When I first went vegetarian and then later went vegan, I ended up spending hours in the supermarket reading labels and trying to make sense of the ingredients. This might seem like a hassle, but I actually consider it one of the biggest benefits of veganism. Reading labels helps create food awareness, and thus helps you learn to make healthy food choices (which is one more reason vegans are so much thinner and healthier than most meat eaters – read more about veganism and weight loss here).
Don’t worry. Vegan shopping will get easier over time. But, at the start, you should really allocate a lot more time to grocery shopping than you normally do. In the meantime, here are some tips and tools to make vegan shopping easier.
After a while of being vegan, you will become a pro at reading product labels. In two seconds flat, you’ll be able to scan a label and spot whether it contains casein, gelatin, milk powder, or any of the many other animal-derived ingredients which often make it into processed food. You’ll also get better at remembering which products are vegan friendly so you don’t have to read the labels anymore (though companies do sometimes change the ingredients, so it is worth it to give the ingredients an occasional re-checking).
1. Look for the Vegan Label: When reading a product label, the first thing you’ll want to look for is whether it contains the vegan label. If it does, then you don’t even need to bother reading that lengthy ingredient list.
2. Check for Cholesterol: Next, look at whether the product contains cholesterol. Cholesterol is only found in animal products. So, if the nutrition info shows that it has any cholesterol in it, the product is not vegan.
3. Scan for Obvious Offenders: Now, it is time to start scanning for the obvious offenders. Again, I want to reiterate that you’ll soon get really good at scanning labels. If you don’t quickly find any obvious offenders, then you can read the ingredient list more carefully to find some less-obvious animal ingredients.
4. Don’t Get Fooled: Remember not to get fooled by phrases like “non dairy” or “lactose free” on product labels. This does not mean that the product is vegan. For example, you will find a lot of soy-based cheeses which have casein – a milk derivative.
Avoiding Products with Hidden Animal Ingredients
When you first go vegan, you might not want to focus on all the “small stuff” like whether that Red Dye #40 is from animal origins, or whether the vitamin D in your fortified orange juice is vegan or not. For starters, focus on cutting out the obvious animal ingredients (eggs, gelatin, butter, etc.). Once you get the hang of this, then you can start eliminating products which have hidden animal ingredients, like these products which surprisingly aren’t vegan.
The list of hidden animal ingredients is really long, and it is virtually impossible to remember them all. My solution to this is to simply not eat foods which contain weird ingredients I’ve never heard of before. Instead, I (mostly) just eat real foods which don’t require ingredient lists, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, beans, and whole grains. It makes grocery shopping easier and is a lot healthier, not to mention cheaper than eating processed foods.
Another issue is that many ingredients can be either plant or animal derived. For example, lecithin is usually from plants but can also come from animals. When in doubt, you can contact the company or go online to check.
Even more confusing are the animal ingredients that might be used in processing. For example, bone char is often used to purify sugar, beer, wine, and even apple juice. Because the bone char is only used in processing and no traces of it are left in the actual food, the manufacturers aren’t required to include it on the ingredients list. To completely avoid these animal ingredients, you’ll have to do a lot more research. Again, don’t stress about it too much right now. Focus on eliminating the obvious animal ingredients. Once you master this, you can work on those hidden animal ingredients.
You aren’t perfect and you will probably make mistakes somewhere down the road, like that time you ate bread with animal-derived monodiglycerides. Don’t beat yourself up about it! Some people get so upset by one little mistake that they throw their hands up in the air and say, “screw it!” and go back to eating meat. Congratulate yourself for taking the step of going vegan, learn from your mistakes, and move on. If you accidentally purchased a non-vegan item and haven’t eaten/opened the product yet, just give it to a friend or donate it to a food bank.
Vegan Shopping Apps
There are now a lot of apps which can help you keep track of which products are vegan or not. Here are just some of the top vegan shopping apps (some are specifically for the US, so sorry if you live somewhere else!):
Veg Scan app: This is by far the coolest vegan shopping app out there. You just hold your phone up to the ingredients and it will scan them, letting you know if the product is vegetarian or vegan.
Vegan Yum Yum app: This app has a checklist of ingredients which are vegan and not-vegan. It does not have a product list though.
Whole Foods Market Recipes app: You can use the app to find vegetarian or vegan products in the Whole Foods store.
Animal Free app: This gives you a searchable list of ingredients and their origins
Need help transitioning to veganism? Read Vegan Made Easy.
This 3-part eBook will tell you everything you need to know in order to make the switch to a plant-based lifestyle go smoothly. You’ll get straightforward nutrition advice, help with meal planning, a vegan shopping list, and more. Find out more here.