Is it vegan? Deciphering ingredient lists and labels | Veganuary 2020

“Diary free, plant based, vegetarian, free from…why can’t it just say it’s bloody vegan?!”

This is the frustrated cry you’ll hear from me every so often if you happen to shop at my local in Peterborough.

Sadly, food labelling is awfully complicated. The laws and certifications are there to protect us as consumers, but it doesn’t make it easy when we’re just trying to decide whether we can eat the cookies or not!

In this post, I’ll explain everything I know on how to quickly work out whether the food or drink you’re holding is vegan or not!

I’ll start with the obvious one of course…

Does it say Vegan on it?

Then you’re good to go!

Bear in mind that there are many different ways that brands choose to display this information. It might be proudly displayed on the front of the box in big bold letters, or be tucked away in tiny black font on the side of the packet.

Here’s an example of where it’s really clear, from Morrison’s:

…and here’s where it’s a bit more difficult to spot it on this wine.

Supermarkets and other companies like Quorn (who also sell non vegan products) often use their own specific branding so that you can easily recognise what is vegan.

If you don’t see any of the above labels, or the Vegan Society trademark, you need to do a bit more investigation before popping it in your trolley.

Does it say suitable for vegetarians?

If so, it might be suitable for vegans too, even if it doesn’t say so. Check the ingredients list (more info on how to do that below) for any animal products before ruling it out.

Does it say ‘free from’ or ‘dairy/lactose free’?

This can be misleading. Something can be labelled dairy free, but still contain egg or meat for example. If it only lists that it’s free from some but not all of the main animal derived products, you need to check the full ingredient list.

Does it just not mention anything?

Be really careful on this one. Here’s why:

This is a Knorr Organic Vegetable Stock Pot. It looks like it should be vegan friendly, right? I thought so. However, I couldn’t find anything stating that it was either vegan or vegetarian. I scanned the ingredient list quickly and couldn’t see anything bad, so I bought it.

When I got home I realised I still had some of my usual stock pots left after all. They were also by Knorr, but clearly stated that they were vegan.

This raised my suspicions, so I googled ‘are Knorr Organic Stock Pots vegan?’ Nothing conclusive came up. On Ocado, under the heading ‘dietary’, it just stated ‘organic’. Finally, I found their website. The overall description didn’t mention anything, but in the illustrations underneath I noticed the following wording:

“Knorr Organic Vegetable Stock Pot is made with succulent chicken that adds rich flavour to your dishes.”

I then rechecked the packet for the 100th time that day and found that it listed ‘flavourings’ in the ingredients, with no further explanation of what these would be. I’d missed this in my initial checks.

The moral of this story, is that if it doesn’t at least say vegetarian on the labelling, do your due diligence before deciding it’s okay.

What about ‘May Contain’ items?

If you see a ‘may contain’ warning below the actual ingredients list, the items listed there are cross contamination warnings. This is required by law to ensure that if something is manufactured in the same location as an allergen, such as milk, that it’s made clear.

It doesn’t mean that the product contains that ingredient, only that there is a very small possibility that it may have come into contact wtih an allergen accidentally at some point.

It’s widely viewed by the vegan community that these products are okay to consume (as long as you don’t have an allergy and no animal derived ingredients are in the actual ingredient list).

Deciphering Ingredient Lists

Check the ingredients in bold first

When reading ingredient lists, a great place to start is looking at the items that are highlighted in a different way to the others, such as in italics or bold. This is because there are 14 allergens that must be clearly labelled on any pre packaged foods in the UK, as per UK Food Regulation. These include crustaceans, eggs, fish, milk and molluscs.

If you see any of these listed, the item is not suitable for vegans.

Lupin, on the other hand, is fine. This is made from the seeds of a plant but is on the list of 14, along with some other perfectly vegan ingredients such as sesame and peanuts.

Check for the obvious non vegan ingredients next

Other animal derived items might not be highlighted against the rest, such as meats like chicken, beef and turkey, but nonetheless should be quite easy to spot.

