Non-Vegan Ingredients to Look Out For
The first step is always the hardest – to make it at least a little easier for you if you want to switch to a vegan diet, we've written a few articles on the basics. They are about how to get the nutrients you need when being vegan, non-vegan ingredients to look out for, and vegan pantry essentials. Find all our articles here.
When going vegan, you quickly learn that there's one job you can't avoid: the careful study of ingredient lists. You will be surprised how often animal products are used in foods – especially in some unexpected ones. Therefore we've compiled a list of additives that can be so cryptically worded that you first have to do some research to find out what's hidden behind them – you may know these ones as E numbers. This is followed by a list of other ingredients that you should definitely pay attention to as they are not vegan. We've limited ourselves to ingredients in foods since we are a food blog, but this list could also be extended to cosmetics and clothing.
But before we begin, I'd like to highlight two ingredients that often cause confusion even though they are actually plant-based: it's the gelling agent pectin (E340) and the natural preservative lactic acid. The latter is produced by fermentation and is nowadays made almost exclusively from plant-based ingredients – such as cabbage that is fermented to sauerkraut.
Tip: There are several apps that can make your life easier as they can tell you if a product is vegan or not. Check out apps that are available in your language – we love to use "Codecheck," which is also free and makes it very easy to scan products and see whether they are plant-based or not.
However, there are also some additives that can be of plant-based or animal origin. Unfortunately, the only thing that helps to clear up this question is to ask the respective companies about them. Here's a list of additives that can be of plant-based OR animal origin:
E432 - E436
E470 - E479
E481 - E483
E491 - E495
E634 - E635
vitamin D and D3
Albumen is a term for egg whites, the clear liquid you can find within an egg, so it's not vegan. It's often contained in drinks, bread, ready-made products, pastries, creams and sauces, desserts, and pasta. But then there's also albumin, which sounds very similar but is something else. Albumin is a family of globular proteins that can be found in milk, eggs, meat, and fish, but also in potatoes and legumes. So, in contrast to albumen, they can be of plant-based or animal origin. You can recognize albumin very well while you're cooking as usually white foam forms on the surface of the cooking water, like when you're boiling potatoes. This foam consists of albumins that leak during cooking.
Beeswax is a product made by honey bees who are producing it to build their honeycombs. But it also often ends up in confectionery and chocolate and is used as a glazing agent for fruits and food supplements.
Butterfat is clarified or refined butter and thus of animal origin. It's mainly hidden in baked goods, sweets, and chocolate.
Gelatine is made from connective tissues, skin, and bones of various animal species, but mainly from cattle and pigs. Yes, this really doesn't sound very appetizing, and yet it's an ingredient in a lot of fruit gums, licorice, marshmallows, creams, jello, candy, or aspic.
Ghee is clarified butter and is mainly used in Indian and Pakistani cuisine. Unlike butter, ghee contains no milk protein and only a bit of water. Although there are different production techniques, the basis is always butter, which is why ghee is not vegan.
Just like beeswax, honey also belongs on the list of non-vegan ingredients as it's produced by bees and therefore of animal origin.
Isinglass is the dried swim bladder of fish, often a sturgeon species. It's mainly used to clarify beverages such as beer, wine, or even fruit juices which are naturally cloudy to make them look "shiny". You're safe to drink German beer as the "German purity law" forbids to use animal substances during the production, but this doesn't apply to beers from abroad.
Cochineal is the bright-red color obtained from cochineal scales, but the term is often used for all coloring agents from scale insects (yes, there are quite a few). It's used for red candies, jams, syrups, pickled fruits, or toothpaste, to only name a few products.
Casein is the main protein in milk that is often used as a binding agent in foods (e.g., sweets and salad dressings) or for other products (e.g., labels, cosmetics, condoms, or wall color). Since casein is derived from cow's milk, it's not vegan.
Bone Phosphate (E542)
As the name suggests, bone phosphate is made from animal bones (mostly from cattle and pigs). It's mainly used in cosmetics, toothpaste, and dietary supplements but can occasionally also be found in dry foods as an anti-caking agent.
Rennet is a mixture of enzymes that are produced in the stomachs of young cows, sheep, and goats. It's the rennet that makes the mother's milk digestible for a calf. Nowadays, rennet is often used in cheese products, which are not vegan anyway, but therefore not vegetarian either – because to get rennet, the animals have to be killed.
Lactitol is the alcohol of lactose – and since lactose is milk sugar and derived from cow's milk, lactitol isn't vegan either. Lactitol is obtained by hydrogenating lactose under pressure. It's "hidden" in sugar-free or sugar-reduced foods, sauces, mustards, baked goods, jams, and desserts.
L-cysteine (E920, E921)
L-cysteine is an amino acid produced from keratin-rich tissue such as animal and human hair, but also feathers. It's used as a flour treatment agent and therefore often ends up in industrially produced baked goods such as bread, buns, and cookies.
(Skim) Milk Powder
Whether you see skim milk powder, whole milk powder, or just milk powder on any ingredient list – the basis of all these dry milk powders is cow's milk. For its production, milk is dehydrated until all that's left is milk powder. You will often find it in chocolates, ice cream, baked goods, sweets, and sauces.
Just like carmine, shellac is obtained from scale insects, but it can have different colors depending on the insect's origin and the species of tree they lived on. Shellac is often used as a coating for fruits and vegetables to make them look fresher and shinier. The same can apply to sweets, chocolate, chewing gum, or even nuts.