it is down to you to decide whether you wish to take it anyway. As we discuss in our feature, are vaccines vegan? and also in the broader article on vegan medicines, we would never advocate behaviour that is dangerous or bad for your health. A dead vegan is no good to any animal!
Of course, for a minor illness like a common cold, you may decide you’d rather stick to your beliefs and endure a little discomfort. That is a personal choice, but certainly for any serious health issues and with regards to vaccinations, it is clearly better all round to make a small sacrifice in terms of principles in order to maintain health.
Ready to get inked? All set on your design? Hold on there, because getting that sleeve started might not be as straightforward as you thought. According to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the ink used in many tattoo studios might contain a whole host of non-vegan products.
PETA list “bone char, glycerin from animal fat, gelatin from hooves, or shellac from beetles” as possibly animal-based ingredients that could be in your tattooist’s ink. Moreover, other aspects of your tattoo experience also represent non-vegan risks. If you require an area of your body to be shaved for the tattoo, taking your own razor (or pre-shaving) may be the best to ensure you don’t come into contact with glycerine from animals as it can be used in a razor’s gel moisturising strip.
Once you’ve had your body art done, you’ll also want to make sure your post-tattoo care is fully vegan. As mentioned above, many cosmetic products, balms and moisturisers may contain a whole host of animal-based ingredients. Thankfully, there are several dedicated vegan brands of tattoo-care creams and serums.
That is now increasingly the case with ink too, with many of the big brands either going entirely vegan or at least offering vegan inks. Finding a vegan-friendly tattoo parlour should be easy enough – just make sure you check before booking your appointment.
21. Bedding & Pillows
Whether you are sleeping at a friend’s, booking into a hotel or simply treating yourself to some new bedding & pillows, getting a good night’s sleep will come easier to vegans when they know they aren’t bedding down among animal feathers. Where you draw the line with this will be a personal choice and demanding your friend changes their bedding just for you might lose you more friends than it gains you vegan karma points.
However, if you are buying for yourself, most vegans would seek to buy products that are not made from animals. The down, which is the layer of fine feathers under a bird’s main, tough, outer feathers, of geese, ducks and some other birds is commonly used in both pillows and duvets. Feathers are sometimes also used but either way these produce finished products that are not vegan.
Synthetic products are increasingly just as luxurious and are often cheaper, as well as being better for those with allergies and often being longer lasting. Most importantly though, they let birds keep their feathers and avoid a lifetime of captivity and cruelty.