E Numbers

Whilst some are vegan, many are not. Three that are commonly found in sweets are E120 (carmine, a red food colouring made from crushed up beetles), E901 (beeswax) and E441 (gelatine made from animal bones and skin). For example, most vegetarian Percy Pigs are not suitable for vegans still, because they contain beeswax. In good news, the fizzy Colin Caterpillars are! I thought that the Candy Canes I’d been given would be okay, but a quick check confirmed that they contained carmine.

When it comes to bread, look out for the E numbers E910, E920 and E921 which are L-cysteine and its derivatives (made from animal feathers/hair).

This isn’t an extensive list. If you don’t recognise the E number, it’s best to Google it!

Other animal derived products

The following is a list of ingredients that are animal derived and therefore not suitable for vegans. Some are more obvious than others.

This list is not exhaustive, so if you see an ingredient and you haven’t heard of it, look it up before you decide to buy.

  • Lanolin
  • Propolis
  • Whey
  • Shellac
  • Tallow
  • Collagen
  • Keratin
  • Elastin
  • Casein
  • Pepsin
  • Vitamin D3
  • Honey

Alcohol Labelling

For alcohol content over 1.2% there is no law stating that manufactures must list their ingredients. This means that they do not have to declare animal derived products, even if it’s allergens like milk, fish or egg.

“Eggs? Fish? WTF business do they have in my Pinot?” You may well be thinking. Well unfortunately, quite a lot of alcohol producers use these ingredients in the filtering process. Isinglass (fish guts) is widely used to clarify ale and some white wines.

Sometimes wine labelling clearly states when it’s vegan, sadly most of the time it’s not at all clear. I find supermarket labelling on the shelves is also pretty hit and miss.

I’ve listed the well known beers and ciders that I know about below, but when it comes to wines and spirits, check the label and if it doesn’t say it’s vegan, check Barnivore.com or the alcohol’s official website.

AVOID

  • Real ales
  • Kopperberg, Strongbow and Rekorderlig ciders (all contain gelatine)

ENJOY

German and Belgian brews (their law states that beer can only contain water, malted barley, hops and wheat, so it’s absolutely vegan).

  • Stella Artois
  • San Miguel
  • Beck’s
  • Corona
  • Carlsberg
  • Budweiser
  • Pear Magners
  • Bulmers
  • Heineken
  • BrewDog

Sweets

When it comes to vegan sweets, if it doesn’t say vegan on the label, Google is your best friend! I only really rely on the company’s own website, or reputable websites that have verified it’s ingredients independantly such as Veganuary.com and The Vegan Society.

Accidentally Vegan Products

Well done for getting through all of that! It’s a lot to take in. To make things a bit easier, here are some products that you might not expect to be vegan that actually are!

Disclaimer: recipes can change, always double check the label.

Snacks

  • Pringles (smokey bacon, BBQ, original, paprika)
  • Doritos (lightly salted, chili heat wave)
  • Tesco Bacon Rasher Snacks
  • Butterkist (sweet and salted, salted)
  • Propercorn (several including sweet and salty and fiery worcester sauce)

Breakfast/Lunch

  • Pot Noodles (Beef and Tomato, Chinese Chow Mein, Bombay Bad Boy are all recognised as vegan friendly, and their Japanese Miso Noodle Soup is officially certified vegan
  • Jus Rol (Pain Au Chocolat, Cinnamon Swirls, Croissants)
  • Itsu Satay Udon Noodles
  • Nairn’s Biscuits (Mixed Berries Oat, Dark Chocolate Chip Oat, Stem Ginger Oat)

Sweets and Biscuits

  • Skittles
  • Starburst
  • Bourneville chocolate
  • McVitie’s (Hobnobs and Ginger Nuts)
  • M&S Colin The Caterpillar sweets
  • Swizzels Refreshers, Drumsticks, Parma Violets, Fizzers, Love Hearts
  • Fox’s (Party Rings and Ginger Crinkle Crunch Biscuits)
  • Bourbons
LovedByLaura

Lifestyle & vegan food blogger
Peterborough | UK
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